Tips From the Top

Margo Gottlieb offers tips for teachers and school leaders on how to integrate the Common Core standards and English Language Learners

“Minority babies are now majority in United States” proclaims the headline of the Washington Post, May 16, 2012. Just think, in five years, this transformative group of Hispanic, Asian, and African-American children will be entering Kindergarten. If all goes according to plan, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) will be fully operational and the derivative curriculum will be firmly enacted. The next generation of assessments will be underway. The question that looms before our nation is whether schools will be equipped to educate this multicultural onslaught of students in preparation for postsecondary education and careers.

The demographic shift in the school-age population of the U.S. is most noticeable in the unprecedented increase of English language learners. The growing numbers of students for whom English is an additional language have touched almost every state. Yet the CCSS that have swept the nation only tacitly acknowledge the profound challenge for these students (Coleman & Goldenberg, 2012). What are teachers and school leaders to do to ensure that this group of students has equitable opportunities to access and achieve these new standards in today’s educational climate of increased rigor and accountability?

It’s hard to imagine the enormity of the expectations placed on English Language Learners and their teachers. How are these students to demonstrate grade-level proficiency in English language arts while they are in the midst of their own English language development (Wright, 2007)? How are these students going to participate in assessments of grade-level academic content in English with their peers when their content knowledge might be greater in a language other than English? Given the growing body of research on effective pedagogical practices for English language learners, this article offers five suggestions for teachers and school leaders as their schools and districts plan for implementation of the CCSS over the next five years.

1. View language and culture as a lens for learning for all students, in particular, English Language Learners
All teachers, regardless of their classroom demographics, should engage in culturally relevant teaching to stimulate getting students to the deepest levels of thinking and the highest levels of personal achievement (Roehl, 2012). It is through culturally-responsive teaching, a proven research-based practice, that teachers can highlight the linguistic and cultural resources of English language learners and use them as a springboard for instruction (Waxman & Tellez, 2002). In other words, every school needs to center around and reflect the multicultural frames of reference and range of experiences of their students (Ladson-Billings, 1995).

The CCSS lend themselves for schools, districts, and states to construct a shared vision of the language associated with grade-level content for their students. To extend this notion to include culturally-responsive instruction and assessment, teachers should:

• analyze the academic language of grade-level text in terms of its discourse, grammatical structures and vocabulary (including words and expressions)
• identify cultural nuances and encourage English language learners to share differing perspectives of instructional materials
• differentiate language for instruction and assessment based on English language learners’ levels of language proficiency
• ensure students have a clear understanding of the standards-referenced language and content criteria for interpreting their work (Gottlieb, 2012a).

2. Promote and maintain communication between content and language teachers through Professional Learning Teams
Collaboration is encouraged in the Common Core Listening and Speaking standards; across the grades, students are to “Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about grade-level topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups (2010).” Indeed, interactional learning that revolves around students engaging in academic conversations within cooperative structures promotes language learning and growth of community (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011; Waxman & Tellez, 2002).

This research also applies to teachers and school leaders who need to have opportunities to support teamwork and consensus building. Through professional learning communities or teams, language and content teachers, coaches, and school leaders can work side-by-side to focus on school-wide or district issues that stem from standards work, such as academic language, common assessment, or grading and reporting (Gottlieb, 2012b). By maintaining protected planning time with open communication among members, much can be accomplished to further the understanding of standards and their application to English Language Learners.

3. Make connections between the Common Core and Language Development Standards
In classrooms with English language learners, the Common Core cannot stand alone, but in fact, must be connected to English language development standards. The close association between these sets of standards allows teachers to envision content through language as well as language through content. Content standards used alongside language standards enable teachers to set realistic expectations for learning in relation to the students’ language proficiency levels. Additionally, in dual language or two-way immersion classrooms where English and Spanish are the media of instruction, two sets of language development standards (forthcoming at can be interwoven in combination with the CCSS to gain a comprehensive view of school-based academic expectations.

