Teaching Opinion

Response: Supporting ELLs in The Common Core Era

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 04, 2015 11 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, educators Wendi Pillars, Virginia Rojas, Debbie Zacarian, and Maria Montalvo-Balbed shared 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.

Today, Kathryn Haydon, Dr. Lindsey Moses, and Lori DiGisi contribute their thoughts. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Also, on January 16th, Education Week is sponsoring a Webinar titled The Language Of Math: The Common Core and English Learners.

Response From Kathryn Haydon

Kathryn P. Haydon is the founder of Ignite Creative Learning Studio and Sparkitivity. She designs innovative creative learning experiences for schools and individual students; works with teachers to deepen critical and creative thinking in the classroom; and has written and spoken widely on the topics of creativity, creative learning, and supporting creative and gifted students. She co-authored Discovering and Developing Talents in Spanish Speaking Students (Corwin 2012), and her current research centers around developing innovative creative learning infrastructures. Kathryn is a graduate of Northwestern University, and a master of science candidate in Creativity and Change Leadership at SUNY-Buffalo in New York. Follow the Sparkitivity column on Creativity Post:

Standards, curricula, and methodologies are always going to change. In the era of CCSS I believe that the essential piece is still the same, and good teachers know it: get to know the individual child from the standpoint of his strengths, interests, and motivations. Understand him not just based on his performance on content-related work, but as a full and complete person. For ELLs who haven’t yet grasped English, it’s doubly important to get to know them underneath the language barrier.

You might say, “Impossible! I teach middle school history and have 140 students daily. There’s no way I can get to know all of their interests and strengths.” But there is a way! The student interest inventory is an easy tool that will take you no more than 15 minutes of class.

Hand out surveys to your students at the beginning of the year and give them several minutes to fill them out. (Note: If you have students who do not speak English enough to complete the survey, ask another student to help translate during or after class.) Collect, glance over the surveys, and jot down any common themes that you see that you might be able to work into your curriculum to more deeply engage students. Then, place surveys in student files. If you have a child, an ELL, that seems to be struggling, pull out his or her interest inventory, and recall the strengths and interests. Pick one and use it as an entry point to engage, motivate, or create an analogy to something the student knows and loves.

As teachers, we must build on what students know, and who they are as individuals, in order to help them to learn and succeed. This is especially true for ELLs that have triple work to do as they learn a new culture, language, and content. Getting to a know a child in this way sends a clear and strong message that you care, and that can make all the difference.

Possible student interest surveys to use:

Select two pages most appropriate for your students from here

These would be good for older students

For more options, Google “student interest survey” or “student interest inventory” or make up your own!

Response From Dr. Lindsey Moses

Dr. Lindsey Moses is an assistant professor at Arizona State University in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She is a Heinemann author and professional development consultant who works with schools serving diverse populations. Her research and writing interests include examining effective instruction for supporting the language and literacy development of diverse learners:

The implementation of the CCSS has varied greatly across the country, particularly with instruction for ELLs. It is wonderful if the rollout of these standards in your school/district provides freedom to choose appropriate instructional techniques to support your ELLs (this is not the case everywhere). Assuming you have this freedom, there are many ways the school/administration can facilitate quality instruction for ELLs. I am responding to this question from an instructional support lens as opposed to a teacher evaluation/accountability lens. I think ideas surrounding instructional support best address the question of making sure ELLs are receiving quality education.

As research has documented, teachers have a significant influence on student achievement (Hattie, 2003). Therefore, ensuring quality services for ELLs begins with education, mentoring and professional development for teachers and administration. Investing time, energy and money into supporting teachers’ growth as professionals and developing a collaborative learning community provides an effective and immediate way of positively influencing ELLs’ educational experiences. School/administration can encourage quality instruction by understanding and helping teachers understand the following:

  • Theories of second language acquisition
  • All teachers are responsible for supporting ELLs, not just ESL or Language Arts teachers
  • Research-based practices for supporting simultaneous language and content development
  • Teacher roles for supporting ELLs at various stages of language proficiency
  • Expectations for ELLs’ expressive and receptive language functions at various stages of language proficiency
  • Language functions that correspond with the standards in order to design curriculum, instruction and assessment with appropriate developmental, linguistic and content scaffolds

The Framework for English Language Proficiency Development Standards corresponding to the CCSS and Next Generation Science Standards (CCSSO, 2012) could be used as a starting point for discussions about goals for supporting language and content development for ELLs in relation to the CCSS. As teachers and administration broaden their understanding about ways to support ELLs, they should design curriculum and assessments that reflect this new understanding.

