Special Report

Language Demands to Grow for ELLs Under New Standards

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 23, 2012 10 min read
Kevin Marroquin, 9, left, who is from Honduras, looks around the ELL classroom while his classmate Deyvin Santos, also 9 and from Guatemala, gets help from their teacher, Laurinda Flores.
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Putting the common-core standards into practice in classrooms is a monumental change for teachers in the nation’s public schools, but for educators who work with English-language learners, the shifts in instruction are expected to be even more groundbreaking.

That’s because the new academic expectations for English/language arts and mathematics now adopted by all but four states require much more sophisticated uses of language than the mishmash of standards that have been in use for years across the states, say language-acquisition experts.

Grammar and vocabulary, for example, are often the primary focus of instruction for English-learners, as is teaching students to master certain language functions, such as suggesting or complimenting. Under the standards developed through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, however, instruction for English-learners will have to move far beyond those fundamental components of learning the language to include instruction on how to read and comprehend complex texts and to construct and convey arguments in writing across the content areas.

“For the most part, the profession has focused on bits and pieces of language,” said Aída Walqui, the director of teacher professional-development programs for WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research firm. “The common core is really going to require teachers to move from understanding language as form or function to understanding it as activity and giving students the supports they need to participate in academic activities using language.

“Vocabulary and grammar are still important, but at a lower level of importance,” she added. “That’s going to be a momentous change.”

This work will no longer be just the province of English-as-a-second-language teachers. The common core demands that teachers across all content areas teach literacy skills and the so-called “academic language” that is at the heart of their area of expertise.

As some states and districts—such as the Miami-Dade County school system in Florida, where 58,000 students are English-learners—push ahead on an early timeline with turning the standards into actual classroom instruction, language scholars, policymakers, advocates, and educators around the country continue to wrestle with important questions about how the language needs of English-learners will be met under the more-rigorous standards. A number of small- and large-scale efforts are taking shape to develop tools, resources, and instructional supports to help ensure that English-learners—the fastest-growing subgroup of students in the nation—will have the same access to the rigorous instructional levels of the common core as their peers who are native English speakers.

‘Academic’ vs. Everyday

Helping English-learners surmount the higher expectations of the common standards will depend largely on how well teachers get them to understand academic language, in contrast to the informal, everyday English they use outside the classroom.

One of the most far-reaching efforts under way to help teachers in that vein is a project led by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium, a group of 27 states that currently share a common set of English-language-proficiency standards. Using broad input from member states, language experts at WIDA are working to finalize a new edition of the consortium’s five English-language-development standards that will show clearly the connections between the content standards of the common core across every grade level and the academic language that will be necessary to teach across the varying levels of English proficiency.

For example, in 1st grade, the common core calls for pupils to “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.” The WIDA edition clearly spells out the grade-level vocabulary words and expressions that teachers should use—such as fact, paragraph, topic sentence, main idea, detail—while teaching that writing standard to students at all levels of English development. The WIDA edition also offers example topics that are pulled directly from a content standard in the common core and provide teachers with the types of support and scaffolding of academic language that they need depending on students’ proficiency.

The new edition is also more explicit in showing teachers the cognitive demands required of the core-content standards and how to adjust instruction in line with English proficiency.

“I am hoping that teachers can see how to differentiate their instruction, so that even if you are a level-one English-learner, your teacher is going to have the tools to help you access the content even though you don’t have much English,” said Margo Gottlieb, WIDA’s lead developer of common assessments for English-learners.

The final version of WIDA’s English-language-development standards should be published by June, and, starting in late summer, the group will hold four regional conferences around the country to provide training to teachers and school administrators on the new edition and its connections to the common standards.

WIDA is also leading the effort of a group of 28 states to design new assessments of English-language proficiency that will measure the language demands of the common standards.

Readying Exemplars

Another major initiative unfolding to craft an array of free instructional resources for teachers of English-learners is centered at Stanford University, where Kenji Hakuta, an education professor and an expert on English-learners, is co-chairing a project with María Santos, a former director of English-learner programs for the New York City school system, that will map out the English-language demands of the common standards. Ms. Walqui of WestEd is also on that team of experts.

Nine-year-old Denib Rojas, a recent arrival from the Dominican Republic, cuts out words that match a sound, then places them on a sheet of paper in a class for English-language learners at Riverside Elementary School in Miami. The Miami-Dade County, Fla., school system is pushing ahead to align ELL instruction with the common-core standards.

