ELLs, the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards

By Kenji Hakuta, Stanford University School of Education

The educational reform energy triggered by the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards presents an exciting challenge for English Language Learners (ELLs) and their teachers.  During the implementation phase, we as educators need to channel this energy well in order to simultaneously provide academically rigorous content instruction and promote English language development that is purposeful and in correspondence to the new content standards.

The Understanding Language Initiative (funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) is a national dialogue about the new standards and ELLs, with the aim of improving ELL learning through the implementation of appropriate, standards-guided instruction.  Through our analysis of the standards as well as our deep understanding of the research base, we have come to realize that the new standards not only raise the bar for learning, but they raise them in a way that requires high levels of academic uses of language – explaining text-based evidence, producing mathematical arguments and understanding the mathematical reasoning of others, and engaging in argumentation in science.  This requires a shift not just in instructional practice for the content areas, but also in our understanding of what constitutes language –  as not merely vocabulary and grammar, but also cognitive functions and academic discourse practices. With this perspective, we are examining issues of policy and practice that need attention in order to best serve language-minority students as the new standards are implemented.

Among the major policy shifts required are:

  1. Ensure proper alignment of state English language proficiency standards and materials with the new content standards;
  2. Focus policies regulating instructional materials and supports on the content-relevant language practices contained in the new standards (this would hold for the native language in bilingual programs);
  3. Provide appropriate professional learning opportunities for content teachers to model and facilitate rich and inclusive disciplinary language use in their classrooms;
  4. Support professional collaboration of content teachers with English-as-a-Second-Language specialists;
  5. Make tools that promote and monitor rich academic uses of language available to school and district leaders, teachers, and students;
  6. Strengthen teacher preparation programs to focus on the dynamic relationship between classroom language and academic content, and prepare all teachers to be excellent models of disciplinary discourse.

I am interested in how local, state, and federal leaders can play a role in supporting these shifts, and also in how this plays into the strategy of the philanthropic community supporting the Common Core. What are your thoughts? Please comment here or join the conversation on Twitter at: @Hunt_Institute.

Kenji Hakuta is a Stanford University School of Education professor and focuses on English Language Learners, second language acquisition, and education policy and practice.

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