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Report: Scrap One-Size-Fits-All Approach to Teaching ELLs

As more and more school districts around the country put the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics into practice, one refrain is growing louder and louder: Instruction for English-learners must change radically.

Of course, the instructional shifts required in the common core are significant for all students, but for the nation's large—and growing—population of English-learners, traditional approaches of teaching them the language by emphasizing grammar and syntax, for example, have to give way to instruction that allows ELLs to understand content, think critically, and communicate ideas—even if imperfectly.

These shifts will be most critical in the secondary grades, where too often the focus for English-learners is on making sure they learn the language and little else.

So argues a new policy brief released this week from the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education.

The Alliance's report zeroes in on what teachers can do to understand and leverage the linguistic and cultural strengths of their ELL students and create supportive, discourse-rich classrooms where students interact and communicate constantly with both ELL and non-ELL peers about complex, academic content across all subjects.

It also calls attention to how state policy governing curriculum, assessment, and teacher preparation could be improved in order to support the changes in classroom practices that English-learners will need to tackle the more rigorous content in the common standards as they develop their language skills.

Specifically, for states, the Alliance report recommends that all of them update and/or adopt English-language-proficiency standards that are directly connected to the common core standards, a process underway in many states already. States should use a common definition of who an English-language learner is and allow for multiple pathways for ELLs to progress through the language acquisition process and take mainstream courses with their non-ELL peers—an especially important policy at the high school level, the Alliance contends.

The report urges state to require both traditional and alternative preparation programs to provide prospective teachers with "substantial clinical experiences" with English-learners and a curriculum designed specifically to prepare them for working with such students. States should also require teacher who work with ELLs to be fully certified to teach them.

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