Earlier this month, the team launched its Understanding Language website with a dozen papers related to the common core and ELLs, along with a collection of practice and policy briefs that will address key issues.

The project is well-funded, with separate, $1 million grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Both foundations also support some areas of coverage in Education Week.)

Ms. Walqui said the group is hard at work devising “exemplars” to demonstrate to teachers what planning a unit for ELLs under the common core would look like. The first exemplar, she said, is scheduled to come out in June and will focus on middle school English/language arts, because “it’s a critical transition point for English-learners.”


The key for lesson planning is that the goals for students must be the same, Ms. Walqui said, but that there are multiple pathways for students of varying developmental levels of English to achieve the goals.

“The differentiation is within the activities or versions of the activities for students,” she said.

As the team publishes its exemplars, it will host webinars to train teachers, Ms. Walqui said.


The Council of the Great City Schools—which represents 67 urban school systems that are home to 30 percent of the nation’s English-learners—is involved in a multitude of initiatives to help its member districts implement the common standards as thoughtfully and carefully for ELLs as they do for students who are not learning English. The rigor of the common core is also providing a prime opportunity for some districts to improve their services for English-learners, said Gabriela Uro, the manager of English-language-learner policy and research for the Washington-based council.

“The English-language-learner programs in many of our districts need ramping up anyway, and now they understand that if you are going to improve those programs, you needn’t bother improving to the current standard,” Ms. Uro said. “You need to design it for the common core.”

For nearly two years, the council has offered sessions on the common core during the regular meetings Ms. Uro conducts with district directors of English-learner programs. Part of that has included bringing in language-acquisition experts to explain the implications of the new standards for ELLs and to show explicitly, for example, how to teach complex texts to English-learners.

The council is also coordinating a project to help districts provide information to parents of ELLs by writing guides on the new standards in Spanish, Chinese, and up to eight additional languages that are represented in urban school systems.

Ms. Uro is also serving on the steering committee of the Stanford project to keep “the district perspective in the mix and to make sure that we bring all of this down to a greater applicability at the district level.”

Districts Adapt

In the 345,000-student Miami-Dade school system, teachers and school administrators are largely forging ahead on their own to adapt the new standards for English-learners, said Karen Spigler, the administrative director of language arts/reading and bilingual education/world languages for the district. This year, the common-core standards are already implemented in kindergarten and 1st grade, with 2nd and 3rd grades on tap to begin in the fall, she said.

The district offered teams of teachers in those early grades a two-day training to focus on how to bridge instruction—especially in reading—from the state standards they have been using to the common core, Ms. Spigler said.

A major component of that training, she said, was explaining to teachers how they must incorporate more nonfiction into the curriculum and how to figure out ways to judge the complexity of those texts for students.

“Our early-grade teachers think about children reading ‘stories,’ but we have to shift our thinking to how do we prepare them to read a science piece or something about the environment,” she said.

Another big shift for teachers—especially those working with ELLs—will be letting students struggle with difficult texts.

“That’s huge,” Ms. Spigler said. “We have been very focused on making everything readable for kids, and they haven’t been as successful in independently reading difficult texts.”

The vast majority of English-learners in public schools are native Spanish-speakers. That reality has led to at least one large-scale, formal undertaking to translate the common standards into Spanish and provide “linguistic augmentation” to account for the differences between the two languages when necessary.

Called Common Core en Español, the project is being led by ELL practitioners in San Diego, in collaboration with San Diego State University, the California education department, and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

“We are staying very aligned with the common core. It’s the same content,” said Silvia C. Dorta-Duque de Reyes, a bilingual-services coordinator in the San Diego County office of education. “But because of the challenges that English-learners face in accessing academic content as they learn the language, one of the ways to differentiate for them is to provide the access through their primary language.”

The content standards have already been translated, Ms. Reyes said, and now the team is in the midst of providing the “augmentation” to show, for example, that in Spanish, students must learn accentuation and accent rules.

After a peer-review process over the summer, the goal is to publish the translations and make them available to all states and school districts by the end of the year, she said.

Ms. Reyes is also serving on a key panel of experts in California who are charged with revising the state’s English-language-development standards so that they are in line with the common core. And she is providing professional-development seminars to school administrators and leaders to help them prepare for implementation in another year or so.

Many frontline teachers in California, however, aren’t at the point of being trained for the shift to the common core. The new assessments for common core will roll out during the 2014-2015 school year.

“These teachers are still being held accountable for results on the [state test],” Ms. Reyes said.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Sophisticated Language Use Awaits ELLs in Standards


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