Diane Staehr Fenner / September 11, 2012

In this paper commissioned by Stanford University’s Understanding Language project, Aída Walqui and Margaret Heritage present the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as an “opportunity” for educators to more effectively serve ELs and positively impact their academic achievement. They describe five research-based principles upon which they feel instruction for ELs should be based in the advent of the CCSS, citing the relevant literature and then offering an example of how the principle can be enacted in classrooms containing ELs.

Their principles are:

  • Learning is always based on prior knowledge and experience. ELLs must have equal access to knowledge that is valued in school.
  • Language and cognition develop together and progressively. As ideas and relationships become more complex, so does language.
  • The goal of learning is to develop the stance of generativity and autonomy. This is accomplished through apprenticeship in which the learner is invited to become a member of a community of practice.
  • The goal of language use is to make it contextually appropriate; students need to be competent navigators within a range of different registers.
  • Assessment is integrated into the process of teaching and learning. Assessment-elicited information is used by both teachers and students to consistently keep learning moving forward.

For example, in describing and operationalizing their first principle, Walqui and Heritage rightly underscore the need for teachers of ELs to gauge whether they must go beyond the CCSS’ use of the close reading approach by illustrating the amount of background knowledge necessary for students to comprehend a lesson based on Frederick Douglass’s autobiography in Grade 8. In this lesson, close reading “forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Douglass’s prose.” Walqui and Heritage suggest ELs’ variables that they bring to the US educational landscape, such as their amount of education in the US (e.g., long term ELs as opposed to newcomers) should help teachers determine whether they will need to build ELs’ background knowledge or choose a comparable text written in modern English instead of letting them grapple (to the point of tuning out) with the Douglass text without understanding the historical context and linguistically arcane features of the text.

This series of white papers commissioned for Hakuta’s Understanding Language project will serve as invaluable sources of information culled from a wide range of perspectives on the implementation of the CCSS for ELs. I am thrilled to see that ELs’ unique characteristics are a central part of this conversation.