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Curriculum

Urban Districts Develop Common-Core Guide for Teaching ELLs

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 09, 2014 4 min read
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What should instruction for a new learner of English look like in a common-core English/language arts classroom?

And how can educators judge whether the instructional materials they use will both challenge and support English-learners to meet the more sophisticated language demands of the Common Core State Standards?

Some of the nation’s biggest school districts have banded together to answer those questions and provide guidance to the teachers moving headlong into teaching the standards to a diverse array of learners who face new, and tougher, common-core-aligned tests this school year.

The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization of 67 big-city districts, recently finished work on an instructional guide, or “framework,” for educators grappling with how to infuse language learning at all proficiency levels with their teaching of rigorous English/language arts standards, such as reading complex texts and crafting arguments from evidence.

“We have to be clear about what kind of instruction we expect for ELLs,” said Gabriela Uro, the director of English-language-learner policy and research at the council and the leader of the project. “The driving goal of this framework is getting our ELLs full access to the common-core standards and ensuring that is what drives their language development.”

The framework also provides a detailed set of criteria, or “ELL considerations” for district leaders to use as they evaluate textbooks, supplemental books, and digital learning materials for use with their English-learners. The new resource was developed jointly by ELL experts and representatives from some member districts.

Collectively, the council’s member districts educate more than a quarter—about 1.2 million—of the English-learners in U.S. public schools.

Injecting Rigor

The project arose, in large measure, because of widespread dissatisfaction among big-city educators over the quality of instructional materials published for ELLs. That dissatisfaction was captured in a survey of 44 council districts last year, in which 82 percent of the principals, teachers, and central-office administrators who responded said their current materials for English-learners were either “somewhat” or “not at all” reflective of the rigor in the common standards.

“What is typically presented as materials for ELLs is watered down, simplified, and so stripped of context that it removes the challenge and rigor, as well as the grade-level expectations,” said Teresa Walter, the director of special projects for the 132,000-student San Diego district, who worked on devising the framework with colleagues from other council districts. “If we give them easy materials, how can we expect them to reach these higher expectations?”

To help guide districts as they make purchasing decisions, the council’s framework builds on criteria for judging the quality of common-core-aligned English/language arts materials that were developed by Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization in New York City that played a leading role in writing the common standards.

The “ELL considerations” developed by the council include big-picture judgments, such as whether publishers drew on the expertise of researchers in their design phase, and if experts on second-language acquisition were involved in writing the materials. Districts should also find out if English-learners were part of a publisher’s piloting of the materials. The next layer involves numerous “non-negotiable” criteria meant to ensure the materials provide rigor in language development, grade-level content, and guidance to teachers on how to integrate supports for English-learners based on their proficiency levels.

Dozens of other considerations are spelled out in the framework, including the importance of judging whether materials are both culturally relevant and respectful of English-learners’ native language, ethnicity, race, and immigration experience.

Whether publishers can, or would, respond to the full range of considerations is not clear, Ms. Uro said. But the council is pursuing a related endeavor with a small number of publishers to craft new instructional materials for English-learners that are common-core-aligned and respond to the criteria in the framework. Over the next year, those publishers will work on writing pilot units for ELLs that will be tested in some member districts, Ms. Uro said. The effort is being supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Televisa Foundation. Gates also provided development support for the instructional framework. (The Gates Foundation also helps support coverage of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week.)

Closer Look

On the instruction side, the framework presents two main components.

One is “focused language study,” which calls for schools to dedicate time in each day to work with ELLs on English-language acquisition across the four domains of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and especially the more formal, academic language needed for students to engage with content across all subjects. That would take place in already-established English-as-a-second-language services that can occur in stand-alone classes or as part of an English/language arts class.

The other component is “discipline-specific and academic-language expansion” that calls for all teachers to develop and expand the academic English of ELLs as they teach content in all subject areas.

“This is the tougher piece because it involves content teachers who don’t think they should have to teach literacy,” Ms. Uro said. “But having this document that lays it out for them should help those conversations about everyone’s responsibility for the language-learning and language-expansion of ELLs.”

The framework clearly acknowledges the different approaches districts use in providing services to their English-learners and provides two examples of how the guide to both instruction and selecting materials can be used.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as City Districts Write Common-Core Guide for Teaching ELLs

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