What does Common Core Mean for English Language Learners?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013 -- Shari Rios

English Language Learners (ELLs), have a challenging, sometimes daunting task ahead of them. They must learn and master rigorous academic content, while also acquiring the English language.

As states continue to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), many questions continue to surface in regard to the impact on ELLs. CCSS have greater rigor, higher expectations and considerably greater language demands.

Before we get into the how’s, let’s take a closer look at the process of language acquisition.

Language acquisition includes four processes: listening, speaking, reading and writing. At the beginning stages, much of what is learned is through listening and observing. Then, speaking the language at a very basic level begins to emerge. This is referred to as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, or BICS. This is also referred to as playground or social language. Studies indicate it takes approximately two years to attain this level of language. As language acquisition continues, a language learner begins to read and write in the new language. This is referred to as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP. Studies indicate it takes approximately five to seven years to attain this level of language. Academic content and high-stakes assessments are written at the CALP Level.

So, the question remains, How do we make curriculum accessible for English Language Learners?

The answer lies within the delivery of the material. How is this achieved? This is achieved by differentiating instruction using effective strategies for ELL students, while simultaneously supporting their language acquisition needs.

Some effective strategies to differentiate instruction for English Language Learners:

  • Using curriculum focused on content allows students to learn the essentials, without getting confused and frustrated with the “fluff”. Remove unnecessary material/words, etc., that can distract from the content.
  • Delivering the content in “chunks”, allows ELL students to digest a little at a time, and then continue to build their knowledge and understanding of the material.
  • Providing background knowledge, sometimes with native language support, allows ELLs to tie new information to something familiar. This helps students as they decode information; first trying to understand in their native language, and then transferring that understanding into English.
  • Defining key vocabulary, multiple-meaning words and figurative language
  • Using audio and visual supports
  • Providing multiple learning opportunities to reinforce key concepts and vocabulary
  • Providing cross-content application helps tie learning together, making it more comprehensible
  • Providing curriculum that addresses all four language processes
  • Incorporating technology with effective online programs that provide:
    • Individualized instruction
    • Opportunities to practice in various contexts
    • Ability to work at their own pace
    • Effective data for educators to determine areas of strengths, and areas of focus, in order to drive instruction

It is important to note that none of the strategies include watering-down the curriculum. ELL students are held to the same standards as their native-speaking peers. When differentiating instruction for ELLs, the strategies change to make the content accessible, but the content and rigor remain the same.

Understanding the unique learning and language needs of English Language Learners, and incorporating effective strategies and language supports, will prepare English Language Learners for success with CCSS and beyond.

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