Tools to Unpack the ELA Common Core Standards

By Sarah Tantillo

How can teachers unpack the Common Core standards for English/Language Arts and then create objectives and activities to meet them?

First, we have to develop an appreciation for the CCSS ELA trajectory (which I have blogged about HERE and HERE). But before we can really teach the standards, we must also understand exactly what they mean and what they entail.

Often seemingly “simple” standards require extensive scaffolding, and some of the complicated ones are even more complicated than they might appear. (For example, Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman refer to Writing Standard #9 as “the standard with twenty standards hidden within it,” and I don’t disagree.) To unpack the standards, you need to do the following:

  1. Paraphrase the standard. It’s important to know what the standard is saying on a literal level so that you can break it down into manageable pieces.
  2. Figure out why we do this standard. Determining the purpose(s) of a standard will help you explain to students why it’s worth mastering. And thinking about this rationale will help you later when you want to design objectives that are purposeful.
  3. Identify the skills that students will need in order to meet this standard. Almost invariably, students will need more than one skill in order meet any given standard. If you don’t break the standard down, you might skip over key skills that need to be taught. And if you don’t teach the needed skills, students won’t master the standard (and worse: you won’t know why).
  4. Determine how you could assess this standard. What would mastery of this standard look like? Once you’re confident you know what mastery looks like, it’s easier to plan how to get students to that level.
  5. Brainstorm on how you might teach this standard. For the moment, stick to general approaches; don’t worry about detailed lesson plans yet. The purpose here is to generate some rough ideas about how to approach the standard.
  6. Design RPM (rigorous, purposeful, measurable) objectives related to these skills. (For more information on RPM objectives, click HERE.) These objectives will lead you logically to lesson plans that set students up to meet and exceed the standards. Note: This step can be challenging to do in a vacuum; it works best if teachers have specific texts in mind that they plan to use to meet these objectives.

To support teachers working through this unpacking process, I’ve created what I hope is a simple, user-friendly graphic organizer. Here is a completed model:

STANDARD: RIT 6.1: Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Paraphrase it:
Provide properly-quoted evidence from the text to support your explanation of what the text says directly and what it implies.
WHY do we do this standard? What purposes does it serve? We provide evidence to support arguments because no one would believe us if we didn’t; we prove our points more persuasively when we offer evidence. We use this skill when speaking and writing in order to convince listeners/readers about our views/ideas. It is important to cite the source to give the writer credit for his/her work and avoid plagiarism, and so that the audience can find that evidence as needed.
WHAT SKILLS will students need?
  • Paraphrase text.
  • Draw inferences from text.
  • Distinguish between argument and evidence.
  • Identify evidence relevant to particular arguments.
  • Build arguments with relevant evidence and explanation.
  • Cite sources properly (using MLA format).
How might you ASSESS this standard? What would mastery of this standard LOOK LIKE?
  • Give students open-ended response questions requiring multiple-sentence responses with properly-cited quotes from the text.
  • Require students to generate a paragraph making an argument with evidence from the given text, citing evidence properly.
HOW might you teach this standard?
  • Show students a model of a paragraph that includes properly-cited quotations, explaining its key features (topic sentence=argument, evidence and explanation, with evidence from text properly cited).
  • Give them either a topic sentence to support OR an inference question to answer based on an informational text they are reading, and use the gradual release approach (I Do, We Do, You Do) to train students in how to write paragraphs that cite evidence from the text.


What are some RPM OBJECTIVES related to these skills? SWBAT…

  • Paraphrase text in order to convey literal comprehension of a passage.
  • Draw inferences from text in order to explain key ideas in the passage.
  • Identify arguments and examples of evidence in order to create accurate definitions of “argument” and “evidence.”
  • Distinguish between evidence that is “relevant” and “irrelevant” to a given argument in order to create accurate definitions of “relevant” and “irrelevant.”
  • Identify evidence that supports a given argument in order to build a convincing argument.
  • Cite sources in proper MLA format in order to avoid plagiarism.

At the ASCD annual conference in March, I’ll be presenting a workshop that will lead participants through this process of unpacking the Common Core standards in ways that enable teachers to design rigorous, purposeful, and measurable units, lessons, and objectives. If you plan to be in Los Angeles March 15-17, 2014, join us!

This post is an excerpt from Sarah Tantillo’s forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core:  Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, June 2014). See another excerpt: “Skimming: the Overlooked Close Reading Skill.”

Sarah Tantillo is a literacy consultant who taught secondary school English and Humanities in both suburban and urban public schools for fourteen years, including seven years at the high-performing North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. She’s the author of The Literacy Cookbook and offers professional development help at her blog of the same name.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

4 Responses

  1. Judith Wood says:

    How can I get this book? Could it be purchased as an ebook?

  2. MiddleWeb says:

    Judith – Sarah’s new book Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action is scheduled to be published in Summer 2014 and can be preordered at Amazon:

  3. Crys says:

    Is the unpacked example above from your book? Are all of the standards unpacked in your book?

  4. Hi, Crys–Yes, this unpacked example appears in my forthcoming book, along with eight others (2 each for K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). I didn’t unpack ALL of the standards in the book. I want readers to have some of the fun. :> Seriously, though, it’s a useful exercise for teams to go through. Thanks for your interest. Cheers, ST

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