TESOL Social Justice

Cutting to the Common Core

Lori Helman shares her thoughts on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the teaching of English Language Learners (ELLs)

Language Magazine:  How will implementation of the CCSS affect the teaching of ELLs?

Lori Helman: The CCSS present a challenge similar to the one educators have faced in the past decade — how to take the diverse population entering schools and help each student meet the same rigorous achievement goals. The CCSS set a new bar of high rigor and critical thinking for all students. Foundational skills are the necessary building blocks in the process, but not the end goal. In particular, students who are learning to speak English at the same time they are learning their reading, writing, and content area in English will need access to concepts within the common curriculum, and teachers and specialists will need to find ways to scaffold this content. Here are some factors I see as influencing teaching practice and instructional planning:

• There will be more involvement of the general education teacher in curriculum planning for English learners. We are also likely to see more schools teaming their ELL and general education teachers to collaboratively serve students in mixed (push-in) settings. Because collaboration and co-teaching is a relatively unstudied practice, I envision a significant research push in this area. I also think this will become a focus area in professional development.

• There will be an increased realization that language is at the heart of literacy learning (i.e., you can decode but you can’t comprehend without knowing the language of instruction). As gaps in student achievement continue to persist, educational organizations will be forced to address the fact that simply teaching skills more efficiently cannot compensate for a lack of linguistic knowledge related to academic topics. I believe that the WIDA Consortium’s English Language Development (ELD) standards will play an increasing role in guiding faculties and administrators on tailoring instruction of core content for students at various language proficiencies.

• I believe that there will be significant frustration among educators concerning the heavy workload involved in helping ELL students learn at grade level material. I think that many schools will look for cohesive instructional manuals that will help them present material to ELL students, or online curriculum products that will do the same. My hope is that these materials will be research-based, and provide opportunities for students to learn vocabulary and academic language (e.g., plenty of photos and graphic organizers) while they learn the domain-specific content.

• In terms of particular content curricula, I think that key terminology and particular subject matter that has been referenced in the CCSS will become the common language for educators’ discussions about what is taught. For example, there are numerous terms for academic vocabulary, but since the CCSS use “general academic” and “domain specific,” I think these terms will become the standard. The content of curricula that has been described in the CCSS will likely become the focus for commercial products, assessments, interventions, and enrichment activities. In the area of language arts, some examples of this are: “complexity bands” for texts; use of context to confirm word recognition; multisyllable word reading; syllabication patterns; Latin roots; use of linking ideas; technology; communication using digital multimedia formats; use of formal English; multiple meaning words; standard English grammar; general academic and domain-specific vocabulary; and analyzing meaningful word parts.

LM:  What can teachers and administrators do to prepare for these changes?

LH: Clearly, holding all students to rigorous standards will require more than the Herculean efforts of individual teachers. Schools and districts can prepare for these changes in many ways:

• Collect data on students’ language proficiency and gaps in their foundational knowledge of English. Remember that conversational language does not equal academic language. Students may be quite verbally proficient but have very limited knowledge of academic language structures and vocabulary.

• Use language proficiency data to understand and plan for the academic language needs of students. Connect with WIDA or other resources for teaching academic language depending on students’ initial level.

• Begin to form school teams where general education, special education, ELL teachers, and community liaison personnel engage in conversations focused on students from diverse linguistic backgrounds and how their language and background experiences might be supported in the core content.

• Build language development into every content lesson. Take time to teach key conceptual vocabulary words as well as the language structures that will be necessary to fully understand and engage with the content under study. These language structures will vary by discipline, and we will be seeing more courses such as “read like a historian,” or “write like a scientist.” I foresee that vocabulary instruction will become an even more important component of literacy and other content area teaching in the coming years. This is another way that collaboration will need to occur — language arts teachers and disciplinary teachers such as mathematics and science teachers will need to learn from each other about literacy instruction that is embedded in content areas.

LM: What can be done to help non-ESL teachers differentiate instruction?

LH: As mentioned above, I believe that expectations for the general education teacher to address the achievement gap on his or her own are not realistic. However, in addition to an achievement gap, we also have an opportunity gap in which ELL students often may not receive conceptually rigorous instruction, but rather spend their school time in repetitive, skill and drill based groups with the educational assistant or ESL teacher. So, several things need to come together. First, a team approach to instructional planning and delivery should take place. This will involve general education and ELL teachers, as well as other specialists or resource personnel available at the school. Conversations need to take place about the strengths, challenges, and next steps for meeting the needs of students who are learning English as a new language. A review of the programs available to ELL students should take place to ensure that students have access to higher-level tasks such as those outlined in the CCSS.

