ELLs and the Rush to Implement the Common Core

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 05, 2011 2 min read
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A lot of the talk during the webinar I moderated yesterday about improving literacy for English-language learners involved how to make sure those students aren’t “an afterthought” in districts’ overall instructional plans. An archived version of yesterday’s event is available at

The fact that ELLs often aren’t considered upfront when a district embarks on a new plan is one of the reasons so many of them are struggling in the nation’s schools, the guests said. And they’re hoping this won’t happen with implementation of the states’ common-core academic standards.

“Our districts are moving so quickly [in carrying out the common-core standards] that we are very worried they won’t wait for these other [English-language-proficiency] standards to be developed,” said Gabriela Uro, the manager of ELL policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools and a webinar guest. Uro’s presentation included an analysis of how the common-core standards differ from typical state standards in use now. For example, they have a stronger focus on reading informational text and less of an emphasis on reading literature than many states’ standards. She said her organization is banking on the fact that the common core will bring greater access to ELLs to the core curriculum, though she acknowledged it’s not a given.

The other guest, Diane August, a senior research scientist at the Center for Applied Linguistics, added that school districts need to be establishing protocols for how students at different levels of language proficiency function in meeting common-core standards.

August also stressed the importance of ELLs getting the chance to learn English through interaction with native-English speakers in classes. She said that one way this can be done is by pairing a proficient-English student with one who is less proficient for activities. Also, teachers can differentiate instruction by working with a small group of students who are less proficient on an activity while the rest of the students in the class are paired up for a learning task.

Uro said the districts that have been most successful with ELLs are those that make an explicit effort to include them in the overall program, with a coherent plan that is informed by the analysis of student data.

I’m looking for examples of middle schools or high schools that mix ELLs and non-ELLs in classrooms for core subjects, such as math, social studies, and science, and feel confident that everyone is getting access to grade-level content. If your school fits that profile, drop me a line.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.