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New standards for ELL students aim to broaden vocabulary, boost achievement

Students participate in a craft at a joint event between Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and the Nashville Public Library to teach immigrant families about the public library system.
Students participate in a craft at a joint event between Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and the Nashville Public Library to teach immigrant families about the public library system.
G. Tatter

When Dottie Critchlow taught second grade at Nashville’s Haywood Elementary in the 1990s, about half of her students left class for an hour each day for English instruction. When they returned, their English might be a little better, but they had missed valuable content in other subjects.

Critchlow struggled to determine their comprehension of subjects like math, because even if they could do addition or subtraction, they didn’t have the English vocabulary to describe it.

“Trying to find ways to help them learn and produce evidence of their learning was difficult,” Critchlow said.

Almost 20 years later, Critchlow is the head of instructional support for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, and oversees English language learners. She said she and other officials in Metro Nashville Schools are excited that this year, Tennessee is implementing new standards for English language learners. Critchlow and her colleagues are confident they’ll address the concerns she had as a classroom teacher.

The new-to-Tennessee standards were developed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as part of a federal grant competition in response to the No Child Left Behind Act. The standards are now updated by the the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium, and used by schools in 35 states and Washington, D.C.

The No Child Left Behind Act revolutionized approaches to teaching English to non-native speakers by requiring that states test their English learners and be held accountable for the results. That meant that just learning English wasn’t enough — students learning English also had to learn the same content as their peers. Today, test scores in Tennessee carry even more weight than they did in the early 2000s. School-wide scores are now a factor in most teachers’ evaluation scores, and determine whether a school is eligible to be taken over by the state or school system.

The purpose of the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment standards is to ensure students learning English get rich instruction in subjects other than English, and learn academic language, as well as the conversational English they might use with friends. Students learning English are still pulled out of their normal classrooms, but they now get academic content, sometimes in their native language, in addition to English instruction.

“In order for kids to be successful, it’s not just enough to know the everyday language of getting to talk in the cafeteria,” said Timothy Boals, who developed the standards while the head of English instruction at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and now heads the consortium that developed the standards from its headquarters at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “It’s also knowledge of the language of discourse in science and math that helps students be successful.”

The standards are being introduced in Tennessee at a time when the number of English language learners is growing rapidly, especially in Nashville, which has thirty percent of the entire state’s population of students learning English. More than 130 languages are spoken by students in the school system, and 14 percent of students are English language learners, the Tennessean reports. Thirty percent live in non-English speaking homes.

There are five standards: that students learn social English (i.e.”hi,” “bye,” “how are you?”) , and that they learn “the academic language” for the four core subjects — math, science, literature and social studies. The framework of the standards also includes supports for students, like bilingual dictionaries and pictures, so they can start learning other subjects even before they know English, as well as the English vocabulary related to academics.

“You have to make sure that you’re putting content with your ESL instruction, or you’re going to do poorly on achievement [on standardized tests],” said Kevin Stacey, the director of English Language Learning for Metro Schools.

Previously, the state used the English Language Development Assessment (ELDA) standards, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which focused more on conversational English and had not been updated to include as much guidance in helping students meet Common Core standards, Stacey said.

The idea underlying the World-Class standards is that students need “scaffolding,” Boals said. Students with fewer English skills need more support to do their academic tasks. At first they might need to do coursework in their native language, then with the help of a dictionary. Finally, the scaffolding can be removed, and they can do grade level coursework in English.

The standards also come a year after Tennessee schools fully implemented the Common Core standards for math and language arts. The Common Core state standards rely heavily on actions like “describing.” For example, a kindergartener might be asked to describe a whole number. The new standards require English-learning students to learn the vocabulary that will allow them to meet such a Common Core standard.

“It helps us out tremendously because the WIDA standards work much better with Common Core,” Stacey said.

The new standards also are meant to allow English language learners to go more in-depth with engaging material, instead of spending their whole day on tedious language exercises, Boals said.

Stacey and Critchlow predict the switch in standards will come at a cost, albeit one outweighed by benefits.

“I do believe it will possibly take a little bit longer to reach proficient,” Stacey said.

But, Critchlow added, “when they exit, they will be stronger students.”

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