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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: “Unlocking the Common Core” With English Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 16, 2018 22 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

On one hand, you have Common Core Standards or, in states that don’t use Common Core, there are similar ones.

On the other hand, you have English Language Learners, who are supposed to learn everything in the Standards as well as learn a new language and culture at the same time.

This series will explore how we can make the two challenges connect....

Today, 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.

I happened to have co-authored (with Katie Hull) a book on this exact topic. You can find many free resources from our book, Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners, here.

You might also be interested in The “All-Time” Best Resources On English Language Learners & The Common Core, as well as previous posts in this column on Teaching English Language Learners and on Implementing The Common Core.

Response From Kevin Jepson

Kevin Jepson is a lead curriculum designer for EL Education. He was born in Korea and lived and worked abroad for 15 years in five countries. In the United States, Kevin has taught and designed curriculum and assessments for Kindergarten through adult language learners for the past 15 years:

Many English Language Learners and their teachers are taking a fresh approach to meeting the standards: They slow down for 20 minutes a day to talk about one compelling sentence at a time. The approach, called Language Dives, is transforming the way English Language Learners (ELLs) engage with language and content, paving the way for them to enjoy language complexity and achieve more than they think possible.

Language Dives originate from Lily Wong Fillmore and Charles J. Fillmore’s “Juicy Sentence” approach and research (“What Does Text Complexity Mean for English Learners and Language Minority Students?”). Rebecca Blum Martinez, a bilingual/ESL professor at the University of New Mexico, worked with the Fillmores in schools across the country and then, over the past two years, helped us at EL Education apply Juicy Sentences to our new K-5 Language Arts Curriculum. In our curriculum, we use the Juicy Sentence research to create the extensive sequence of carefully designed instruction we call Language Dives. As part of Language Dives, teachers:

  • Analyze a compelling sentence every day with ELLs. Teachers and students read and determine the gist of complex texts together in all subject areas. They then zero in on one critical sentence from a text--a sentence that is key to the overall meaning and purpose of the text and that contains language that students need to investigate, such as the language described by the Common Core standards. They spend 10 to 20 minutes daily figuring out why the author chose the specific words and phrases in that sentence. They ask questions and build on each other’s ideas to understand how this academic language enabled the author to communicate for a specific purpose, whether to persuade, entertain, inform, or simply show relationships between ideas. These are the very same purposes as those described by college- and career-ready standards.

  • Promote productive and equitable conversation among students. ELLs in particular need frequent verbal interaction, and Language Dives are an ideal environment for these interactions. Teachers can turn the conversation over to ELLs during Language Dives using graduated conversation cues, such as those suggested by Cathy O’Connor and Sarah Michaels in Talk Science Primer. The goal is to support all students, regardless of ability, to have rich conversations in which they have time to think, learn to express their thinking, deepen their thinking, actively listen to others’ ideas, and build upon one another’s ideas.

  • Build structured opportunities for students to “play” with language. Together, teachers and students develop a curiosity for how English works, all in the service of literacy. Students learn how to use parts of speech effectively and what a complete, syntactically sound sentence is, for example, by breaking a sentence into “chunks” that contain academic language structures, such as noun phrases or prepositional phrases. They move the chunks around like a puzzle to alter the word order, and they substitute alternative words and phrases.

  • Design tasks that allow students to think, talk, and write using the language structures and content in their “juicy” sentence. Using supports such as sentence frames, teachers model how students can transfer the academic English they’ve discussed in the Juicy Sentence to their own speaking and writing.

  • Support learners from all levels of language proficiency in discussing these sentences. Juicy Sentence conversations are critical for ELLs, but also for Language Minority Students. Limiting learners who have less language ability to reading simplified or leveled readers and only answering comprehension questions usually stalls their progress. But native and proficient English speakers benefit as well. Trusting that at- or above-level learners already know how English works can mask rich areas for growth.

During each Language Dive, students embark on a “deconstruct-reconstruct-practice” routine. So, for example, consider what a Language Dive might look and feel like for this compelling sentence for Grade 5, from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

Teachers support the routine by breaking the sentence down into smaller chunks:

Everyone|has the right|to own property alone|as well as|in association with others.

  1. Deconstruct: Students grapple with the meaning and purpose of each chunk, perhaps sketching or playfully acting out the chunk to support their understanding.

For this sentence, teachers might cue student conversation with question such as:

  • “How can you say this sentence in your own words?”
  • “How can you say as well as in your own words?”
  • “Can you figure out why the authors wrote as well as?”

  1. Reconstruct: Students reassemble the chunks like a puzzle into their original order, and also rearrange them into possible sentence variations. They talk about how the sentence adds to their understanding of the text or lesson objectives.

