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civil war imagesSo what are the major differences in practice that one should expect to see when the Iowa Core Standards in Literacy are being implemented? Those differences in classroom practice, materials, and assessment are described by what are called the shifts. So what are the English Language Arts shifts? The first shift is regular practice with complex texts and their academic language. Next, reading, writing, and speaking are grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational. Finally, students should be building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.

When I first read these, I thought the avenue to apply them was through social studies and science. So I decided to dig deeper into what each shift meant while applying them to literacy and social studies in my third grade classroom.

I looked at social studies to meet the standard SS.3-5.H8 Understand cause and effect relationships and other historical thinking skills in order to interpret events and issues and SS.3-5.G.1 Understand the geographic tools to locate and analyze information about people, places, and environments. Then I considered the ELA shifts and standards.

I coupled literacy: RI.3.1 Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers; RI.3.3 Describe the relationship between a series of historical events using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect; RI.3.7 Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text; and W.3.10 Write routinely over extended time frames and shorter time frames for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

You are probably thinking, “How could I possibly meet all those standards in a lesson?” It is actually a series of lessons that connect all these standards that takes a week’s time in reading, writing, and social studies.

So, what would that look like? It all started with a question posed as an inquiry to my students: How was our country divided during the Civil War? When considering the first shift: regular practice of complex texts and academic language meant infusing the close reading strategy during my shared reading block with the passage, “Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: Background to the Civil War-Balance Sheet.” (Note: This passage and many others are available from, where you can sign up for a free account.) Each day had a “standards” purpose for rereading the text.

On Day 1, I read the text to my class focusing on finding the main idea (which they wrote at top of the page) and vocabulary (Tier 2 words: confident, opinion, experienced, terrain, attitude)(Tier 3 words: cavalry, cannon, Confederacy). On Day 2, we choral read the passage and the students found the big ideas related to the main idea. They highlighted them in yellow and recorded them on their note taking graphic organizer). On Day 3, the students read the passage with a partner and found five to seven details to go with each big idea (highlighting them in red and recording the big ideas on their note taking sheet). On Day 4, the students reread the passage with a partner, wrote the author’s purpose in the left margin and asked a question in the right margin. On Friday, we discussed their questions and possible sources that could help when answering them. The students read the passage on their own, answering the questions within the passage (right there and inferential) while citing their evidence in orange. During writing time on Day 5, students wrote a summary for the passage using their notetaking planner as a guide.

Another piece of this shift is considering text-complexity, the Lexile band range for third grade is 450-980. The Lexile measure is a readability scale used in many schools in Iowa to match readers’ ability to text. Knowing that the Lexile (670) for this passage, coupled with the rich academic vocabulary, it met the criteria for allowing students to move forward on the staircase of complexity.

The second shift, reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and nonfiction, incorporates the close reading passage already referred to with the lesson as well as including additional text, Pink and Say, a historical fiction story by Patricia Polacco. I connected this story to another text, “Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: Background to the Civil War-Balance Sheet.” Pink and Say is read during my interactive Read Aloud time where students free respond at designated stopping points. I read a few pages to the students and then say, “free response.” The students write for one-and-a-half to two minutes in the first box of the four on their notebook paper with a response to one of the following prompts:

  • Ask a question about what has been read so far.
  • Make a prediction about what will happen next.
  • Write about what you like or dislike (and why) about what has been read so far.
  • Make a connection to another text we have already read.
  • Tell how you feel about the text that has been read.

When the time is up, the kids pair/share their response with a partner and tell the evidence that supports his or her thinking. I continue throughout the book in this manner. I have specifically chosen stopping spots that relate to time sequence and cause/effect since that is one of my standard focuses.

Finally we hit the third shift, building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. A part of this shift is realizing that nonfiction texts can be more than just books. In his article, “You Want Me to Read What?,” Timothy Shanahan identifies nonfiction as “biographies and autobiographies; books about history, social studies, science, and the arts; technical texts, including directions, and information displayed in graphs, charts, or maps, and digital sources on a range of topics.”  With this in mind, I couple my literacy and geography standards by playing an I Spy game focusing on inquiry for my lesson. Watch a video clip of a lesson where students are locating places on the map, determining geographic features, and making connections to the story, Pink and Say, and references to their own independent research.

After incorporating a variety of both literature and nonfiction texts, providing space for inquiry and opportunity to dig deeper into how was our country divided during the Civil War, students were assessed through a quick write. Here is a student example and class sharing of quick write responses.

Connecting social studies and literacy is the perfect way to gain time in your day, allow students to develop a rich understanding of concepts and skills, and provide sources to support students in systematically developing knowledge about the world. It is time for all of us to shift our thinking.


ELA Shifts:

Article: You Want Me to Read What? by Timothy Shanahan

Mapping Lesson Plan

Close Reading Procedure linked to third grade ELA standards:

Reading Passage from: Slavery, the Civil War & Reconstruction: Background to the Civil War – Balance Sheet

(Note: This passage and many others are available from, where you can sign up for a free account.)

Free Blank United States Map

Note Taking Graphic Organizer

Literature books:

Pink and Say by Patrica Polacco (lesson focus)

Other Related texts:

  • Words That Built A Nation (Marilyn Miller; 1999, Scholastic.)
  • Addy's Surprise: A Christmas Story (American Girls Collection) (Melodye Benson Rosales (Illustrator), et al; 1993, Pleasant Company Publications)
  • Addy Learns a Lesson: A School Story (American Girls Collection) (Melodye Benson Rosales (Illustrator), Connie Rose Porter; 1993, Pleasant Company Publications)
  • Abe’s Honest Words (Doreen Rapport; 2008, Hyperion Books for Children)
  • If You Lived At the Time of the Civil War (Kay Moore; 1994, Scholastic)
  • Under the Freedom Tree (Susan VanHecke, 2014, Charlesbridge)
  • Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation (Pat Sherman; 2009, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
  • Abe Lincoln Comes Home (Robert Burleigh, 2014 ,Macmillan)

Video clips:

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