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RETHINKING POLICY AND PRACTICE IN SUPPORT OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS: New Alliance Report Identifies Challenges and Solutions for Helping ELLs Meet Higher Expectations Associated with Common Core

“Now more than ever, all students in the United States need to function fully in the English language to succeed in a highly competitive, knowledge-based economy."

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offer great promise for advancing the quality of education and outcomes for all students, but meeting the higher expectations associated with them could prove especially daunting for the rapidly growing population of English language learners (ELLs)—students who must learn grade-level content while simultaneously trying to master the English language. A new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education discusses these challenges, highlights initiatives already underway to help ELLs meet these challenges, and outlines how policy and practice must change to help ELLs graduate ready for college and a career.

“Now more than ever, all students in the United States need to function fully in the English language to succeed in a highly competitive, knowledge-based economy,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “That’s why English language learners should be held to the same rigorous standards as non-ELL students. At the same time, expecting ELLs to do double the work without appropriate learning strategies and commensurate support is a recipe for disaster, especially as these students account for larger percentages of the student population.”

According to the report, The Role of Language and Literacy in College- and Career-Ready Standards: Rethinking Policy and Practice in Support of English Language Learners, the number of school-age children who spoke another language in the home more than doubled, from 4.7 million (10 percent) to 11.2 million (20 percent) between 1980 and 2009. By 2020, more than half of all public school students are likely to have a non–English-speaking background.

Although the vast majority of ELLs speak Spanish, nearly 300 different languages are spoken among students in U.S. public schools. Among ELLs in U.S. middle and high schools, 57 percent were born in the United States while 43 percent were born in another country.

Unfortunately, despite forty years of federal investment in programs for ELLs, these students have not fared well in American schools. According to the 2011 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) twelfth-grade reading exam, 77 percent of ELLs performed below the basic level, compared to 27 percent of their non-ELL peers; only 3 percent of ELLs scored at or above proficient. Results are similarly discouraging at the state level.

The report attributes the lack of progress at both the federal and state levels to a combination of curriculum design, instruction, and a lack of systemic interventions and other support for ELLs. For example, English as a second language (ESL) programs historically focused on a one-size-fits-all approach that placed a premium on grammar and correctness rather than understanding and communicating ideas. The problem has been compounded in secondary schools, where the tendency exists to lower academic demands and limit opportunities for students to speak, read, or write about the content they are learning. The report argues that such an approach is no longer acceptable in today’s economy where students must obtain deeper learning competencies that include the mastery of academic content plus creative and critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and self-reflection.

The CCSS in English language arts and mathematics, which have been adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia, as well as the Next Generation Science Standards, in development by a consortium of twenty-six states, reflect the skills needed in today’s global economy. The standards also spell out the sophisticated language competencies that students will need to perform in the respective academic subject areas, but helping ELLs reach these higher expectations will place new demands on teachers, the report finds.

To help all teachers make this transition, the report lists ten key strategies for language and content learning that all teachers must understand given the growing number of ELLs. It also highlights reform efforts already underway such as Formative Language Assessment Records for English Language Learners (FLARE), which is developing a formative assessment system that will provide teachers with practical tools for keeping English learners on track for language development and academic success.

Teachers will not be the only individuals affected, the report notes. Teachers, principals, and district and state leaders will need to re-envision curriculum, instruction, and assessment to help ELLs access grade-level content while building their language proficiency at the same time.

“Improving the performance of ELLs requires teachers to shift their thinking about what effective teaching practice looks like, why students struggle to succeed, and what is needed to improve language and content learning,” said Mariana Haynes, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of the report. “At the same time, the adoption of new standards provides an opportunity to reimagine the core instruction in high school classrooms that has left large numbers of students—not just those identified as ELLs—struggling to achieve grade-level performance.”

In addition, emerging technologies should enable teachers to amplify and extend relevant instructional time for ELLs, the report finds. Digital tools can increase access to content anywhere and anytime, provide approaches to learning vocabulary and content, support language acquisition, expand practice opportunities, and deliver timely feedback.

Because the report finds that states bear the primary responsibility for ensuring that teachers and school leaders can provide ELLs with effective language and content-area learning, its recommendations are focused on the state level. It urges states to ensure robust implementation of college- and career-ready standards and calls on states to develop and adopt English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards that incorporate the language demands in the college- and career-ready standards. The report recommends that states support flexible pathways by which ELLs can successfully transition through language development programs and into the regular curriculum. It also asks states to strengthen teacher preparation, improve use of data, and create support systems for students, teachers, schools, districts, and states.

The Role of Language and Literacy in College- and Career-Ready Standards: Rethinking Policy and Practice in Support of English Language Learners is available at

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