Up to now, California schools have placed a greater emphasis on teaching the state’s 1.5 million English learners the parts of a sentence rather than the meaning of a sentence. That focus on syntax over significance is in for a massive overhaul if, as expected, the State Board of Education votes tomorrow to approve new English Language Development standards aligned to Common Core state standards in reading and writing.
“The old standards are very much geared toward vocabulary and grammar,” said Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University Education Professor and head of a $2 million English Language Learner Initiative funded by the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation. “This doesn’t ignore them [English learners], it takes a different approach. What you get is a different flavor in terms of how language is used in the classroom to exchange ideas and negotiate meaning.”
California is a lead state in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two state collaboratives developing new exams aligned with Common Core’s academic content standards. A little over a year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 124, by Felipe Fuentes [D-Sylmar], that requires the Department of Education to update the English language development (ELD) standards based on Common Core and to develop an implementation plan.
The new standards require more sophisticated uses of language by students, said Robert Linquanti, who runs an English learner project at WestEd, an education research organization, and is working on the ELD standards with the State Ed Department. “There are fewer, clearer and higher standards that are calling out what kids need to do,” he said. These include:
- Comprehending and understanding complex texts
- Discerning the speaker’s point of view
- Being able to build on others’ ideas or articulate their own ideas
- Make arguments using evidence from textbooks and other readings
- Being able to use language persuasively
For the new ELD standards to be successful, they must be implemented in tandem with the Common Core academic standards rather than in isolation. “There can’t be one driving the other,” explained Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, director of the State Department of Education’s English Learner Support Division. ELD teachers and regular classroom teachers will need to work collaboratively to develop lesson plans that make complex language comprehensible for students who are proficient in English when it comes to playing with friends, but still have difficulty grasping nuance and texture of textbooks or expository writing. ELD teachers “won’t have to know science,” but would want to familiarize themselves with the science textbook, said Cadiero-Kaplan. At the same time, elementary and secondary school teachers would need professional development and resources to work with the English learners in their classes.
“While the kids are learning English, you really also need to give them content,” said Hakuta in an article last month for Stanford News. He said research has shown that all things being equal, English learners “are significantly behind the the majority of the kids, even kids who are comparable in socioeconomic status. So it’s just the language gap.”
Hakuta’s Initiative is developing free resources and curricula for teachers, because it’s still not clear how schools will be able to fund high quality professional development at a time when teachers are having to give up their training days and take furloughs to cover budget cuts. The State Department of Education is creating two professional development modules focused on the English Language Development Standards, and Cadiero-Kaplan said they hope to beat their September 2013 goal for having them done.
Common Core standards are expected to be fully implemented in time for the 2014-15 school year. But some districts are already phasing them in. Santa Ana Unified started piloting lessons over the summer and expects to have them in place throughout the district this academic year. Superintendent Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana spoke about the district’s progress at an Education Writers Association seminar in Los Angeles last month. It’s been challenging going it alone, said the superintendent, but she said it’s already succeeding at getting teachers more engaged. Melendez de Santa Ana recalled one teacher who said to her, “For the first time, I feel like I’m practicing my craft.”