Teaching Opinion

Response: ELLs & The Common Core - Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 02, 2015 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

An educator who wishes to remain anonymous asked:

The CCSS hold a big challenge for ESL teachers, but at the same time, give us the freedom to choose appropriate materials, strategies, etc. So my question is: How can the school/administration make sure that these ELLs are getting quality (services) education?

I covered a similar question two years ago, but the challenge of meeting Common Core standards while teaching English Language Learners is not going away.

Today, educators Wendi Pillars, Virginia Rojas, Debbie Zacarian, and Maria Montalvo-Balbed share their responses. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Debbie and Maria about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

Before I turn today’s column over to my guests, I’d like to share links to previous-related posts on this blog:

Ways To Try Using The CCSS With English Language Learners

This post includes responses from educators Diane Staehr Fenner; William and Pérsida Himmele; Debbie Arechiga; and Julie Dermody.

Common Core & ELLs -- Part Two

Along with comments from readers, this post features two special contributions: one from the Understanding Language team at Stanford and the other a joint response from educator/authors Maria G. Dove and Andrea Honigsfeld.

I’ve also collected additional resources at The Best Resources For Learning About Common Core Standards & English Language Learners.

Now, to guest responses:

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars has taught language learners in ESL/ EFL for 18 years, in grades K-12, both stateside and overseas. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory and serves on the leadership team for the Teacher Leadership Initiative as a cohort Facilitator:

Before considering how to address CCSS with ELLs, above all, invest in the time and effort to get staff and colleagues on the same page and realize each others’ strengths--because in-house support for curricular shifts is irreplaceable. Working together to understand the rationale behind CCSS and inviting dialogue about its implementation and desired impact for your school are crucial next steps for success.

Administrators, once discussion is on the table, your role is to encourage teachers to try new things, to take risks, and to veer from the “way it’s always been done.” If teachers don’t believe you have their backs, they’re going to default to their old norms, the comfort zone. Some aspects of CCSS will be considered “disruptive” with measures of learning not effectively determined by any multiple choice assessment. Transparency and support must be available. Teachers will feel an incredible pull between multiple choice testing results (aka, teaching to the test) vs recommended assessments based in writing, presentation, argumentation, and instructional strategies like document-based questioning or project-based learning.

For teachers new to CCSS, this may be a tremendous change. For others, not so much. The key point here is to delve into CCSS together, and support the deep exploration of each standard. Compare CCSS to the “old” standards and show them how much they’re already familiar with. Have honest discussions about areas of dissent, especially in light of the media onslaught. Having staff well-informed is priceless, particularly when they are the ones explaining it to parents.

Then take what’s new (may be different for each individual) and prioritize a focus area in each of a language learner’s domains--reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Emphasize the fact that each domain is represented for a reason, and that ALL learners will benefit from explicit instruction in each area. It’s important to keep scaffolded and differentiated instruction and assessment at the crux/ core of any discussion--specific examples of what scaffolding/ differentiating standards look like in action provide a valuable hook for teachers’ own practices. The more grades and proficiency levels exemplified, the better.

Discuss ways to emphasize explicit vocabulary instruction and what literacy looks like in all content areas. Then, together, in grade level teams or content areas, plan as many ways as possible for students to generate knowledge and express what they know. Discuss what success will look like for this work, and create common feedback and grading plans.

Having this type of CCSS foundation among your staff, while fostering the relationships so necessary for collaboration among specialists and content teachers, is critical to the success of CCSS--whether it’s for ELLs or non-ELLs.

The thing is, taking the time to learn what CCSS is, how its implementation can benefit your students, and working as a school team to develop common approaches for instruction, output, and assessments, are all investments that demand time, thoughtful intent, and a holistic vision. No one said it would be easy, but you certainly can’t expect teachers to go this one alone and get it right.

Response From Virginia Rojas

Virginia Rojas is an ASCD Faculty member who conducts professional training on effective programs and strategies for English language learners from preschool through grade 12. Using the Understanding by Design® framework, Rojas works with teachers to design high-challenge, high-support learning experiences to simultaneously strengthen English language proficiency and academic achievement:

A positive outcome of Common Core implementation is that the question of how - and not if - we include English learners is receiving careful attention. The fact that they are expected to attain the same rigorous standards as their English-proficient peers is a first step toward ensuring access to a quality curriculum. Expectation is different than implementation, however, and those of us who work with teachers and school leaders need to address the challenges that face not only ESL teachers but every teacher and administrator responsible for educating English learners, whether they are a just a few scattered throughout a district or a majority population in several schools within a district.

