“She’s trustworthy,” said a student named Osiris.
“Where is your evidence?” asked Chavarin.
“The story says she promised to work every day,” Osiris answered.
“But does that make her trustworthy?” Chavarin countered. “I said I was going to stick to my diet, but did I do it? Evelyn?”
“She’s determined,” said Evelyn. “The next sentence says that even when the weather is bad and she wasn’t feeling well, she still worked.”
“Right! People who don’t give up are determined,” Chavarin said, giving the class a thumbs up. “How many of you used that same sentence to prove another trait? Janelle?”
“I said it showed she had perseverance.”
“That is a fantastic word,” Chavarin said. “That’s another way to say she doesn’t give up. Remember, when we read what is stated, that is only the surface. We need to look under the surface. What is the text inferring? Now, stop for 30 seconds and think about what you learned today about inferences that you did not know before.”
After class, Chavarin, once an English learner himself in the Los Angeles public school system, said this class is a prime example of what he’s doing differently this year. For one thing, he said, “Common Core really reinforces using the text. If not for the Common Core, I would have allowed them to infer things with their background knowledge.”
The new standards have also prompted him to be more deliberate about using ambitious vocabulary in class, and he has been surprised at how quickly the students echo his word choices. “A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that they could be speaking this way, but I see the difference it’s making by honing in on academic vocabulary,” he said. “Now I make a point of using words like demonstrate, efficient, elaborate, distinguish. In the past, I might have asked if an inference is ‘clear’ or ‘fair.’ Instead, now I ask if it’s ‘logical and reasonable.’”
These positive effects aren’t limited to English learners, he added. “I see that if we don’t expose all our students to words like that, where would we expect them to pick them up?” said Chavarin. “We see the effect poverty has on children, but that’s no excuse not to provide a rigorous curriculum for them.”
The results seen at Laurel Street are exactly what the Common Core aims to produce, said Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago and one of the authors of the Common Core language-arts standards. “We knew that second-language kids struggled with comprehension because they were not getting the support they needed in the past,” he said, adding that the Common Core’s emphasis on comprehension and vocabulary will make it more likely English learners will catch up with native English speakers by the time they reach high school and contemplate college and career.
The Common Core authors are also convinced that extra time spent on nonfiction will help English learners as well as native speakers “get more of an opportunity to expand their knowledge” of the world and become “more powerful readers,” Shanahan said. An added plus: Research shows that “a large percentage of kids prefer reading about real stuff,” Shanahan said, even though most language-arts teachers assigned very little nonfiction in the past. In fact, he said, studies in Boston area schools found that the average first grader spent only about 3.7 minutes a day reading informational texts. “That’s only about 3-4 hours a year,” he said. The emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core aims to produce a better balance between literature and nonfiction, he said.