Students can create two sentences that have the same meaning as the original sentence. And, in this case, teachers might ask:

  • “What if we replaced as well as with and? How would that change the meaning?”
  • “How does this sentence add to your understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?”

  1. Practice: Students use the chunks in their own speaking and writing and transfer the structures to future classroom tasks.

From this sentence, students might use the language structure as well as to talk and write about their own lives and the curriculum topic (human rights), with support such as a sentence frame if necessary:

  • “Everyone has the right to _____ as well as “

Language Dives help demystify college- and career-ready standards--as well as state language proficiency standards for ELLs--by allowing students to investigate how writers use language to master their craft. The Fillmores report great success from Juicy Sentence work: in New York, for example, more ELLs passed the state English language proficiency test, and many of them scored higher than non-ELLs on the English Language Arts test. I, myself, have observed how analyzing one sentence at a time can make language learning less overwhelming for ELLs. In the process, students begin to lead the conversations in their emerging roles as inquirers, experts, and collaborators.

I’ve heard reticent students find their voice, rising from their seats to gleefully but respectfully disagree, for example, about how when works and what it means, or explaining why authors add details to sentences. Just a few weeks into Language Dives, students begin asking their own questions about how academic English works, owning their own process of inquiry (e.g., seventh-graders asking “What if we replace as though with even though?”). They are fully engaged in language play, barely containing their joy as they act out meaning (e.g., third-graders giggling as they look admiringly at one another to act out an interaction between Peter Pan and Solomon Caw). Students have revelations about English syntax, grabbing hold of a sentence chunk to rearrange it and create new meaning. Perhaps most important, they are consistently transferring their new academic language to their own speaking and writing.

In short: Language Dives not only equip students with the language they need to meet the standards, but they also have the potential to turn quiet, passive students into curious, empowered, and more proficient communicators.

Response From Elizabeth Iwaszewicz

Elizabeth Iwaszewicz is a Teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District in San Francisco, California and is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

The key to unlocking the Common Core with our ELLs is giving the gift of oral language. Establishing a positive culture of safety and respect with clear norms is the first step. My students use hand motions (Kindergarten version: “Ears are listening, brain is thinking, eyes are looking, mouth is quiet, hands and feet are still.”) as they verbally review the listening norms and talk moves prior to any oral language activity for the first several months of the year.

Oral language is developed, as with any skill, slowly and systematically. I pair my ELLs with English speakers. We have partner questions and sentence starters placed front and center for all to refer to. The questions or talk moves are repeated and reviewed until they become rote in conversations, inquiries and investigations. Once specific questions or phrases are used regularly, we add more while delving deeper into inquiry, challenging and supporting our decisions through evidence. We practice the talk moves throughout all the subject areas. I challenge the students to remember what their primary or rug partner say and to paraphrase it to their secondary or 2nd set partner. This reinforces listening skills, while practicing effective talk practices. By using a two set partner turn and talk system children learn to listen and paraphrase what was shared with them. I introduce this as a memory game in the beginning of the year so that they are challenged and eager to listen carefully.

One benefit of focusing on oral language development in the classroom is that the students’ writing improves as well. This added bonus became clear the first year I focused intently on academic discourse. My ELLs were able to put pencil to paper with purpose since they had heard, spoke and paraphrased thoughts before attempting to write. Previously, most ELLs just wanted to copy something off the board. Now, they are eager to record their thoughts and findings using evidence after having our classroom academic conversations. The Common Core standards are within reach for our ELLs if academic discourse becomes the norm in our classrooms throughout the day. Try it and your students will blossom socially, emotionally and academically!

Response From Dr. Heidi Pace & Cathy Beck

Catherine Beck currently serves as Director of Schools for Cheatham County Schools in Tennessee. She is the co-author of “Leading Learning for ELL Students,” published by Routledge. You can connect with her on Twitter at @cathypetreebeck.

Heidi Pace is the former superintendent of Summit County Schools in Colorado. She currently teaches in higher education. She is the co-author of “Leading Learning for ELL Students,” published by Routledge:

Helping ELLs meet the Common Core Standards requires individual student assessment, extensive teacher training with accountability, and incorporation of the English Proficiency Standards. To begin this work, teachers must determine at what level each ELL student is performing. The backgrounds of ELL students vary greatly. The level of schooling each student has completed will dictate what interventions are most appropriate. For example, a student entering the American school system with little formal education, may need significant focus on background knowledge. This will, of course, depend on the home environment and the students’ acquired “funds of knowledge,” the knowledge and resources students bring to the classroom from their home environment (Luis Moll). Students who enter our classrooms with an uninterrupted education may have attained similar conceptual knowledge as their native English speaking peers, allowing them to make immediate connections to content. Additionally, ELLs whose native languages have common cognates with English can associate their native vocabulary to English. Scaffolding the learning begins with knowing where each student is functioning along the continuum of learning English.

