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Big-City Districts Delve Into Common-Core Teaching for English-Learners

The common-core standards are dramatically reshaping teaching and learning, but some of the biggest changes are arguably happening for English-language learners and their teachers.

That's because English-learners, no matter their level of proficiency, are expected to engage with demanding content and demonstrate more sophisticated skills with language even when their English is still developing. Those higher expectations, ELL experts say, mean every educator working with English-learners must take responsibility for developing their language.

Most advocates, educators, and researchers agree the shift to the common-core standards is a huge opportunity for ELLs—who represent the fastest growing subgroup of students in K-12—that schools can't afford to squander.  By 2050, 34 percent of U.S. children younger than 17 will either be immigrants themselves or the children of at least one parent who is an immigrant, according to projections from the Pew Research Center, and that means an ever-growing share of children coming to schools with little or no English-language skills.

K-12_Dealmaking.gifFor those reasons and others, representatives from some of the country's biggest school systems—which together educate more than 25 percent of ELLs—came together to craft a guide meant to help teachers weave language learning at all proficiency levels with their instruction of rigorous English/language arts standards. I've got a story on this endeavor led by the Council of the Great City Schools. You can find the full instructional framework, which includes detailed criteria that districts should heed when selecting common-core-aligned instructional materials for ELLs, on the council's website.

This was no easy lift. For starters, school districts don't share universal practices for teaching ELLs, or even common terminology for things such as English-as-a-second-language, which is called English-language development in some districts. The group had to work out some of those variations and think through how the framework could be applicable across different districts, different populations of English-learners, and different methods for delivering English/language arts instruction.

Some heavyweights in the ELL field were deeply involved in the project, including Lily Wong-Fillmore, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Berkeley, who is especially bullish on the opportunity that the common standards present to reverse decades of deprivation for many English-learners when it comes to exposure to challenging, complex texts, curricular materials, and language-rich instruction. Rebecca Blum Martinez, a professor of bilingual and ESL education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, was a major contributor from the perspective of someone responsible for preparing future teachers.

There is much more to come out of this work, according to Gabriela Uro, the director of ELL policy and research for the council and the leader of the project. Still ahead is a similar instructional framework for common-core math and English-learners, which will also include a set of ELL-specific considerations for districts to weigh when selecting teaching materials in that subject.

The council, as I mentioned in my story, is also working closely with a small number of publishers to develop high-quality, culturally relevant, grade-level and rigorous instructional materials for English-learners in the common-core era.

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