Secondly, non-ESL teachers need additional information and training about the importance of academic language and vocabulary for students’ success on the standards. When teachers understand the imperative of learning advanced language structures, general academic, and domain-specific words, they will work to integrate these skills in their teaching.
Finally, educational publishers and professional developers need to provide support, training, and materials for teachers that will help them structure their classes for differentiation and individualized support. This could be anything from creating example units or lesson plans, to identifying key vocabulary and child-friendly definitions, to describing examples of exemplary implementation of differentiated instruction.

LM: How do you suggest teachers introduce academic language to ELLs?

LH: This is a tricky question, because one tendency is to become the much-hated grammar teacher of legend. Boring, rote grammar drills will not be effective for students learning English as a new language. On the other hand, demystifying the way written language works can be an eye-opening experience for English learners. There are three levels of academic language that need to be addressed: word, sentence, and text level investigations. Here are a few ideas for each level.

Word level: This is your traditional vocabulary instruction, in which important general academic and domain-specific words are selected, defined, and used within particular texts. My recommendations are to select the number of words based on students’ language proficiency, with beginners learning about three new words per lesson, intermediate learners getting five new words, and advanced English learners receiving instruction in up to seven words per lesson. The words need to be important in the conceptual understanding of the passage as well as usable in the world at large. Words that will rarely be seen again in students’ lives at their age are unlikely to be learned without numerous exposures. Students should review the new words many times across the subject matter of study, and if possible words should be used across content areas for maximum exposure.

Sentence level: Investigating language at the sentence level allows for much deeper contextual learning. Here the teacher and student investigate phrases, context, relationships, and grammar as well as the meaning of particular words. The study of sentences can begin with very simple grammatical structures and move to highly complex arrangements. Sentence study should be based on students’ English language proficiency. Linking or connecting words should be studied for their role in contributing to the meaning of the sentence, and students should have many opportunities to “play with” sentences to see how meaning is changed when words or phrases are exchanged. Examining sentences and taking apart their components as a think aloud activity in class will help students learn to do this on their own.

Text level: Even if students know the meanings of all the individual words in their texts and can understand what each sentence says, there is still the issue of the higher-level understanding of the passage as a whole. Text level analysis is the most difficult and complex component of understanding academic language. It involves the use of inference, synthesis, and analysis of the component parts. Students are required to carry a thread across numerous sentences and then weave it into a meaningful, cohesive narrative. It also involves an understanding of sociocultural norms and expectations that are geared toward English speaking, middle class American students. For students to be able to understand the emotions, cultural norms, and expected behaviors of people who are from backgrounds different than their own, and thereby make inferences relevant to the texts they are reading, they will need time to discuss, think aloud, and ask questions. They will also need a classroom environment that is open to students sharing their individual background experiences. Many comprehension strategy processes will help this happen; in addition, opportunities to deconstruct texts with a knowledgeable mentor will help students practice using the skills that will be required for them to engage with texts at a high level.

LM: What types of nonfiction would you recommend for ELLs?

LH: In general, high-quality nonfiction for one is high-quality nonfiction for all. I recommend the use of real photos in texts, especially on scientific or nature topics. Sentence structures should be understandable and straightforward to English learners. Technical structures should be scaffolded to increase students’ understanding.
It is also important to use topics that have a connection to students’ background experiences and interests. A complex scientific text can be made much more understandable by starting from common experiences from diverse students’ lives. Topics for nonfiction texts are especially useful if they can be connected to meaningful, hands-on experiences such as simulations or experiments. It is also helpful if texts can be connected to interesting out-of-school experiences. Finally, texts must be accurate and conceptually rich so they reinforce the disciplinary standards being studied in class.

LM: What advice would you offer to teachers who find their students getting frustrated when struggling with more difficult texts?

LH: Some beginning ideas:

• Find ways to scaffold the text for students — books on tape, buddy reading, book clubs, shared reading. Don’t take away the ideas of the book; allow students to engage in the same ideas in slightly different formats.

• Move from simple to complex — consider using strategies that help students access the material more easily such as reading all the topic sentences, doing a preview-review, or performing a directed thinking activity. Use graphic organizers to help groups of students summarize essential information and key ideas to remember.

• Look for clues in the text — help students learn how to understand figures and graphs in texts, analyze illustrations, etc., that will give them greater access to information.

• Create a safe classroom climate where mistakes are okay and students should speak up when they don’t understand something. The enemy of learning and understanding is the “hiding out” behavior that so many students do because they don’t want to be “wrong.”

• Find texts that are motivating and engaging to your students. Perhaps the texts teachers select are not the ones that motivate the students. Do surveys, contests, book sharing, presentations, etc., to find out what books are appealing to your students, and bring those into the classroom.

• Model thinking aloud and being an encouraging mentor. Students will work harder if they know you believe in them and want them to succeed. Yes, it will get hard, but as the teacher (or better yet, a teacher team) you will be there with the student through the hard parts.

Lori Helman is an advisor to Curriculum Associates LLC, a provider of student-centered solutions for K-8 reading and math, and associate professor in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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