No single program will address all the needs of the diverse learners found in classrooms today, hence the need for education, mentorship and professional development related to language acquisition and effective instruction for ELLs. I recommend utilizing formative assessments to monitor on-going instruction and growth within the local context of the classroom/school as teachers implement instructional techniques from the professional development, collaborative discussions and curriculum design. Essentially, the best way to ensure quality education for ELLs is to provide quality education and support for teachers working with ELLs.

Response From Lori DiGisi

Lori DiGisi, Ed.D., is the ELA Department Head at Fuller Middle School in Framingham Massachusetts, who has recently completed the Rethinking Equity for English Learners Administrator’s Course. She has worked for 12 years in Framingham, learning more about her students each year. She represented Massachusetts on the CCSS Committee and currently serves as a Board Member for the International Reading Association:

Under Key Design Considerations in the CCSS, the writers state, “The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening and language be a shared responsibility within a school.” According to a white paper written by the CCSS Committee of the International Reading Association, “The CCSS require equal outcomes for all students, but they do not require equal inputs. Vary the amounts and types of instruction provided to students to ensure high rates of success.” (p.4). District and school leaders need to provide resources so that teachers can design lessons that meet the needs of diverse learners, including English learners.

At the district level, it is the responsibility of administrators and teachers who are writing or choosing curriculum, to identify appropriate scaffolds within the lessons for diverse learners. Including ESL/ELD teachers on curriculum teams is critical to building these scaffolds into the written curriculum. Understanding Language, has created a variety of curriculum resources. Ultimately, it is the teachers who know their students, who bring opportunities for language development into their instruction. As teachers plan lessons, the WIDA Can Do Descriptors provide differentiated guidance for each level of English proficiency. These descriptors help teachers know what types of activities they can incorporate into their instruction, helping students with varying levels of English access the curriculum. English learners need opportunities to grapple with complex text, but they also need to build background knowledge through images, video clips, and texts, in order to access content.

At the school level, building leaders can conduct learning walkthroughs with ESL/ELD staff. Identifying strategies and materials that teachers are using successfully to support English learners, and sharing that data with the staff, highlights expertise that exists within the building. This promotes a shared understanding of what each teacher can do to support English learners and create classrooms where all voices are heard, and all students benefit.

Responses From Readers

Dan Rothstein:

Thanks for posting this very important question. There’s a great article in the Nov. issue of Educational Leadership on “Fostering English Learners’ Confidence” by Bondie, Gaughran and Zusho. Interesting concept of “Why Routines Revolutionize Learning.” Laurie Gaughran has also used the Question Formulation Technique effectively to help SIFE students (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) develop critical thinking abilities.

Diane Mora, ELL Instructional Specialist:

There is something fundamentally wrong with this question. It implies that teachers are somehow at a disadvantage because of having ELLs in the classroom. Standards don’t exist for teachers to meet them, standards exist to ensure that all students receive instruction that enables students to learn content sufficient to be competent and productive citizens, to have choices about college and career, and to become empowered, life long learners.

Shouldn’t the question be “How can teachers equitably support ELLs in showing mastery of common core standards in an English-only education environment?” To that question, I would answer:

1) Advocate for and develop multilingual formative and summative assessments.

2) Advocate for and provide access to appropriate bi-lingual dictionaries, thesauri, and/or electronic translation tools in every classroom.

3) Differentiate instruction and assessments.

4) Create rubrics to support differentiation noted in number 3, above.

5) Keep expectations high for all students by creating a very clear model of what mastery of any given standard looks like. Knowing what mastery looks like enables a teacher to distinguish content mastery from language proficiency, and create a model from which to backward design appropriate instruction, learning tools, and assessments that focus on content mastery not language proficiency.

Please remember, teachers are not disadvantaged by having ELLs in the classroom, but any student in a classroom is disadvantaged when that student is not given the tools needed to access content productively and meaningfully, regardless of the content standard.

Thanks to Lindsey, Kathryn and Lori, and to readers, for their contributions!

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