What are standards? How can you make standards work for you?

Standards are useful for teachers because they give us explicit goals.

They help provide consistency between schools in each state. Or now with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English and math and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for science, there will be more alignment and consistency across the entire nation as many schools are picking them up by choice or for financial incentives. Social Studies appears to be more complicated. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has released curriculum standards in order to standardize the approach, but not the content. Whether this type of standardization is good/bad/misunderstood, or even unconstitutional is beyond the scope of this article.

This article’s purpose is to explain how to utilize standards to make your life as a teacher easier while helping your students learn more. To start, we must define what a standard is.

Standards: learning goals specified by class and grade level that students should be able to both know and do 

Now that we have defined standards we can dig into applying them. The application of standards ought to be the same, no matter which ones you are using.

A useful way to think of standards is a grade for a specific aspect of the taught subject. For example, in traditional grading a student may receive an 75% at the end of the semester. As a teacher this shows you that the student understood most of the content, but likely has room to improve both the breadth and depth of their understanding. However, the information quickly becomes fuzzy after this point as the teacher would need to look at individual assignments/quizzes/tests in order to ascertain what content/concepts the student didn’t understand. This cumbersome procedure is impossibly time consuming to do for one student, let alone when there are multiple classes of students.

In standards based grading, the student’s overall grade may be a 1 (Below Standard), 2 (Approaching Standard), 3 (Meets Standard), or 4 (Exceeds Standard). If your school requires traditional grades, you can assign numerical values to the standard points.

Assume the same student received a 3/4 average of all assessed standards in English in a standards based grading system, giving you the same information as above. Yet the component parts come broken up and averaged by standard. Let’s use 5th grade English as an example. If said student received a 3/4 for their semester grade, the teacher can easily pull up their gradebook to see what specific content/concepts the student struggled with.

Look at student #2, Anna Fitzgerald in the image below. Her English score for the semester is 2.49 out of 4 for what would be about a D average in traditional grading. However, by using a standards based gradebook, her teacher will be able to quickly pinpoint Anna’s struggles. For standard ELA.5.R1, Anna received mostly 1’s, meaning that she was not meeting the standard. However, for standard ELA.5.R2 she received all 2’s or 3’s showing that while she has not mastered this standard, she is understanding it at a passable level.

**note: Standard grades do not allow for fluff/participation points. The grade should only be assessing how the student performed on the standard. While it can be good to assess student attitude/preparedness/participation (particularly in elementary school) these should not be in a standards based assessment. You can put those points elsewhere in your gradebook.

a standard approach_ enhancing your curriculum

This image is from https://www.teacherease.com/ they have an interesting looking gradebook for teachers who use a standards based grading system.

Another benefit of standards is it allows you to more accurately assess both your teaching and your students’ progress. If you look at the class average scores (circled in red) you can see that they are increasing over time. As a teacher, you would want to see this because it means that your teaching is helping students perform better over time. If the scores remain low/not increasing, then that is a good cue for you to reassess how you are teaching the particular standard.

**note: Good teachers will do this regardless of whether they explicitly teach with standards or not. The advantage to using standards is that they make it easier and give more exact information as to what students are struggling with.

Teachers have plenty to do, so using standards shouldn’t add to your workload after you adjust to them (There is an adjustment phase that is more work, but that’s the same as with any new system/approach). In general you can design assignments to assess one or two standards at a time. Then you can enter the grades as normal (If you have two standards on one assignment, just enter 2 grades, one for each standard).

A drawback to this approach is that it seemingly limits opportunities to review old material while also assessing current coursework. However, this difficulty can be avoided by making a general “assignments/assessments” category. You can put anything that doesn’t easily/naturally fit into one/two standards here (breaking one assignment into more than 2 standards generally causes the grading to become too time consuming to be worthwhile).

So far we have gone over how standards can help teachers improve their instruction by giving them exact data that they can use to adapt their teaching to the needs of the class. Students can use this data in similar ways. When teachers pass out progress reports (ideally students and parents will have anytime access to an online version of their report card), students and parents are able to see both how the student is doing overall, but also how the student is performing on each standard.

Let’s look at Anna Fitzgerald again. When she gets her progress report it will tell her that while she did alright in English class with a 2.49/4 she received a 1.91/4 on the ELA.5.R1 standard. This is in essence giving students and their families the same helpful information a standards based approach gives teachers. Students and their parents will know exactly what content the child struggled with.

In order increase the helpfulness of this information (feedback) teachers can require students to reflect/complete a supplementary assessment for practice with their weakest standard. It should just be one at a time, otherwise you will overwhelm students and the additional practice will likely just turn into additional work with no benefits. Essentially, standards increase the specificity of feedback to both teachers and students. Use the specificity to your advantage to give actionable feedback.

ESL Teaching

The following is a summary of Chapter 9 from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret Mckeown, and Linda Kucan. If you teach young or ESL students, I highly recommend this book as it is immensely practical and backed by research.

English as a second language (ESL) students must go on a journey before they can find academic success. They tend to have a smaller vocabulary, weaker semantic connections, and less word part knowledge than native speakers (Verhoeven, 2011). This creates a hindrance and barrier to learning academic content. It generally takes ESL students between 1-2 years to become conversational on everyday topics. But it can take 5-7 years for ESL students to pass the “lexical bar” of cultural and academic language (Cummins, 1994).

