Helping ELL Students Reach the Common Core

The shift to the Common Core State Standards, and the changes to instruction that it requires, presents an enormous challenge for teachers and school leaders across the country. But for teachers of English language learners, the Common Core presents an even bigger challenge. How do you raise the rigor of instruction and content for students who have not yet even begun to master English?

This challenge is particularly urgent for teachers of a new and growing population of unique English language learners: minors who are entering the country, alone, at nearly double last year’s rate. In addition to cultural differences and limited English, students who have come from Latin America without their families are also dealing with emotional trauma, loss, and lengthy disruptions to formal schooling. And while the practical and financial strains on school districts receiving these children have been massive, more daunting are the instructional challenges teachers face in reaching these students.

I saw this firsthand as an ESL social studies teacher in a diverse Miami high school. One student in particular stands out: Edwin, a bright and curious sophomore, who had traveled to Miami at age 13 from Honduras. His journey included a hike across the desert, floating across Rio Grande in an inner tube, and being smuggled into the United States by traffickers.

Despite being incredibly motivated to learn, Edwin complained that his classes were confusing and boring. But it was clear that his confusion stemmed from insufficient language supports, and his boredom from instruction that did not challenge his thinking or engage him with content that was stimulating or age appropriate.

For too long, the traditional approach to ELL instruction and curricula has been to prioritize English language development over exposure to rigorous content, with the rationale that English language learners must learn English first in order to access rigorous content later. But content matters, and English instruction should not be taught in isolation from it. Deliberately weaving rigorous and challenging content into daily instruction, while explicitly teaching the academic language necessary to access that content, is critical.

To do this effectively, an ELL teacher is tasked with finding the sweet spot between rigor and accessibility. And while it’s tough to find this balance, many educators are experimenting with new models and instructional strategies to meet the unique needs of English language learners.

In a recent classroom observation at a bilingual public elementary school in Boston, I witnessed a great example of that balance while watching a mix of native English and Spanish speakers engage in a close read of a rigorous Spanish text about U.S. presidents. The teacher established the expectation that students return to the text to find evidence—regardless of the students’ native language. As a result of that challenge, the students discussed complex ideas, made claims and supported them with textual evidence. To help them, sentence starters like “una cosa que quiero añadir…” (“one thing that I would like to add…”), were posted around the room. It was clear to students that their ideas mattered far more than the language they used to express them, and as a result, both the ideas, and the students, thrived.

This classroom calls to mind another thriving ELL classroom we’ve visited on this blog: Fishman Prize winner Laura Strait’s in Oakland, California, where her fourth graders participated in a lively debate about World War II after engaging deeply with complex texts and supporting each other within a classroom culture of warmth and high expectations.

Rigor was the antidote to Edwin’s boredom, as much as it was for those students in Boston, for Ms. Strait’s students in Oakland and for students across the country. English language learners need to be so enraptured by interesting grade-level content that they forget they struggle with English and authentically communicate about ideas that matter.

As Common Core raises expectations for all students, ELL teachers will find determining their sweet spot ever more challenging. But Edwin’s experience, and the experiences of many immigrant and English language learners, demonstrate that lowering standards and expectations for our newest English language learners is not the answer. If you listen to the stories of these students, you quickly realize how brave they are. They have already overcome insurmountable odds. We must raise our expectations for them, and for ourselves. They will undoubtedly rise to the challenge. So should we. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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