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California Weighs Preschool ELL Standards

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 27, 2007 5 min read

California education officials are poised to adopt what they say will be the nation’s first set of statewide academic standards devoted to preschool English-language learners.

The standards—which the state education department calls “learning foundations”—are part of a draft set of competencies for all preschoolers released this month that includes comprehensive foundations for English-language development, literacy, mathematics, and social-emotional development.

Although every state and the District of Columbia has adopted, or is soon to adopt, academic standards for preschoolers, California officials say none has separate standards for preschool ELLs. One-fourth of California’s students in K-12 are English-learners, and for children ages 3 to 5 in the state, the proportion is 39 percent, according to the state department’s rationale accompanying the standards.

And because California educates about 1.6 million, or nearly a third, of the nation’s 5.1 million English-learners and often sets trends for the education of such students, the learning foundations are likely to be influential elsewhere, should they be approved.

State officials are accepting comments on the proposals until the end of the month. After they are tweaked, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell is expected to approve them, and preschools receiving state money will be required to abide by them.

“It’s really about professional development” for teachers, said Gwen Stephens, the assistant director of the child-development division of the California Department of Education, explaining what the foundations will mean. “Teachers aren’t going to have to overhaul what they do, but what they do will be more purposeful—not taking out play but being more intentional about the use of play.” She added: “We don’t envision little desks and worksheets.”

Margarita Pinkos, the acting director of the English-language-acquisition office of the U.S. Department of Education, said she also believes California is likely the first state to have a separate set of standards for preschool ELLs, though the federal department doesn’t officially track the issue.

Maryland has included preschoolers with older children in a draft of English-language-development standards, but hasn’t provided such standards only for preschoolers. World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, a consortium of 15 states housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has created English-language-development standards for prekindergarten and kindergarten together.

Levels of Development

The proposed California foundations for English-language development spell out what children should be able to do in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The document gives general standards for each area, and specifies standards for “beginning,” “middle,” and “later” stages of learning English.

Language Ladder

Preschool English-language learners would be expected to use a variety of strategies at various levels to communicate, under California’s proposed “learning foundations.”

BEGINNING
Use a range of utterance lengths in the home language that is age-appropriate.
Example:
• Says in Chinese, “I like to go to the park to play on the slide and the swings.”

MIDDLE
Use two- to three-word utterances in English to communicate.
Examples:
• Says, “I want juice,” or “I want crackers,” or “I want apples” during snack time.

LATER
Increase utterance length in English by adding appropriate possessive pronouns, conjunctions, or other elements.
Example:
• Says, “I give it to her” or “I like the little one better,” while pointing to different props in the dramatic play area.

SOURCE: California Department of Education

For example, an English-learner initially might tell a story only in his or her native language. At the middle level, the child may start a story in English but finish it in his or her native language. At the later stage, the child may relay a narrative completely in English, but only in simple sentences.

All the standards are accompanied by more specific examples. A child’s story at the later stage, one example says, could be: “The pony was big. The pony flew. Flew up into the sky. Really, really high.”

The foundations for English-language development can be implemented in either a bilingual or English-only preschool classroom, said Michael Jett, director of the state’s child development division.

He noted that Proposition 227, a measure approved by voters in 1998 that curtailed bilingual education in the state, applies only to K-12 classrooms. At the same time, he said, the foundations take into account the fact that almost all preschool-age ELLs will attend a kindergarten where instruction is only in English. “We want our children to be prepared,” he said.

Mr. Jett said some states address the education of ELL pupils in some way in their preschool standards, but no state has a separate set of learning standards devoted to preschool ELLs.

‘Helpful Guidelines’

A number of educators and experts say English-language-development standards for preschoolers are a good idea.

“As long as people don’t view these as rigid markers, they can be helpful guidelines,” said Michael L. Lopez, the executive director of the National Center for Latino Child and Family Research, in Laytonsville, Md. “They help to remind practitioners of the complexities of language development, especially bilingual development.”

Scott Moore, the senior policy adviser for Preschool California, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to expand access to preschool, likes how the foundations overall are “research-based and developmentally appropriate,” and said it’s useful to have them for English-language development.

“Preschool can play a critically important role in helping children learn the language that their teachers are going to be speaking when they start school,” he said.

But Yolie Flores Aguilar, a member of the school board for the 708,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, said the other sets of competencies should also address the needs of ELL pupils.

“I’m afraid of repeating what we have in K-12” education, she said. “I can imagine there will be segments to the [preschool] day around literacy and numeracy that will be very mainstream in approach, and that approach has not been effective for these kids.”

Norman Yee, the vice president of the school board for the 55,000-student San Francisco Unified School District, is concerned about the lack of overlap between the foundations for literacy for all students and the set for English- language-development.

“The state, or somebody, has to say which one takes priority,” Mr. Yee said. “If nobody does that, English-language learners will be under both sets of foundations.”

Mr. Jett, of the state education department, said the foundations are open to revision and the department will develop a curriculum framework and professional development to accompany them.

Claude Goldenberg, an education professor at Stanford University, said the foundations would likely help teachers think about how children develop English. But he said they favor an English-only classroom rather than a bilingual one.

“There is no guidance for teachers teaching in a bilingual program where further development of Spanish is also a program goal,” Mr. Goldenberg said in an e-mail message. “It’s all about English acquisition.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as California Weighs Preschool ELL Standards

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