As the majority of our nation’s schools transition to the common core state standards, students will face a significantly tougher requirement for reading comprehension and overall vocabulary expectations.
In addition to posing a new challenge to students, the new requirement post a new opportunity for teachers to enhance the education success of their students.
“Common Core is pushing us toward a higher level of achievement, and that depth is predicated on an ability to use language in sophisticated ways,” said Ben Sanders, director of standards, assessment and instruction for the 10 districts that formed the nonprofit California Office to Reform Education, or CORE.
Recognizing this will also be a unique opportunity and a heavy lift for teachers. CORE’s second annual Common Core summer conference for 450 teachers and administrators in San Francisco this month concentrated on teaching academic language – the shorthand for becoming fluent in the vocabulary, compound sentences and thought processes demanded to analyze texts, form coherent questions, create logical arguments and collaborate on projects.
These are the priorities of the Common Core, which 45 states, including California, and the District of Columbia have adopted. In a sign of agreement over its importance, the California Teachers Association also made academic language under Common Core a theme at its annual Summer Institute for 1,100 teachers in Los Angeles – and for those who viewed webinars online last week.
Summing up the challenge, one principal at the CORE conference quipped, “Academic language is a foreign language.”
Robert Linquanti, a senior researcher at WestEd and an adviser on both the new state English Language Development Standards and the new Common Core English language assessments, would agree. It’s challenging for most students, but especially English learners, who start with a deficit: They start school on average with a knowledge of 5,000 fewer words than their fluent English peers.
Academic language, “is not just informal talk that could occur in the playground or on a basketball court, or just hanging out with your friends at home, or texting – which is its own form of communication,” Linquanti, who gave presentations at both the CORE and CTA conferences, said in an interview. “Students need to be using these more formal uses of language, and they won’t be if teachers are not aware of it themselves and do not have the pedagogical expertise.”
Adds Sanders, “In the context of Common Core, almost all students are academic language learners. At the same time we all agree – as English language researchers vociferously assert – that the needs of EL students are distinct from native English speakers, and it would be a mistake to assume otherwise, even as we mount an effort to support all students’ development of academic language and literacy development.”