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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Every Teacher’ has to Help ELLs Meet Common Core Standards

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 19, 2018 26 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can we help English Language Learners meet the Common Core Standards?

In Part One, Kevin Jepson, Elizabeth Iwaszewicz, Dr. Heidi Pace, Cathy Beck, Gayle Westerberg and Julie Goldman contribute their thoughts. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Kevin, Elizabeth, Heidi, and Cathy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Tan Huynh, Stephaney Jones-Vo, Shelley Fairbairn, Bret Gosselin, Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart, Emily Phillips Galloway, Nonie Lesaux, Stela Radovanović, Pete Lawrence and Betsy J. Tregar offer their responses.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:

ELs don’t care about the curriculum framework schools use (ie: Common Core [CC], Advance Placement [AP], or International Baccalaureate [IB]), but they do care about how teachers make them feel.

All of these programs force ELs to take high-stakes tests and often link teachers’ performances to the results. In an effort to ensure that students achieve, the love of learning is drained from lesson planning to focus on test taking. If the only goal is to pass a test, then ELs will be disengaged by the lack of meaning in their studies. They don’t feel connected to learning out of context because life extends beyond a standardized test.

Repackaging Learning to Solve a Problem or Take Action

Instead, educators need to repackage the CC standards around learning content to solve problems or take actions based on beliefs. The best problems empower students to solve real problems connected to current events such as President Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the United States and Mexican border.

The unit might be focused on picking a stance and creating an infographic that supports it, which will then be sent to their respective Senators. Teachers should take an objective stance because their role is to develop students’ literacy and thinking skills to engage in the unit.

Reading to Learn

When learning is repackaged to create meaning, reading becomes a task to gather information that helps solve problems or to make informed decisions. ELs have to develop an understanding the opinions of both President Trump and those who oppose the wall. To do so, we need to help students find texts that provide multiple perspectives. We should guide students through reading a text once to develop a shared understanding, then have ELs return to the text to re-read for specific details.

For example, we might instruct ELs to find details that support an economic reason for or against the wall. The second reading develops a compulsory skill to pass CC’s standardized tests - close reading. Additionally, we can ask them to annotate their notes to develop further engagement with the text. Through this activity, ELs cultivate close-reading skills for a greater purpose than simply passing an exam. They read first to be informed, then to persuade.

Students are given time to debate the merits of each article. Talking about texts facilitates comprehension, develops critical thinking skills, and cultivates communication skills - all learning objectives of the AP, CC, and IB programs.

Arguing Through Writing

Now that ELs have a more informed opinion, they’re ready to prove their point through writing. Educators can help ELs write effectively by teaching them text structures. Every genre of writing (descriptive, sequential, cause-effect, compare, and argue) has a particular way of organizing information. In this instance, we can teach students the argument text structure to help them shape their pitch.

Following the argument structure, we might begin by asking them for their stance regarding the wall. This becomes their claim. We then ask them for three specific reasons. Next, we have them return to the text to find evidence that supports each reason. Evidence might consist of a story from an immigrant or statistics from a university study.

Because the ELs talked throughout the unit in support of or in opposition to the wall, they’re aware of the counter arguments made against their stance. We incorporate the counter argument in the text structure and follow up with the last and most persuasive argument to validate our position. We then complete the text structure with a final message that connects our stance related to the wall to something bigger than politics such as human rights, values, equality, or nationalism.

ELs can now take this text structure and write an argumentative essay, which is the focus on the CC writing assessment. But we want ELs to be prepared for a digital, modern life where they’ll be expected to create content, not just consume it - thus the motivation for them to create an infographic. The essay is important, but the infographic creates meaning and helps students take action.

Beyond Expectations

This mini-unit demonstrates how we repackaged the CC standards into learning skills and content to solve a problem and take actions. The CC standards are the ground floor of achievement, not the ceiling. They serve as the launching pad that propels ELs into deeper exploration of a topic. In the pursuit of solving a problem, ELs learn skills that not only help them pass a standardized test, but also morph into people who are prepared to face future challenges. And that is when they will feel confident, engaged, and ready to take on the world.

Response From Stephaney Jones-Vo & Shelley Fairbairn

A veteran ESL teacher of K-12 and adult English learners, Stephaney Jones-Vo has also sponsored multiple refugee families and individuals. Her cultural insights are especially evident in recent Corwin publication, Engaging English Learners Through Access to Standards: A Team-based Approach to Schoolwide Student Achievement (2016) which provides useful scenarios and tables detailing the impacts of various student characteristics on K-12 instructional and assessment practices.