It is not only essential to know at what level each ELL student is performing, but it is equally important to determine the level of teacher knowledge and skills in instructing ELL students. To support ELLs in their success with Common Core, every teacher must be a language teacher. Too often, schools have thrust the learning of ELLs solely unto the shoulders of ELL teachers. It is imperative that all teachers hold themselves accountable to meeting the needs of ELLs. This means school districts must offer extensive professional development so that teachers have the skills and resources required to teach ELLs. Once teachers have initial training, offering language coaches to co-teach and co-plan classes is a powerful model for ongoing professional development.

A key component of teacher professional development is the English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards. The English Language Proficiency standards, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, “highlight and amplify the critical language, knowledge about language, and skills using language that are in college-and-career-ready standards and that are necessary for English language learners (ELLs) to be successful in schools” (ELP Standards, p.13). There are ten standards:

  1. Construct meaning from oral presentations and literary and informational text through grade-appropriate listening, reading, and viewing
  2. Participate in grade-appropriate oral and written exchanges of information, ideas, and analyses, responding to peer, audience, or reader comments and questions
  3. Speak and write about grade-appropriate complex literary and informational texts and topics
  4. Construct grade-appropriate oral and written claims and support them with reasoning and evidence
  5. Conduct research and evaluate and communicate findings to answer questions or solve problems
  6. Analyze and critique the arguments of others orally and in writing
  7. Adapt language choices to purpose, task, and audience when speaking and writing
  8. Determine the meaning of words and phrases in oral presentations and literary and informational text
  9. Create clear and coherent grade-appropriate speech and text
  10. Make accurate use of standard English to communicate in grade appropriate speech and writing (ELP Standards, p.16).

Thus, to help ELL students access Common Core, begin with the individual student. From there assess the readiness for each teacher to be a language teacher, providing coaching and requiring accountability. Finally, incorporate the ELP standards to ensure that the appropriate transitions to both language and content occur. These three steps will assist teachers and schools in ELLs achieving success with the Common Core Standards.

Response From Gayle Westerberg

Gayle Westerberg is the former principal of a Dual Language/International Baccalaureate (IB) elementary school. She is the co-author with Leslie Davison of An Educator’s Guide to Dual Language Instruction - Increasing Achievement and Global Competencies, K-12. Currently, Gayle is an IB coordinator at a dual language school in Colorado:

While high stakes testing associated with the Common Core Standards is loaded with barriers for English language learners to demonstrate their learning, the tenets of the Common Core Standards offer opportunities for ELLs to access content. We can help ELLs by paying attention to the Common Core key shifts in the English language arts and for teaching literacy across the content areas.

All Teachers are Literacy Teachers

Common Core Standards foster the idea that literacy development is a shared responsibility. This transdisciplinary approach to learning also supports the belief that to develop deep, meaningful, connections across the curriculum and throughout the school day provides opportunities for reinforcement of language and understanding of content. Professional development for all staff to create transdisciplinary units incorporating the common core standards is necessary along with training for all teachers in how to scaffold learning in literacy through content areas in social studies, science and technology. The Literacy Design Collaborative, https://ldc.org/, is one source that offers examples and strategies for cross-disciplinary learning based on the Common Core Standards with exemplary modules and tasks available for K-12.

Informational Text and Text-dependent Questioning

The shift to increasing informational text for all students is paired with the call for decreasing the volume of reading by emphasizing shorter selections with deeper investigations of the selected text. While expectations are high and students need to handle primary source documents that are challenging, the need for students to read materials at their own level is emphasized while scaffolding using a variety of resources enabling students to access more challenging materials with support. The Common Core applauds re-reading texts, spending more time on complex text, close and careful reading, finding evidence in the text, keeping students focused on the text, and using text based questions to engage in rich discussion, encouraging students to form judgements and discuss their ideas. All of these caveats provide opportunities for ELLs as long as teachers have the resources for scaffolding reading, can identify accurate reading levels for students and utilize cooperative learning and classroom strategies to support student engagement and involvement.

