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Common Core and ELLs: Reading and Writing Persuasion

Putting complicated, original texts in front of middle school English-language learners may not be widespread practice now, but as more school districts begin the transition to the new common standards, doing so has to become the norm, not the exception.

So says a group of English-learner experts who are working on a collection of instructional resources meant to help educators elevate the quality and rigor of their instruction and support for English-language learners as the common core standards roll out into classrooms.

The Understanding Language team, based at Stanford University, has released its first such instructional resource in English/language arts, which I've written a story about in this week's edition of Education Week. Called "Persuasion Across Time and Space," the five-week unit for middle school students with at least an intermediate level of proficiency in English, is designed around persuasive speeches and texts.

Among them: The Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and "The Civil Rights Movement: Fraud, Sham and Hoax," a speech delivered in 1964 by Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The main goal of the unit, says Aida Walqui, a member of the Understanding Language team and a main author, is to demonstrate how reading these complex texts and then asking students to write their own persuasive pieces can be done with ELLs, both to deepen their understanding of concepts and content as well as language.

The unit was developed over several months in 2012, and was revised some after the writers received extensive feedback from educators in eight school districts. A few teachers in Oakland, Calif., and New York City, conducted a sort of "pre-pilot" by teaching the unit during summer school, Ms. Walqui said. One English-learner student in New York City said he learned more from the unit, compressed into four weeks of summer school, than he had the previous academic year, said Ms. Walqui, who was present for the students' final presentation of their persuasive speeches.

Now, seven to 10 teachers in three districts—Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Chicago, and Denver—will be test-driving the unit in the coming weeks. Walqui and some of her Understanding Language team colleagues will closely monitor the unit's implementation.

Gabriela Uro, a member of the Understanding Language team and the director of ELL policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools, said the pilot in the districts will reveal "what it really takes" in terms of resources, teacher knowledge, and instructional support to implement such a rigorous unit. It will also help answer the question of whether the amount of time and resources it took to create the unit will improve the level of instruction, as well as the level of learning for students, she said.

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