The most challenging barrier for us has been that of the ‘fixed vs. growth mindset.’ Traditional ESL policies and programs originated from a deficit paradigm where English learners were perceived as a ‘problem’ requiring ‘fixing’ by specialists and, until that process was complete, were seen as incapable of achieving academically in grade-level classrooms. The ramifications of this perspective run deep: English learners are seen as the responsibility of ESL staff despite that fact that they spend most of their school day in mainstream classrooms, perceived as remedial and therefore referred to every intervention service in the school, and categorized as having a ‘disability’ due to the myths surrounding bilingualism and language acquisition.

We have been trying to overcome this age-old ‘language-as-problem mindset’ in order to move towards more inclusive classrooms whereby mainstream and ESL specialists collaborate in order to deliver one standards-based curriculum. Embracing a language-as-resource stance, we are building a shared understanding of what robust ESL instruction looks and sounds like in classrooms. Starting with a set of identified teacher expectations, we generated a list of instructional performance indicators we would expect to see in all classrooms. Teams of us engage in weekly classroom walkthroughs using this checklist to guide our debriefing questions:

What do the English learners do well? Why?

Where do English learners need to improve? How?

Nothing we have done before has been more compelling to strengthen our own efficacy than to focus on the instructional tools we can use so English learners can do what the standards are asking them to do. These walkthroughs have enabled us to generate responsive classroom conditions and to foster growth mindsets which inherently see English learners for what they will do in the future as opposed to what they seemingly can’t do in the present.

Response From Debbie Zacarian

Debbie Zacarian, Ed.D. is known for advancing student achievement with culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse populations. With three decades of combined experience as a school district leader, university faculty member, and educational service agency administrator, she founded Debbie Zacarian, Ed.D. & Associates. Her recent books include Mastering Academic Language: a framework for supporting student achievement; Transforming Schools for English learners: a comprehensive framework for school leaders; and The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners:

While there are many opinions about public education, one we all agree is that we want students to succeed. Success has been shaped by federal and state standards, including the Common Core State Standards [CCSS] and is commonly measured by examining students’ performance on state exams and graduation rates. Unfortunately, these show that some groups are doing very poorly, including many English learners [ELs].

While it’s important to ensure the validity, reliability, fairness and equity of these exams and understand why some aren’t graduating, it’s essential to consider what’s needed for ELs to learn and be active members of their learning communities. Unfortunately, the CCSS may lead us erroneously to assume that ELs can master English and academic content learning quickly regardless of their prior language, literacy and academic learning experiences. It’s critical that we understand language, literacy, and academic subject matter learning as a sociocultural, developmental, academic, and thinking-to-learn process and design, maintain, and ensure that programming is based on these understandings.

* Learning must be built from and connected to our students’ and families’ personal, social, cultural and world knowledge. It must also be meaningful and compelling so that students are engaged in the process. A helpful means for doing this is to connect learning to issues that are socially relevant to ELs. Also, collaborative learning is an important method because it reflects the collectivist cultures of many ELs and requires students to interact--an essential ingredient for language and content learning.

* Matching learning tasks to each EL’s stage/level of language and literacy learning is also critical. A means for doing this is ensuring that our state’s English language development standards correspond with all of the instruction we do and tasks that we assign.

* Building from students’ prior academic knowledge is essential as is simply described learning outcomes (the knowledge and skills that we expect students will demonstrate) and activities that students will do to learn. It’s also important to display these objectives and activities so that ELs can meaningfully refer to them continuously.

* Finally, teaching students how to think-to-learn should be fundamental to what we do. It requires that we explicitly teach and visually display them and students are given intentional and many practice opportunities to apply and use them.

When we infuse these four processes routinely across all we do, we can be more powerful and intentional in creating programming that works.

Response From Maria Montalvo-Balbed

Maria Montalvo-Balbed has developed and taught numerous professional development classes in the areas of diversity, cultural literacy development, and authentic engagement of English learners. She is a member of the ASCD Faculty and the Fisher and Frey Cadre, where she works with schools and districts to implement customized, research-based curricula and instructional strategies:

A quality education for English Language Learners (ELLs) requires that administrators are highly conscious of who their ELLs are.

For example, they need to know whether their ELLs are new immigrants or long term ELLs or very high functioning literate student s in their native language in order for them to be strategic about the program models that they put into place in their schools.

For example, does their population of ELLs require different instructional models in order to be able to accommodate various degrees of service to different populations based on their linguistic, academic and social needs?

Administrators need to be familiar with their own State guidelines. Most importantly, I think, administrators need to understand their own belief system of what literacy development in a second language is really all about and what type of programs would best fit their population of students. Professional Development is, of course, is at the core of developing teachers and school personnel who are intentional and strategic in educating ELLs. Check out the recently published Principal Survey.

Thanks to Wendi, Virginia, Debbie, and Maria for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including contributions from readers in Part Two.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch for Part Two in a few days....

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