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Cutting to the Common Core: Let’s Get Specific

Jack Umstatter delves into the Standards to find some clear examples of what will be required of English Learners

Although the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) clearly state the high expectations for English Language Learners (ELLs) and offer some guidelines, identifying the full range of supports appropriate for ELLs is “beyond the scope of the Standards.” So, states and local school districts can decide exactly how these guidelines will be implemented.
To get a more concrete idea of what our ELL (and other) students need in order to reach proficiency on a CCSS ELA standard, let’s examine some specific requirements:

1. Eighth-grade standard (#4) from the Reading Standards for Informational Text
“Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies and allusions to other texts.”

A performance task or another form of assessment for this particular standard will probably ask the students to understand the function of various elements of language, know the multiple meanings of specific words, and recognize and utilize suggested literary elements. This could be daunting even for some native English speakers.

ELLs may also be challenged by the conventions of formal English grammar and the intricacies of text complexity — the combination of quantitative, qualitative, and reader-task considerations. Providing these students with effective, interactive instruction in the four CCSS strands of Reading (literature and informational texts), Writing (narrative, argumentative, and informative/explanatory pieces), Speaking and Listening, and Language is imperative. Exposing these students to an enriched reading and writing curriculum and offering opportunities for interacting with proficient English speakers to develop concepts and academic language in the disciplines are additional CCSS suggestions for improving the students’ learning and achievement.

2. The CCSS writers also recognize the high-level demands of the math standards and the requirements placed upon
students and teachers. They state that even though ELLs will bring varied and rich prior experiences to their study of math, “regular and active participation in the classroom is critical to the success of these students in mathematics” (Application p.2).

An examination of the requirements needed to satisfy the demands of this third-grade math CCSS (#1) in Geometry clearly exhibits the astute suggestions of the CCSS’ constructors.

Understand that shapes in different categories (e.g., rhombuses, rectangles, and others) may share attributes (e.g., having four sides), and that the shared attributes can define a larger category (e.g., quadrilaterals). Recognize rhombuses, rectangles, and squares as examples of quadrilaterals, and draw examples of quadrilaterals that do not belong to any of these subcategories.

For a clear understanding of both the mathematical language and the mathematical concepts within this standard, and for assessment purposes, the learner must know the meanings (and applications) of words such as categories, rhombuses, rectangles, quadrilaterals, and subcategories to reach the CCSS math proficiency. As the CCSS suggests, teaching students to think, reason, and communicate mathematically is of paramount importance to the ELLs’ assessment proficiency.

Moreover, to increase students’ confidence and performance, the CCSS authors believe that, “mathematics instruction for ELL students should draw on multiple resources and modes available in classrooms — such as objects, drawings, inscriptions, and gestures — as well as home languages and mathematical experiences outsides of school” (Application, p. 2).

Mathematical word problems can pose additional challenges for an English Language Learner. It is important that a student understand the text of word problems before beginning to solve them. An ELL’s understanding of complex word problems will be aided by the practice of mathematical discourse and interaction. Scaffolding will play an important role in helping the students understand what the problem is asking and reaching proficiency in this standard’s performance assessment.

3. Even more specifically, the CCSS offers this insightful piece of advice when it comes to understanding and solving word problems: “Language switching can be swift, highly automatic, and facilitate rather than inhibit solving word problems in the second language, as long as the student’s language proficiency is sufficient for understanding the text of the word problem” (Application, p.1).

Thus, allowing students to rely upon their first language when working out a word problem is an asset, not a detriment, toward a student’s success in solving that problem.

Though vocabulary skills are essential for any student within any academic subject, the ELL should also be “reading and listening, discussing, explaining, writing, representing, and presenting” (Appli­cation, p. 2) to achieve a true understanding of mathematics.

Assessments for the ELL population can be tricky. If students do not perform well, is it because they did not know the content or is it because they were not proficient in the English language? As well as additional time and aligned assessments for the ELLs, the CCSS document offers several other guidelines to accommodate these students.

• “Teachers should recognize that it is possible to achieve the standards for reading and literature, writing & research, language development and speaking & listening without manifesting native-like control of conventions and vocabulary” (Application, p. 1).

• “Ongoing assessment and feedback to guide learning” (Application, p. 2).

• “To develop written and oral communication skills, students need to participate in negotiating meaning for mathematical situations and in mathematical practices that require output from students” (Application, p. 3).

As with all effective teaching, the dedicated efforts to support ELLs — and all students — to reach CCSS proficiency (and beyond) will take time, patience, and commitment. In the weeks, months, and years ahead, educators will work collaboratively across district, county, and state lines, sharing effective strategies, practices, and assessments to meet their students’ needs. The journey will prove to be an exciting one.

Jack Umstatter is a professional development associate with The Leadership and Learning Center. As an educator and facilitator in Long Island, New York, he taught all grades, from kindergarten through graduate school, served as a high school assistant principal and English department chair, oversaw state-assessments’ scoring in his district, and coached several academic teams that placed highly in state and national competitions.

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