In her role as Associate Professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Shelley Fairbairn oversees the English as a Second Language teaching endorsement program and teaches courses that address intercultural communication for teachers and general teaching and assessment. Her K-12 and postsecondary teaching experiences informed the collaborative writing of Engaging English Learners Through Access to Standards: A Team-based Approach to Schoolwide Student Achievement (2016) with Stephaney Jones-Vo:

Since the Common Core Standards are designed to reflect outcomes for non-ELs who are performing on grade-level and have likely stepped through previous grades in consecutive order, teachers must apply Three Inclusive Principles (TIP) to promote English Learners’ access to the Common Core Standards.

1.) Teachers of ELs must know their students in order to provide them access to the Common Core Standards. More than a shared classroom environment or a specific class period, providing access means that ELs must receive understandable instruction and be held accountable to meet differentiated linguistic expectations. In order to achieve this, teachers of ELs must know their students by analyzing their EL-specific data, and match instruction, materials, and expectations accordingly.

2.) All teachers of ELs must provide scaffolding and supports in their contexts to enhance access to Common Core curriculum. Essential supports such as videos, pictures, academic sentence frames, graphic organizers, and peer interactions help ELs to build content knowledge and English skills simultaneously, when differentiated according to students’ language development levels.

3.) In an age of standards-based grading, teachers of ELs must differentiate expectations for the demonstration of content knowledge while learning English. For example, while an EL might be on grade level in a given subject due to previous schooling, her/his ability to demonstrate understanding in English is likely constrained. As a result, the evaluative process must factor in the developmental nature of language learning. ELs who clearly can demonstrate content knowledge while still learning language must not be penalized for the developing English skills.

Viewing the linguistic development trajectory as a normal part of learning, and implementing these Three Inclusive Principles allows teachers to engage English Learners in Core content instruction in all classrooms. Through data-based differentiation, all teachers have the capability to help ELs meet the Common Core Standards.

Response From Bret Gosselin

Bret Gosselin is currently a high school ESL teacher in North Texas where he lives with his wife and children:

Throughout my career, I have repeatedly been told by teachers all the things that their ELLs can’t do. Many educators tend to see these students as academically deficient and thus simplify their learning to a level they feel could comfortably be completed and “passed.” Taking such liberties with ELLs, however, is not only unethical but in many cases, illegal. The question that remains, then, is how to maintain the cognitive demands outlined in the curriculum, while simultaneously meeting very real and language development needs.

To illustrate, I want to examine an objective from algebra in the Common Core to see what a rigorous, grade-level target looks like:

Interpret functions that arise in applications in terms of the context:

“For a function that models a relationship between two quantities, interpret key features of graphs and tables in terms of the quantities, and sketch graphs showing key features given a verbal description of the relationship.”

In order for a student to reach the goals set by this objective, they must recognize a functional relationship taking place; interpret how quantities affect each other; and demonstrate a high degree of understanding by creating a graph that accurately depicts such a relationship

With such challenging objectives in blended classrooms, many teachers struggle to meet these outcomes with all students. The following lesson sequence models how rigor with true language accommodation is actually attainable, and can be adapted to all content areas beyond the math example shown.


This is one of the most critical aspects of the learning process that is most widely underutilized. If students are to perform the processes and behaviors described in our objectives, we must provide them opportunities to determine the significance of what they are learning for themselves. In many cases, we are doing that for them. To demonstrate, a teacher could begin by providing a problem and graph like this one from Khan Academy.

From there, the teacher would allow the students to independently to record their initial interpretations and observations using guiding questions:

-Which quantity seems to control the other? How?

-Why is the graph not starting at 0? What does that mean?

This gives ELLs time to think, translate, and make meaning on their own. They can then share their ideas with a small group and come to a mutual understanding of the concept. Speaking stems would be an appropriate support to aid this discussion.

Independent Learning

Now that students have the concept nailed down, the temptation for the teacher may be to present the accompanying algebraic process through lecture. While that isn’t always a bad choice, it can prove problematic if the teacher is trying to reach their ELLs who may not be linguistically prepared for this.

