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Understanding Language: The Common Core and English Language Learners

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 -- Pete Rogan

The Common Core State Standards have brought a welcome focus to literacy skills, emphasizing concepts of reading and writing across the curriculum with greater success than in the past. This focus carries a potentially powerful impact in supporting the development of English language learners (ELLs).

At Stanford University, a team of professors and K–12 teachers have developed a movement of sorts that they call Understanding Language. The team includes Kenji Hakuta from Stanford, Maria Santos from Oakland Unified School District, Aída Walqui from WestEd, and dozens of others focused on the needs of ELLs in a Common Core environment.

In their relatively brief existence, the Understanding Language team has produced a range of tools:

  • academic papers to guide work in this area of focus,
  • a conference to raise awareness about their work,
  • sample lessons to model an approach to language within the Common Core that supports all learners,
  • an open-source repository of educational materials, and
  • multiple MOOCs to train teachers in the field with an emphasis on language in the Common Core.

All of these tools focus on making sense of the Common Core for English language learners. More importantly, these tools ensure that the most is made of the elements present in the Common Core that can genuinely support language development for ELLs.

When the Understanding Language team maps the Common Core to learning materials for ELLs, they focus on three primary “learning moments”:

  1. Preparing learners by activating knowledge or building background information
  2. Providing learners an opportunity to interact with complex, grade-level texts, ensuring the use of scaffolding appropriate to the language level of the learners
  3.  Asking learners to connect the text to other ideas or to the world

The Understanding Language team provides an exemplar unit for teachers who want to create their own materials. Similarly, these “learning moments” provide educators in the mainstream classroom a framework for developing materials and teaching lessons that engage learners understanding of language.

At Edmentum, our ESL ReadingSmart product aims to provide lessons built for these three moments.

  1. Many lessons include separate background readings to give students a chance to activate their own knowledge before diving into a primary text. For example, in an early lesson about the martial arts, a background reading discusses the derivation of the word “martial” from the Roman god of war, Mars.
  2. Many of the primary texts in the lessons teach learners about figures they are studying in grade-level social studies and science classrooms. Also, we often get comments from teachers about how excited they are that our lessons provide learners a chance to read grade-level texts like “The Cask of Amontillado.”
  3. ESL ReadingSmart includes a lesson plan for each online lesson that provides teachers ready-to-use ideas for how to extend the exploration of the topic and material further through classroom activities, student writing, and discussions. For example, in a lesson about the life of Nelson Mandela, students learn about the importance of taking actions that may not pay off in their lives for years to come. As a means of building on this central lesson, an extension activity leads the student to a Web resource where the student can explore the path to applying to and attending college.

In wrapping up an explanation of one exemplar unit for the Understanding Language project, Walqui makes the following point:

[Successful experiences of English learners working with difficult texts] can only be done if we understand the nature of learning, which is the ability to participate in activity beyond our autonomy level and the importance of nourishing student voice and agency.

Walqui speaks here about the important role of student choice and motivated student action in fostering deep, meaningful learning. As students have a voice in their learning, and as they begin to take action in the classroom to guide their own educational experiences, true learning happens more often.

No method or approach can guarantee the joy that comes from these “Aha!” moments when students surprise us with their growth. Yet, an understanding of which structures lead to these moments helps us fill our classrooms with more opportunities for joy and satisfaction. Following the lead of the Understanding Language team and their emphasis on the three “learning moments,” educators can participate in the project’s efforts to strengthen the positive impact of the Common Core on ELLs. Here’s to more such “Aha!” moments in your classroom.