When English Proficiency Isn't Enough

The Common Core requires more than basic comprehension.
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Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

COMPTON, Calif.—A large color photograph of an iceberg on display in teacher Angel Chavarin’s fourth-grade classroom at Laurel Street Elementary may not be the typical prop for a language arts lesson. But Chavarin is hoping visuals like this will help his students better understand the concept of inferences, which are, in effect, “the tip of the iceberg.”

Inferences are not an easy concept for young children to grasp, and it may be particularly difficult for the students of Laurel Street, where more than 60 percent of students are English learners.

But it’s a skill Chavarin knows his students need to master as California, along with 44 other states, transitions to the new Common Core State Standards. Created in 2010, the Common Core aims to prepare American students for college and careers by emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving. While the Common Core does not dictate a specific curriculum or reading list, it encourages language-arts teachers to expose students to challenging literature and nonfiction texts as well as sophisticated vocabulary. When writing and speaking in class, students are expected to present arguments and provide analysis backed by evidence, not opinion. Reading comprehension should include more than proof of recall; students need to demonstrate their ability to grasp big ideas as well as the nuanced inferences embedded in the text.

But some educators, including those enthusiastic about the Common Core, have publicly worried about the repercussions of raising the bar for groups of students who are already lagging behind, like those still learning English. They fear that the achievement gap between native speakers and English learners will widen, particularly in schools where teachers have little training and few resources. “Schools here have been working hard to address this issue for some time,” said Ben Sanders of the California Office to Reform Education. The Common Core “adds extra complexity. We’re worried that people will get overwhelmed.”

The number of English learners has grown by about 50 percent nationally since the late 1990s, and currently accounts for about 10 percent of all American students. The proportion of English learners is on the rise in most states, and national projections indicate that by 2030, 40 percent of the K-12 population will be English learners. Whether schools can successfully take on this challenge is likely to be a key measure of success for the Common Core.

California is home to far more English learners than any other state. “Three quarters of the districts here are trying to serve English learners,” said Amber Banks, who is researching a report on Common Core and English Learners for the nonprofit Education Trust.

Among the schools likely to rise to this challenge is Laurel Street Elementary in west Compton. Laurel Street has an enviable reputation for academic achievement with both English learners and low-income students. Despite years of state budget cuts and rising class sizes, 83 percent of Laurel Street K-fifth grade students scored at the proficient or higher level on a recent state language-arts exam, and 91 percent scored that high on the state math test.

Teachers at Laurel Street are well aware that those state tests are about to be replaced with new and more ambitious tests pegged to the Common Core. “Some English learners survived those tests just by knowing the basics,” said third-grade team leader Alejandra Monroy. “The Common Core tests will go beyond that. Students will need to apply what they’ve learned to new situations. They will need to show that they understand the material on a higher level.”

To prepare for these changes, Laurel Street’s teachers have been strategizing for months, trying to identify effective ways to incorporate the new goals into their school day without losing any of the ground they’ve gained in recent years. They agreed to let a reporter follow their transition to the Common Core over the school year.

To build on their successes, teachers have begun creating lesson plans that aim to preserve the best of the old approach while weaving in the best of the new. On a recent Thursday, third-grade teacher Monroy tried out a new writing lesson with the Common Core in mind. Taking a break from the fiction they’d been reading, she asked the students to turn their attention to two nonfiction texts on the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen’s.

The students discussed the articles, paragraph by paragraph, as Monroy encouraged them to use the new vocabulary words in full sentences, first in small groups and then in all-class discussions. “English language learners have to work through the four domains when they learn something—listening and speaking, reading and writing—in order to retain the information,” she said. “I used to go through readings faster. I didn’t spend the time I’m spending now, but I can see that all the students understand the information better when we take more time to talk about it.”

Next she gave them a writing assignment: an essay about the causes, effects and consequences of the eruption. Monroy had the students plot out the beginning, middle and end of the essay with the help of an organizing tool they call a  “thinking map” that Laurel Street students use starting in kindergarten. The essay prompt includes “academic language,” sophisticated words, like “deduce,” “quotes” and “transitions” that young children don’t typically use on the playground but are crucial for school success. As they start work, Monroy reminds them that any examples they use in their essay have to be backed up by the facts found in the texts. “I wouldn’t have done that in the past,” said Monroy. “I’m doing that because the Common Core wants them to cite the evidence.” An unexpected plus to this approach, she said, is that it prompts students “to use their new words immediately in sentences that make sense,” adding that repetition is one of the keys to mastery for English learners.