An effective alternative is the use of text sets that allow students to learn for themselves. Tan Huynh outlines this strategy fully in his article “The Perfect Package: Creating a Language-Rich Text Set.” The idea here is to allow students multiple resources by which to make sense of a topic independently. This can take the form of infographics, videos, short articles and even a small group “station” with the teacher. To facilitate this experience, expectations can be set for which terms and concepts the students need to study as well as how students will record their findings. By providing instruction in this format, the teacher is also able to offer genuine language supports to their ELLs more freely.


When students are learning on their own, it is crucial that they come together to ensure any gaps in understanding are filled in. Ideas can be posted to a common location and be collectively evaluated for accuracy. Through this type of sharing, ELLs can both enhance their language skills while simultaneously establishing their place in the classroom as valued contributors, addressing the problem of lowered expectations for these learners.


When effectively scaffolding, the problem of assessment becomes easier to solve. The ELL is now able to apply what they have learned in meaningful contexts. This can range in simplicity from working out complex math problems to creating a product requiring the use of their new skills. When genuine accommodations to language (not rigor) are present, an assessment of skills is now justifiable as each child has been given the opportunity to learn at high levels.

When a lesson is intentionally designed to let all students learn for themselves, it allows ELLs to demonstrate grade level learning while acquiring more English. When we compartmentalize our classrooms, inevitably someone will suffer from less than our best. If we are not taking advantage of opportunities to have all our students interact and learn from each other, I argue that it is all students who will.

Response From Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart

Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart is Assistant Professor of Reading Education at Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of Understanding Adolescent Immigrants: An Extraordinary Discourse for Extraordinary Youth (Lexington Books) and Keep it R.E.A.L! Relevant, Engaging, and Affirming Literacy for Adolescent English Leaners (Teachers College Press):

We hear the label English Language Learners (ELL) and immediately think of these students’ need to acquire English as an additional language. Yes, they certainly do need to learn English for social, academic, and perhaps even survival purposes. In school settings, we often have a myopic focus on ELLs’ necessity to master disciplinary content and give evidence of their learning, all in English.

Yet, I submit that in order to most effectively support ELLs in meeting the Common Core Standards, or any academic standards, we first need to see their strengths.

Yes. Even before we consider their need to learn English, we need to name and acknowledge the skills, knowledge, and assets they bring with them into our schools.

We need to see them as more than English Language Learners.

In 2012, I conducted my dissertation research with high school students who had attended U.S. schools for one-two years and were (in)appropriately labeled as ELLs. However, as I spent months studying their lives--their sophisticated use of language and literacy, negotiation of challenging circumstances, and adept application of skills for upward mobility--I realized that to only see them as ELLs was completely missing who they were. In fact, a narrow view of the need to learn English as their defining feature only hindered their classroom learning, critical engagement with academic content, and creative expression of their knowledge and unique perspectives.

Indeed, viewing them as only ELLs, obstructed their English language learning.

I began to realize that their label positioned them as students who lacked something--English language. Furthermore, the assessments that measured them assumed they were monolingual, monoliterate, monocultural, and mononational. That is, the standards merely encompassed students’ abilities to use speak, listen, read, and write in one language (English), within the cultural norms of the majority group, while understanding content through one national perspective.

However, after study these young people, I concluded that they were multilingual, multiliterate, multicultural transnationals who regularly made meaning in multimodal ways. In other words, they spoke throughout their day at school, home, church, and work in both English and Spanish. They also read and wrote for academic (for school), economic (for work), and social (for networking) purposes, using different registers of Spanish, emerging English, as well as multimodal symbols to send and receive meaning. Illustrating multicultural skills, these youth regularly crossed borders by negotiating meaning across cultural groups. Further, they often acted as language brokers, or translators, for family, commercial employees, service industry providers, and other students. Most notable, they were transnationals with cosmopolitan knowledge of our complex and interconnected world from their experiences living in and maintaining ties to more than one country.

Yet what I learned, seemed to be hidden in their schools--the sophisticated nature of their language use, demonstrations of pride in their rich cultural heritages, survival skills learned during their migration journeys (some as unaccompanied minors), and the way they moved ahead at work to provide a better life for themselves and their families.

Consequently, I believe we must learn about our students who acquiring English as an additional language to name and acknowledge their knowledge and skills. How does this affect students’ academic performance as measured by the Common Core Standards? Once we know their strengths, we can leverage them for classroom learning.

For example, knowing your will help you make connections from their prior knowledge to the curriculum. They often bring very unique perspectives into our classrooms that can enhance the learning of all students. Their lived experiences might bring nuanced understandings to abstract concepts--liberty, justice, allegiance, democracy.

