Stanford researcher launches national K-12 English Language Learning initiative

With more students than ever identified as English Language Learners in the United States, language expert and Stanford education Professor Kenji Hakuta is leading a national initiative to provide teachers with resources to meet these students' educational needs.

L.A. Cicero Kenji Hakuta

"While the kids are learning English you really also need to give them content," said Kenji Hakuta, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education.

Schoolchildren struggling to learn English in American public schools, and the educators responsible for teaching the language to them, will soon have resources to help ensure they meet the nationwide Common Core State Standards, in an initiative led by Stanford education Professor Kenji Hakuta.

"This initiative is really to give access to the standards to a growing group of the student population which are English Language Learners – usually what happens is they're sort of an afterthought," said Hakuta, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education. "Let's try to better understand what the language needs are that are foundational to these content standards and try to be much more explicitly systematic in making that available to English Language Learners."

The Common Core State Standards are content-based standards for kindergarten through high school coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards, which have been adopted by all except six states, are designed to introduce students to rigorous, consistent material that will prepare them for college and the workforce.

The $2 million English Language Learner (ELL) initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, both supporters of the Common Core. Hakuta and co-chair Maria Santos, deputy superintendent for instruction of Oakland Unified School District, organized a steering committee of local ELL experts to plan and implement the initiative.

The goal of the initiative is to develop free resources and curriculum for teachers to foster English Language Learners' learning of the English language in conjunction with the Common Core content. In other words, students will learn English while they are taught grade-level subjects such as math, science and grammar.

When students learn English in traditional English as a Second Language classes, separately from the other curriculum taught in their grade level, they tend to fall behind in core subjects, Hakuta said, because most students take four to seven years to learn English.

"While the kids are learning English you really also need to give them content," Hakuta said. "If you look at things like academic achievement, English Language Learners are tested on state tests, and in most states they are significantly behind the majority of the kids, even kids who are comparable in socioeconomic status. So it's just the language gap [that causes them to underperform]."

The committee plans to organize teams of language experts, teachers and other educators at various school districts to help create free, web-based teacher resources such as video clips, examples of different levels of language development and curriculum specific to Common Core subject areas such as math and vocabulary that utilizes language skills.

Santos said the resources are meant to help educate and support teachers who are not trained or experienced in teaching English Language Learners.

"Since the English Language Learners in so many of our school systems are taught by regular classroom teachers, many of them who have subject area expertise but not necessarily strong expertise working with English Language Learners, it's important to provide them with tools to work with that student population, and to provide resources to show them how to do it right," Santos said.

Estimates from the U.S. Department of Education show that 37 percent of fourth graders and 21 percent of eighth graders are English Language Learners. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Hispanics are the fastest-growing population in the country.

The resources are meant to help English-speaking students as well. By emphasizing students' use of language in all subject areas, the researchers hope to encourage deeper understanding and engagement with the material.

"In most classrooms, teachers do the talking and students do the listening. Students just don't get a lot of opportunities to express what they know," Hakuta said. "Language is kind of like a spiral; even if you're proficient in a language the more you use it and the more you use it to articulate complex subject matter, the deeper your understanding is going to get of that subject matter."

The steering committee plans to begin working with school district teams to gauge the effectiveness of existing ELL materials and create a set of exemplars and a prototype of the new materials which will be made public next year. The final products will be completed in 2013.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of the program will depend on how useful teachers find the materials and, in the next several years, if students demonstrate increased learning, Hakuta and Santos said.

"I think the most important thing is that English Language Learners be fully included in the instructional program and that teachers have a lot of skills and resources to work with English Language Learners," Santos said. "That's the end goal."

Robin Migdol is an intern with Stanford University Communications.