Vocabulary Development

Building vocabulary and expanding language is a goal for all students in the Common Core Standards. There is a recognition that direct teaching is necessary and that teaching fewer words - but teaching them with deeper understanding is best. Wide reading with a balance of fiction and nonfiction materials complements all aspects of instruction. In conjunction with the emphasis on vocabulary development is also the question of “how”? The common core leaves the “how” up to the teachers and this is where we need to squelch the lists for memorization, the use of dictionary definitions and the cumbersome vocabulary notebooks. Teachers employing backwards planning to embed language structures and vocabulary development purposefully throughout their daily learning engagements are seeing great success. Educators who remember that it’s not about how many words or which words should I teach, but teaching to mastery and using strategies where input (listening or reading) is comprehensible are the keys to understanding and acquisition of language.

Finally, utilizing co-teaching models with literacy specialists and English language development staff (ELD) will drastically reduce pull out interventions that remove students from the regular classroom where content knowledge is infused throughout the day when a transdisciplinary approach to learning is utilized. Also, the expertise of ELD teachers who are conversant with English language proficiency standards will enhance the planning, teaching and learning process.

Response From Julie Goldman

Julie Goldman leads San Diego County Office of Education’s WRITE Institute, a nationally recognized program in K-12 writing instruction. Connect with WRITE on Twitter:

In their 2012 bestseller, The One Thing1, authors Keller and Papasan ask, “What is the one thing that I can do such by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Let’s consider this: what is one thing we can do to help English Language Learners meet the Common Core Standards?

We begin by knowing our students.

When we know our students, we build empathy. With empathy - connecting, listening, building relationships - we understand the diverse communities of English learners we serve 2. If our goal is to improve learning outcomes for English learners, increase students’ abilities to tackle challenging content, and create a culture that nurtures the capacities of broadly literate, college-and-career-ready students, then we need to better understand students who historically have been marginalized in schools and society 3. While there are many ways to build empathy for our English learners, one powerful way includes shadowing4, a structured, intentional process of following a student for several hours or a full day to better understand the reality and range of his or her schooling experience. When teachers collaborate to identify English learners’ strengths and needs and plan lessons together - and administrators provide ongoing support and monitoring - stakeholders create a climate where a range of voices engage in meaningful conversations and exploration around meeting the varied needs of their English learners.

A growing body of research underscores the value of addressing the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families. Culturally responsive pedagogy - defined by Gay (2002) 5 as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more relevant and effective for them” - promotes student connectedness with schools, decreases behavior problems, and advances learning 6. By appreciating and being sensitive to a child’s background and educational experiences, we increase our individual and collective understanding of who our English learners are - including their previous schooling, home language, and literacy experiences - in order to identify and remove the greatest barriers to learning 7.

When we know our students, we collect and analyze the quantitative data, including our students’ language proficiency levels (both in students’ primary languages and in English), years in school, and language proficiency scores. While these numbers are essential components for setting accurate language targets and monitoring student growth, truly knowing our students involves gathering individualized, qualitative data too. By gathering information about our students’ backgrounds and cultures, including identifying their home or heritage language, we learn valuable information regarding students’ linguistic experiences, passions and interests, strengths as a learner, and specific academic needs. It is also helpful to ask relevant questions (i.e., What language experiences have shaped you most?), observe, and listen. Classroom teachers can collect illuminating information about English learners’ strengths and needs through icebreaker activities, journals, presentations, home visits, and interviews 8.

When we know our students, we meet each student where he or she is and nurture purposeful learning. By focusing on research-based instructional practices for English Language Learners, we build language and content in tandem, provide high-quality learning opportunities and ensure high levels of academic and communicative skills.

When we know our students, we are respectful and responsive to them, their families, and their communities.

1 Keller, G., & Papasan, J. (2012). The one thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results. Austin, Tex.: Bard Press.

2 Dolby, N. (2012). Rethinking multicultural education for the next generation: The new empathy and social justice. New York: Routledge.

3 Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.

4 Soto, I. (2012). ELL shadowing as a catalyst for change. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin.

5 Gay, G. (2002). Culturally responsive teaching. New York: Teachers College Press.

6 Kalyanpur, M. (2003). A challenge to professionals: Developing cultural reciprocity with culturally diverse families. Focal Point, 17(1), 1-6.

7 Osher, D., Cartledge, G., Oswald, D., Artiles, A. J., & Coutinho, M. (2004). Issues of cultural and linguistic competency and disproportionate representation. In R.Rutherford, M. Quinn, & S. Mather (Eds.), Handbook of research in behavioral disorders (pp. 54-77). New York: Guilford Publications.

8 Gottlieb, M. (2016). Assessing English language learners: Bridges to equity. Connecting academic language proficiency to student achievement (2nd ed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Thanks to Kevin, Elizabeth, Heidi, Cathy, Gayle and Julie for their contributions!

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