Empower emergent bilingual students to use all of their linguistic resources to learn and create, particularly with technological resources, other students, or family members. This will give them full access to the content while continually developing their multilingual skills.

As you adopt this stance, learning from and with your students, you might begin to see them as more than ELLs. Maybe you will see them as multilinguals who bring their multicultural, transnational, and global perspectives into your learning community.

Response From Emily Phillips Galloway, Nonie Lesaux, & Stela Radovanović

Emily Phillips Galloway is assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. Phillips Galloway’s research, which includes quantitative and qualitative studies, explores the relationships between academic language development and reading skill in adolescents with a focus on English Learners and has been featured in Reading Research Quarterly, Applied Psycholinguistics and Reading and Writing.The fundamentals and lessons learned from this work are featured in a recent book entitled, Advanced Literacy Instruction in Linguistically Diverse Settings: A Guide for School Leaders, co-authored with Nonie Lesaux and Sky Marietta.

Nonie K. Lesaux, PhD, is Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard University. Her research focuses on promoting the language and literacy skills of today’s children from diverse linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds, and is conducted largely in urban and semi-urban cities and school districts. Lesaux’s research appears in numerous scholarly publications, and its practical applications are featured in various formats, including recent books: Cultivating Knowledge, Building Language: Literacy Instruction for English Learners in Elementary School (Heinemann, 2015) and Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills: A Guide for Leaders in Linguistically Diverse Schools (Guilford Press, 2016).

Stela Radovanović is Director of ELL Secondary Language and Literacy Development, Department of English Language Learners and Student Support, New York City Department of Education:

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS, 2010) (and the broader standards-based accountability movement) acknowledge the changing role of literacy in today’s knowledge-based society and economy. That is, all students--including English Learners (ELs)-- must develop the ‘advanced literacy’ skills needed to access knowledge and participate in its generation (Lesaux, Phillips Galloway & Marietta, 2016). Helping students to develop these skills is not only about achieving the Standards; it is also a matter of equity. After all, language is a powerful tool for contesting and transforming our communities and society. For educators, developing students’ advanced literacy skills means aligning literacy instruction and intervention with what a decade of research in urban schools serving large numbers of linguistically-diverse students tells us: it’s not blending sounds together to read words that poses the greatest challenge to the majority, especially in the middle grades; it’s understanding the academic language of texts that is a primary impediment to accessing curricular concepts and content, and which translates to difficulty in achieving the Standards.

Many English Learners who have participated in U.S. schooling for multiple years are skilled in using the English language needed for everyday conversation. Let’s keep in mind, however, that this is not the same language used in academic texts. While it was once the case that the texts--often narratives--used in elementary-grade classrooms were focused on familiar topics, the standards-based reform movement has led to a shift in the types of texts used at all grade levels. Today, students are frequently exposed to non-fiction texts--biographies, newspaper articles, social studies informational texts--and must be given the tools to navigate the academic language that these texts contain.

You may be asking, “What academic language skills do my students need to tackle the complex texts that are part of standards-aligned curriculum?” In my own research, I examine the development of academic language in middle graders. Specifically, I focus on students’ mastery of ‘core’ academic language, or the language features that are frequently found in all academic texts across content areas (words such as, ‘however’ and ‘therefore,’ that connect sentences in text; sentence structures, such as embedded clauses and noun phrases, that help writers to pack information; and text structures used by writers to organize paragraphs and texts). In textbooks and instructional materials, core academic language surrounds the ‘key words.’ Key words are taught because they are the central concepts or ideas in a unit. Core academic language forms, in contrast, are rarely taught explicitly, although they aid readers in making sense of how ideas in a text are connected.

At all grade levels, teaching academic language means much more than teaching word lists or bolded words in a text; instead, students need to have ample opportunity to generate questions, formulate ideas and form an opinion as part of participating in classrooms that are rich language environments --where academic conversations are the norm rather than the exception. This instruction is most often rooted in a content-rich text or set of texts. It is vital that all students, including those English Learners that may be reading below grade level, have opportunities to read segments of grade-level texts that contain age-appropriate ideas conveyed via academic language. After all, struggling readers are not struggling thinkers. Additionally, this instruction should provide students with a purpose for using the knowledge and language gleaned from reading. Indeed, reading to prepare for a discussion with peers, to produce a blog post on the topic, to collaboratively write a lab report or to author a short argumentative essay in preparation for a class debate makes meaningful the task of reading challenging texts and acquiring new language. Finally, this instruction resists the temptation to focus superficially on meeting the Standards; instead, it is rooted in a desire to foster the skills in our students to acquire and generate knowledge.