It has been proposed that when students are at the early stages of being conversational (a simple, everyday conversation) that they should be exposed to explicit teaching with tier two words. A key qualifier is that students must already understand the underlying concept. For example, all students will understand the word, ‘hungry’. So, you could teach students the meaning of ‘famished’. One key reason we should teach our ELL students tier two vocabulary is that they are unlikely to be exposed to it in oral conversation. Another is that a lack of vocabulary drastically inhibits reading comprehension (access to knowledge).

The good news is that what research has shown to be effective for native English speakers is equally effective for ESL students.

This means that we should strive to

  1. Provide multiple encounters with target words in multiple contexts involving analysis and target word use in both a written and oral format
    1. Improves word knowledge (Snow, Lawrence, & White, 2009)
  2. Promote active processing
    1. Supports depth of word knowledge (Carlo et. al, 2004)

ESL students and native speakers can improve their vocabulary at similar rates. However, this will not help close the vocabulary and corresponding comprehension gap (even with interventions) since ESL students start with smaller vocabularies. But, interventions are very helpful nonetheless because studies have shown that without them, gaps in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and test scores expand (Kiefer, 2008).

In order to further supplement the vocabulary development of ESL students, consider teaching lexical morphemes. Lexical morphemes are the root of the word. For example, with ‘press’ we have depress, compress, oppress, etc. By looking at the root of the words, it may improve students’ semantic connections. This could be furthered by teaching students about the morphological relationship between English and Latin. This could prove beneficial as many English words have their root in Latin.

In order to further help your ESL students (and every other student) make sure that your classroom procedures are clear and known. This follows not just for transitions, but also for instructional patterns. For example, students should know what to do when asked to identify and explain a word’s prefix. If students have this procedural knowledge, then their working memory will be freed up to focus on learning the content instead of how to perform the task.

Book Review: The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham

This book is designed to introduce the reader to the reading process. And it succeeds. Professor Willingham’s book is extensively researched and presented in a way that a layperson or average teacher will have no trouble assessing its contents. I would highly recommend it if you are a teacher, or a parent trying to learn about reading or how to encourage children to read.


In Chapter 1 he sets out to tell the story of reading by explaining its purpose. He writes that writing is both an extension of and more objective than memory. It is an extension of memory because we can write something to do down and look at it later to remind ourselves. Writing is more objective than memory because it is a physical representation and cannot be easily changed.

Chapter 2 jumps into the code of reading, phonics. Letters are made up of a set of shapes/stroke patterns, some are more easily confused than others, yet it is imperative that each letter be correctly identified because each letter is a cue for a sound. Put together, the sounds make words that have meaning. One misstep along the way can drastically change the word’s  meaning. For example, a child might be reading a story that says, “The man digs a hole.” but the child may mix it up and read, “The man pigs a hole.” In order to correct him/herself, the child must have knowledge about both what a pig and hole are, highlighting the importance of vocabulary for reading comprehension.

Chapter 3 finally gets into the reading process. Students who are accomplished readers have 3 distinct representations for words: the sound, the spelling, and the meaning. For all learners, the sound and spelling of the words a closely linked. If a student is better at hearing the sounds within a word, they will be better able to spell the word and vice versa.

Chapter 4 digs into words and their contexts. We all know that some words mean different things in different contexts. This, then shows one large limitation of having students look up words in a dictionary because dictionaries strive to be context independent (due to space constraints). An implication for teachers, since word meaning depends on context, is to explicitly teach students the word’s meaning while exposing them to the word in a variety of contexts.

Chapter 5 looks at reading comprehension. Willingham concludes that teaching reading comprehension strategies has limited value. The limiting factor in teaching reading strategies is that they are easily and quickly learned (a good thing). Students should be taught reading strategies as the strategies will improve their comprehension and make them better readers, but the instruction should not stay on strategies. After students understand the reading strategies, they teaching should be focused on increasing student knowledge because reading comprehension depends heavily upon background knowledge (see the famous study on background knowledge and comprehension at Reading Rockets website).

Chapter 6 is really interesting in that it looks at the psychology of readers. It finds that readers read because they enjoy it. Hardly groundbreaking, but it is a more revealing finding than it appears. Those who read do so because of emotional reasons, not logical ones. The implication being that telling students, “You should read this to learn more and become smarter.” will not be helpful. We instead ought to incentivize reading to create situations where students are likely to have positive experiences when reading. Another practical finding in this article was that students are interested in reading, but only if the effort of obtaining the book is minimal to non-existent. Put books in the classroom and draw attention to them.

Chapter 7 looks into how the digital revolution has impacted reading. In large part, it hasn’t. Students do read a bit less with television, internet, and video games but the amount children read was already so low, it couldn’t drop much. Another interesting finding was that when using digital books, our comprehension suffers. Even seeing a hyperlink without clicking on it slightly reduces our comprehension. Professor Willingham posits that the digital revolution has not impacted student attention span so much as it has reduced their capacity for boredom. For example, students can still pay attention to an entire movie because it interests them, but they cannot pay attention for an entire class because it bores them.

Check out the book here.