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ESL Teachers, Academic Language, and the Common-Core Standards

Making the rigorous common-core standards in English/language arts and mathematics accessible to every type of learner is a huge undertaking for educators.

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In a new special report called Moving Beyond the Mainstream, three of my Education Week colleagues and I try to tackle some of the most central challenges to that endeavor, as teachers in every state but four forge ahead with using the new standards and delivering their instruction in varying ways to meet the needs of all students— those with disabilities, those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, those who are gifted, and those who are still learning English.

My two stories examine two major issues when it comes to English-learners and the standards: the changing role of the English-as-a-second-language teacher and the academic-language demands and practices inherent in the common-core that will challenge most students, but especially ELLs. 

Content educators I interviewed for the ESL teachers story talked about how working with their ESL colleagues has really pushed them to examine their own language use in the classroom and what changes they need to make to help their English-learner students better access the key concepts. This is especially challenging as teachers must strike a balance between making their language accessible to all levels of English-learners, but not deprive them of opportunities to hear the more sophisticated, academic language specific to content areas.

As Meredith Vanden Berg, a middle school science teacher in Beaverton, Ore., put it so frankly: "It takes a lot of freaking words to explain the periodic table or an atom." She's been working especially closely with Barbara Page, one of the school's ESL teachers, on how to strike that balance.

With some exceptions, it's not been very common practice in the field for content and ESL teachers to work closely together. The common core, many educators hope, will present more opportunities for doing so, which could be hugely beneficial to students.

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