Response From Pete Lawrence

Pete Lawrence acts as a supervisor to new teachers in the STEP program at Stanford. He partners with the NBRC National Board Resource Center at Stanford in its efforts to develop teacher excellence:

Students are more likely to be excited about skills and content when they see direct and personal connections to class materials and activities. An under-used/appreciated tool in making these connections involves students seeing how class sessions and assignments affect their thinking and responses.

When using this approach, the year begins with an attitude inventory, a series of statements requiring a response of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. Each student generates an essay describing beliefs and views of human nature, the government, and society. Every lesson, homework assignment, and project involves and connects to statements in the inventory, and students regularly update their original responses using evidence from lessons and experiences. The year ends with students writing an essay tracing their philosophical journey tracking affirmed and changed views using history as a tool.

The inventory provides opportunities to focus on individual growth:

It works with each student’s level of thinking and development and lessens some of the problems of diverse student abilities in the class.

It prompts students to see how they change as a result of their study and work.

Students become more confident of their positions by being able to cite specific events and use evidence appropriately to back opinions.

Students become less fearful of perceiving and taking on complex issues and multiple factors involved in decision making.

Students see neutral responses as valid. A person may not have enough information to assert a stance or can see reasons to both agree and disagree. The question, “What more do you need to know to make a choice?” becomes relevant.

The inventory offers opportunities to enhance daily lessons:

For example, start a class by having students refer to responses to several statements. and return to those statements at the end of class.

Connect statements to specific events, people, and choices:

* Where are you more Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian?

* How would a northerner and southerner in 1860 respond to _____?

* FDR decided to _____. How would he respond to statements ______?

* How would liberals/conservatives respond to _____?

* How does this help you place yourself on the political spectrum?

At the beginning of class, choose three students to note the relevance of particular statements as class progresses. At the end of class, return to the statements from the beginning of class and have these the three note-taking students report on their notes, and have a general class discussion/debrief where students update their own inventories.

(Download an attitude survey here)

Response From Betsy J. Tregar

Betsy J. Tregar, Ed.D. taught preschool, ESL and bilingual crisis intervention in Boston. She is now a Program Chair in a graduate ESL teacher prep program at Cambridge College:

Teachers and Schools.

In many schools, there is an assumption that the ESL teacher is responsible to prepare English learners for academic learning, and that once the students have learned sufficient English, they should be able to succeed in all-English classes. This often is not the case.

English learners often struggle to catch up in a new class. They may seldom ask questions, then fail the unit tests. The content teacher is not certain why, and may assume the ESL teacher over-estimated the students’ abilities.

An ESL teacher may observe a former ESL student in a history class and notice that the English Learner mumbles if the teacher calls on him, never raises his hand, and later hands in a messy paper. The ESL teacher may know that this student was on grade level in prior schooling in his first language, and was an active contributor in the ESL classes.

Both teachers want their students to succeed. Each one is trying hard, and both are frustrated.

Every teacher has to play a part in helping all students - including English learners - meet the common core state standards. Past national initiatives to encourage content and literacy/language teacher collaboration have failed, because content teachers have not seen themselves as language or literacy teachers. But the current increase in English learners means that we have to try again. English learners must be ‘college and career ready’. Neither content subject teachers nor ESL teachers can do it alone. We need to work together, exchange information, and combine forces.

School Support and Assessment.

A Massachusetts initiative is making inroads. All academic teachers of English learners must qualify for a SEI Endorsement to their educator license. They understand their role; how to use annual WIDA ACCESS test results to plan instruction; what best practices enable English learners to show their knowledge; and how to vary assessments so English learners can show content knowledge.

Massachusetts English learners are assessed annually using the WIDA ACCESS Test, so teachers share common information in discussing the academic and language progress of their students.

School-based performance evaluators have learned what to look for as they observe a teacher. Teacher preparation colleges include SEI in their programs, so newly licensed academic teachers have the SEI Endorsement.

Thanks to Tan, Stephaney, Shelley, Bret, Mary, Emily, Nonie, Stela, Pete and Betsy for their contributions!

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