But writing and vocabulary isn’t enough to bring English learners up to Common Core standards; they also need to tackle more challenging, nuanced concepts, like figurative language and inferences.

On a recent Wednesday, Chavarin tried a new approach to teaching his fourth graders about inferences, and pulled out the photograph of the iceberg.

First, he showed the class only the image above the water line. Then slowly, he uncovered the rest of the photo, and reminded the class that inferences are found by looking below the surface to discover deeper truths. To check for understanding, he asked the class to pull out a news story they had recently read about an 8-year-old girl who created a nonprofit to raise money to help end child slavery. Go through the text again, he told his students, “and show me that you understand this concept of inferring” by identifying specific examples and being “ready to explain” the underlying messages they convey.

The kids spent several minutes working independently, writing down examples. Then they took a few more to discuss their work with their neighbors. These small group discussions not only gave the students immediate feedback on their choices, Chavarin said, but also provided them with a low-stress opportunity to practice saying their answer out loud in a complete sentence before they are asked to do it for the whole group. As the chatter died down, Chavarin asked a student to share one of his ideas with the class.

“She’s trustworthy,” said a student named Osiris.

“Where is your evidence?” asked Chavarin.

“The story says she promised to work every day,” Osiris answered.

“But does that make her trustworthy?” Chavarin countered. “I said I was going to stick to my diet, but did I do it? Evelyn?”

“She’s determined,” said Evelyn. “The next sentence says that even when the weather is bad and she wasn’t feeling well, she still worked.”

“Right! People who don’t give up are determined,” Chavarin said, giving the class a thumbs up. “How many of you used that same sentence to prove another trait? Janelle?”

“I said it showed she had perseverance.”

“That is a fantastic word,” Chavarin said. “That’s another way to say she doesn’t give up. Remember, when we read what is stated, that is only the surface. We need to look under the surface. What is the text inferring? Now, stop for 30 seconds and think about what you learned today about inferences that you did not know before.”

After class, Chavarin, once an English learner himself in the Los Angeles public school system, said this class is a prime example of what he’s doing differently this year. For one thing, he said, “Common Core really reinforces using the text. If not for the Common Core, I would have allowed them to infer things with their background knowledge.”

The new standards have also prompted him to be more deliberate about using ambitious vocabulary in class, and he has been surprised at how quickly the students echo his word choices. “A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that they could be speaking this way, but I see the difference it’s making by honing in on academic vocabulary,” he said. “Now I make a point of using words like demonstrate, efficient, elaborate, distinguish. In the past, I might have asked if an inference is ‘clear’ or ‘fair.’ Instead, now I ask if it’s ‘logical and reasonable.’”

These positive effects aren’t limited to English learners, he added. “I see that if we don’t expose all our students to words like that, where would we expect them to pick them up?” said Chavarin. “We see the effect poverty has on children, but that’s no excuse not to provide a rigorous curriculum for them.”

The results seen at Laurel Street are exactly what the Common Core aims to produce, said Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago and one of the authors of the Common Core language-arts standards. “We knew that second-language kids struggled with comprehension because they were not getting the support they needed in the past,” he said, adding that the Common Core’s emphasis on comprehension and vocabulary will make it more likely English learners will catch up with native English speakers by the time they reach high school and contemplate college and career.

The Common Core authors are also convinced that extra time spent on nonfiction will help English learners as well as native speakers “get more of an opportunity to expand their knowledge” of the world and become “more powerful readers,” Shanahan said. An added plus: Research shows that “a large percentage of kids prefer reading about real stuff,” Shanahan said, even though most language-arts teachers assigned very little nonfiction in the past. In fact, he said, studies in Boston area schools found that the average first grader spent only about 3.7 minutes a day reading informational texts. “That’s only about 3-4 hours a year,” he said. The emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core aims to produce a better balance between literature and nonfiction, he said.

It will be a while before Laurel Street’s team has hard evidence from state tests proving whether all this effort is working. But Monroy said that she is already seeing signs of progress.

When her students recently took practice versions of the state tests, their scores were “higher than the results last year, when we didn’t do all the things we’re doing now,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean she has got it all figured out. “Sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don’t,” she said. “I know I’m not there yet. I still have a long way to go. This takes time, but now is the time to try.”


This story is the second installment of a three-part series produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Pat Wingert is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She has written for NewsweekScientific American, and Southern California Public Radio, and is a former Spencer Education Fellow at Columbia Journalism School.

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