Using the Common Core as a starting point, teachers need to identify the academic language of grade-level knowledge and skills and then search for the corresponding academic language represented in English language development standards. From there, teachers can construct student-friendly standards and share content and language expectations with both students and family members. Working together, content and language teachers can then model how one set of standards reinforces the other in their design of thematic units of instruction.

4. Highlight academic language in standards-referenced curriculum, instruction, and assessment
Academic language, the language necessary for school success, is a principal tenet for all student standards. Its centrality in today’s curriculum, instruction, and assessment is a binding force for teachers who have to reach each and every student. For classrooms with English language learners, academic language has to be built from a variety of personal, linguistic and cultural perspectives. In addition, teachers need to use multiple and varied instructional and assessment strategies that include sensory, graphic, and interactional supports. In that way, differentiation can be geared to the students’ levels of language proficiency in tandem with their achievement levels to help bolster learning.
The Common Core is one source for deriving grade-level language demands and a resource to use with other grade-level materials. As mentioned previously, for English Language Learners, the Common Core should always be coupled with language development standards to gain a greater sense of how to plan and implement instructional practices around academic language. Integrated into and an extension of instruction is standards-referenced assessment. From daily to annual decisions, classroom assessment data that are systematically collected and analyzed yield powerful and useful information on the students’ academic progress. For English Language Learners, language proficiency together with achievement data shed fuller light on the students’ accomplishments.

5. Promote academic success for all students with realistic, obtainable pathways for English Language Learners
High-quality teaching is geared to the achievement of all students. The CCSS in conjunction with English language development standards can help guide students, in particular English Language Learners, in goal-setting around criteria for success (Goldenberg, 2008) and crafting individual learning targets from the students’ point of view (Moss & Brookhart, 2012). At the same time, today’s standards beg for students to become independent thinkers and learners that can be attained through a gradual release of responsibility. Another key strategy on the road to academic success is having students engage in guided self and peer assessment to help them focus and reflect on attainment of their goals for learning.

The CCSS are tremendously challenging for all stakeholders. Family members, teachers, school leaders, and district administrators should all be involved in a professional development plan to better understand the complexities of learning in today’s classrooms. By using the Common Core for grade-level content expectations and English language development standards as corresponding language expectations, teachers and school leaders can establish what English language learners are capable of doing and contribute to the achievement of a new generation of students.

Coleman , R., & Goldenberg, C. (2012, February). “The common core challenge for English language learners.” Principal Leadership, 46-51.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). “Teaching English language learners: What the research does- and does not- say.” American Educator, 8-23; 42-44.

“Common Core State Standards, English Language Arts Standards” (2010). Retrieved July 12, 2012 from

Gottlieb, M. (2012a). “Common instructional assessment for English Learners: A whole school effort.” In M. Calderón. (Ed.). Breaking through: Effective instruction & assessment for reaching English Learners, pp. 167-182. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Gottlieb, M. (2012b). Common language assessment for English learners. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). “But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy.” Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.

Moss, C. M.,& Brookhart, S. M. ((2012). Learning targets: Helping students aim for understanding in today’s lesson. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Roehl, J. (2012, July 10). “Embracing discomfort: Speaking out for cultural relevance.” Education Week Teacher. Retrieved July 12, 2012 from
Waxman, H., & Tellez, K. (2002). “Effective teaching practices for English language learners.” Spotlight on Student Success, 705.

The Laboratory for Student Success, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory.
Wright, W. E. (2007). A catch-22 for language learners. In Best of Educational Leadership, 2006-2007, 22-27. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Margo Gottlieb, Ph.D., director of Assessment & Evaluation at the Illinois Resource Center, is lead developer for the World-Class Instruc­tional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium. She has been a bilingual/ESL teacher, coordinator, and curriculum writer, authored numerous books, and serves as a nationally-recognized consultant.