The Effects of the Common Core on ELL Learning

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 -- Scott Sterling

There are two converging ground swells in American education right now.

On the one hand, 45 states are implementing a universal set of standards that seek to not only direct teachers in what students should know at a certain level, but why they should know it and how they should be able to use it. To test these new standards, two consortia have been set up to develop revolutionary, high-tech assessments.

On the other hand, the fastest-growing segment of the American student population is students for whom English is not their primary language. A system that is already having difficulty reaching these learners will now have to foster success with ELL students under a new set of standards.

What has changed for ELL students?

The Common Core itself makes very little mention of ELL students, with good reason. All students, no matter their background, will be held to the same standards. Just as before, certain accommodations will be made available on a reasonable, lawful basis.

That being said, right now no one knows truly what the new assessments from PARCC and Smarter Balanced will look like. From released previews, the assessment items seem more manipulative and technological with less reliance on thick word problems and other stalwarts of written tests. Students will obviously still be reading and writing in most of the language arts tests. Overall, an ELL student might fare better on the math portions of these tests than on the traditional written tests, but the language arts tests will still require a deep knowledge of English in order to be successful.

What can be done?

The Common Core State Standards take the unprecedented step of describing not only what a student should know, but also how they should know it. These standards are called the Practice Standards in Math and the Anchor Standards in Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language and they remain the same across the grade levels. They seek to describe how a student should be able to interact with the information presented in class and what skills the student will be expected to have across the math or language arts curriculum.

It will take some work and some time, but a skilled mind (or group of minds) in ELL instruction will take these Practice and Anchor Standards and unpack them to make a prescription on how to best instruct ELLs in this new era. In other words, the Common Core thoughtfully took the added step of describing what they want a student to be able to do with the knowledge they gain instead of just saying “a student should know this by 6th grade." Modify these tips slightly to work efficiently with ELLs and you would have a working model for how to remediate this important segment of our population using less time and resources.