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Implementing the Common Core for English Learners

The recent initiatives to promote college and career readiness through the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have left K–12 educators with many questions. As educators have examined the standards more deeply, concerns have arisen about their implementation in classrooms with diverse groups of students, including English learners. In the course of conducting professional development and other activities designed to improve educational outcomes for English learners, staff at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) have encountered many questions from educators about integrating the CCSS into content area curricula for English learners. These questions have been raised by English as a second language and bilingual teachers, who are charged with increasingly rigorous grade-level content instruction; by content area teachers, many of whom are newly incorporating language development techniques in their subject area classes; and by administrators, instructional support coaches, and other school staff working to integrate the CCSS into their educational practice.

This brief, which is based on CAL’s practical experience and academic expertise on language learning and English learners, attempts to answer the questions we have received from these educators. In considering these questions, it is important to keep in mind that English learners are not a homogenous group of students—they have unique stories and linguistic, educational, and cultural experiences. These students, who are learning content concepts at the same time as they are developing language skills, are doing “double the work” (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007); they have an increased cognitive processing load and might need additional scaffolding of both content and language, including use of their first language, while they acquire academic English. Furthermore, as is true in any population of students, some may have learning differences that affect the instruction they need. Because of this diversity among English learners, instruction to meet the CCSS for this group should be differentiated not only by both language and content, but also on other dimensions refecting their individual profiles. This process begins with teachers getting to know the backgrounds, experiences, motivations, and interests of the English learners with whom they work (Gonzáles, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). There are many social, cultural, programmatic, political, and other factors that affect the comprehensive achievement of English learners; however, this brief focuses on classroom instruction. It begins by examining the language and literacy demands in the CCSS and describing some key challenges faced by English learners and their teachers as they work to meet these demands. It then addresses questions related to effective implementation of the CCSS with English learners. The topics addressed represent a synthesis of the questions and concerns raised by educators participating in CAL professional development activities.