R&D Connections No 23: Teaching Content to English Learners in the Era of the Common Core Standards

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SULTAN: Hi, my name is Sultan Turkan and I work in the Research & Development division at ETS…

MEGAN: … and I’m Megan Schramm-Possinger. I also work in the Research & Development division.

SULTAN: We wrote an essay for R&D Connections that discusses the teaching of content to English language learners. We present this discussion against the backdrop of the Common Core State Standards, and seek to answer questions about what this means for teachers, teaching quality and the education and training of teachers.

MEGAN: The release of the Common Core State Standards placed a big emphasis on literacy skills, and students’ ability to work with complex texts. This will obviously impact all content teachers, whether they teach mathematics, science, English language arts, or social studies.

SULTAN: Teaching English language learners has traditionally been seen as the responsibility of teachers of English as a second language, but content teachers will now also face the task of addressing the linguistic needs of English language learners. How are the content teachers going to address literacy skills when teaching English language learners in particular?

MEGAN: Let’s take math as an example. How should math teachers help their English language learners use the language of mathematics precisely in the English language? How should they react if an English language learner writes “square 25 to get 5” when he or she means to say “take the square root of 25?” What can the math teachers do to help the English language learner become better at using the precise mathematics language in English?

SULTAN: We show in our essay, based on a recent publication, that teachers need to facilitate English language learners’ understanding, and their use of oral and written discourse for each discipline. This is also referred to as ‘Disciplinary linguistic knowledge,’ and it asks of the teacher to bridge the gap between a particular academic concept and its linguistic representation. In this way the teacher can make the English language learners aware of language choices in for example, mathematics.

MEGAN: Within the DLK framework, we also argue in our essay that effective math teachers provide multiple opportunities for the English language learners to try and use the precise language orally or in writing so they can convey the intended mathematical meaning.

SULTAN: We hope our essay helps researchers and teacher educators to understand and discuss the central role language plays in content teaching, especially when teaching English language learners in the era of Common Core State Standards.

MEGAN: Finally, we hope to stimulate the discussion around specific properties of disciplinary linguistic knowledge, and what it means for teacher education and how it could be translated into the actual work of teaching content to English language learners.

R&D Connections is a free publication, which you can download at no cost by visiting the Research section of ETS.ORG.