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ELL Forum Stresses Alignment of State Standards

What AFT secretary-treasurer Antonia Cortese called "the start of an important conversation" took place at AFT national headquarters on Oct. 21, when leading researchers, policymakers and practitioners gathered for a policy forum that explored ways to make Common Core state standards work for English language learners (ELLs).

AFT member Susan Lafond, a member of the union's English Language Learners Educator Cadre and a former ELL teacher who now a trains ELL teachers for New York State United Teachers, was one of the presenters at the forum, which was moderated by Cortese. The event also featured remarks from Kathleen Leos, former director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition, and Diane August, a prominent researcher in the field of educating ELL students.

The forum focused on the need to develop English language proficiency standards to help translate and align with Common Core state standards, adopted thus far by 38 states, which demonstrate a student's ability to speak, comprehend, read and write in English. Building and preserving a rich connection between these two types of standards is critical for the success of ELL students, presenters explained, since English language proficiency standards serve several important purposes—including to identify the skill level at which an English language learner can access the core curriculum.

"ELL achievement depends on aligned standards and assessments," Leos said, and it must include professional support and resources that help bind together elements into a coherent strategy for educating ELL students.

Alignment also begins, Lafond said, when schools break out of the "chicken and egg" mindset when it comes to teaching both language and content in the ELL setting. There are effective strategies to make this happen, she pointed out, including a concerted effort to build student background knowledge, ample time for practice and application, and frequent, formative assessments that give teachers a strategic classroom tool.

A strong body of research illustrates that teaching language and teaching content are complimentary, rather than competitive, goals, August said. Consequently, there must be a strong commitment to make sure that ELL students have access to grade-level content from the Common Core state standards.

The speakers also pointed out resources that can help frontline practitioners understand and shape this effort to keep the ELL community involved in the implementation of Common Core state standards. Among them are new materials made available to educators through the Colorín Colorado website, a joint project of the AFT and PBS-affiliate WETA. [Mike Rose]

October 25, 2010