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Stanford education experts help launch a new rigorous curriculum for English language learners

A Stanford-led education initiative is sharing a new approach to teaching English language learners. Seventh graders with intermediate-level English language skills will, for example, grapple directly with challenging documents such as the Gettysburg Address.

Understanding Language Students learning English

Challenging documents help students sharpen their skills while learning English in new curriculum.

"Learning English in action" is a good way to describe a new K-12 teaching approach being rolled out nationally by a group of educators whose aim is to help raise the quality of education for all learners, no matter what their language proficiency.

Starting in January, the Understanding Language initiative, headed by School of Education Professor Kenji Hakuta, will officially launch a pilot effort in Denver, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., and Chicago.

The new initiative is seeking to help English language learners – typically students whose first language is not English – to attain rigorous English language arts standards while developing their English proficiency at the same time.

It aims to help students who are still learning English to meet new standards in English language arts being required by the new Common Core State Standards. The Common Core, adopted in California and 44 other states, is a set of rigorous educational standards focused on helping students become better prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce.

"The Common Core requires students to go deeper by doing things like using text-based evidence to make arguments," said Hakuta, who co-chairs Understanding Language. "While that's great, it could disadvantage English language learners."

The new five-week unit, called "Persuasion Across Time and Space: Analyzing and Producing Complex Texts," helps seventh-grade intermediate-level English language learners grapple directly with challenging documents such as Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream and Robert Kennedy's On the Assassination of Martin Luther King. Students must then produce persuasive speeches of their own.

"In the past, teachers may have given English language learners simplified versions of such texts, or they may have pre-empted their learning by explaining such documents before students even had a chance to read them," said Martha Castellón, executive director of Understanding Language at Stanford's School of Education.

"Persuasion Across Time and Space," in contrast, provides learners with multiple supports they need to delve into the texts themselves.

Students are motivated to dig deeply into the language while engaging in rigorous intellectual activity, thanks to historical background primers, close readings of the texts with the teacher, guided questions, peer activities allowing students to work together and other approaches.

"This simultaneous approach speeds up students' language acquisition," Hakuta emphasized. "It pushes us beyond the old, sequential mode of teaching grammar and then having students apply their language knowledge to the real world. It also raises the bar on what student work should look like, which integrates well with the new Common Core."

The innovative teaching unit was unveiled Dec. 6 during a webinar broadcast to about 100 professional educators and administrators around the United States.

Understanding Language, also co-chaired by Maria Santos, a deputy superintendent for Oakland Unified School District in California, includes educators across the United States with expertise in disciplinary knowledge, language learning and instructional improvement. Participants come from other organizations, including the University of California-Santa Cruz and WestEd, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that works on education reform. The effort is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, through grants to Stanford.

"Persuasion Across Space and Time" is a five-week unit developed by a team at WestEd under the leadership of Aída Walqui, director of the Teacher Professional Development Program and a doctoral graduate of the Stanford School of Education.

It was "pre-piloted" in the summer of 2012 in Oakland and New York City. "One student said she'd learned more in one summer than in an entire year of English class," Castellón said.

Video documentation will allow the work to be shared more widely in the future. The open-source curriculum is currently available on the Understanding Language website.

Meanwhile, Understanding Language will release similar resources to support English language learners in math in February and science next summer.

 "We're seeding and modeling approaches that we hope teachers and school districts will make their own as they move to align with the Common Core," said Hakuta. "This doesn't necessarily require more resources, but rather a shift in how they're allocated. It calls upon all subject matter teachers to act as teachers of language, and this will necessitate some changes in the business of professional development."

Such efforts will be supported by Understanding Language's partnerships with the likes of the Council of the Great City Schools, the New York City Department of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Council of La Raza

Marguerite Rigoglioso is a Bay Area freelance writer.

Media Contact

Jonathan Rabinovitz, School of Education: (650) 724-9440, jrabin@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu

Martha Castellón, School of Education: (650) 248-1177, mcastel@stanford.edu.