Common Core Tools: Making Curriculum Units More Accessible for ELs

Julie Motta is the Assistant Superintendent of the East Providence School District in Rhode Island. Formerly the ESL Director of Pawtucket Schools, she is also a WIDA trainer and an adjunct college professor at Rhode Island College and Providence College, where she has taught courses in Second Language Acquisition, Curriculum and Methods, Social Issues, and Culturally Responsive Teaching.

In this blog post written for Colorín Colorado, Julie walks through a template that she has been using with her ESL teachers to make curriculum units aligned to the Common Core State Standards more accessible to ELs and highlights the many strengths and areas of expertise her teachers bring to the process.

As I’ve transitioned into the world of school administration and become an adjunct college professor, I have found a renewed passion for teaching in my work with educators. I am now lucky enough to share what I know about teaching English Learners (ELs) with teachers and those preparing to become teachers of ELs. I also thoroughly enjoy facilitating professional development, using workshops as “my classroom.” When I miss my classroom days, I remind myself that in working with educators, I am impacting a greater number of ELs in our schools than I would have within the walls of my single classroom.

Just over two years ago, I was fortunate to attend a conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, entitled CoCoMo. This acronym was short for “Common Core and More.” The conference was led by Margot Gottlieb, the author of the WIDA English Language Development (ELD) standards. (Rhode Island is a WIDA state.) By the end of the conference, I left not only with a clear plan on how to return to my school district to work with my ESL teachers to implement the CCSS alongside the WIDA ELDs, but also with a newfound enthusiasm and confidence that I could assure them that what seemed like a daunting task was really quite doable.

Strengths of ESL Teachers

Before I outline one of the tools we’ve been using in that work, I want to first focus on all of the strengths that ESL teachers possess, even though they never give themselves enough credit. Those strengths are an important foundation on which to build, particularly in work focused on the Common Core. ESL teachers are already experts at teaching academic language. They are masters at differentiated instruction because they serve ELs who are at far-ranging proficiency levels of English and have a vast span of L1 and L2 literacy skills (based on their educational background and social history). They spend their days scaffolding so that their students are engaged in learning rigorous content while they acquire English. Every text that they teach can be complex for any number of their students. They understand the importance of developing the building blocks of language (the foundational skills) and having students become proficient listeners, speakers, readers and writers. They know how to assess each of these skills so that they can build on strengths and provide support in the weak areas.

ESL teachers also have an overwhelming respect for diversity and know that a one-size-fits-all approach will never work for ELs. Most importantly, however, they are the most passionate cadre of educators I have ever had the pleasure to work with because they find value in every child’s first culture, first language, and what each child brings to the classroom. They work with an additive – rather than a subtractive – mindset. Their moral compasses are set due north, never settling for less than the best from themselves or their students. They set the bar high for educators as they set high expectations for their students. With all of these master qualities, a challenge like the CCSS doesn’t have to be an obstacle, but rather an opportunity to showcase their talents as teachers along with their students’ abilities to listen, read, speak, write, think, analyze, prove, and justify – in not just one language, but two!

Using a Template to Make Curriculum Accessible for ELs

To build upon my teachers’ assets and support the work of implementing the CCSS with ELs, one critical component that I have worked on with my teachers and my college students is to focus on the existing CCSS-aligned English Language Arts (or other content) curriculum framework or scope and sequence that is in place in the setting in which they work. They choose a unit from their existing curriculum, and we then transform that roadmap to meet the needs of ELs using a “unit of study” template that I created. You can take a look at a Final Template for Curriculum Work and a Grade 7 Sample Template for some ideas on how to fill it out! The end product is a CCSS-aligned curriculum unit made accessible for teaching ELs.

The content entered into the template remains the same as what is listed on the original framework or scope and sequence, but the supports and the decomposition of the general curriculum are what make the instruction related to it successful and the learning bountiful for ELs. We deeply analyze the language that ELs will need to acquire to be successful with the complex text and rigorous content as part of the existing curriculum by outlining word level, sentence, and discourse level language that students will have to use through reading, writing, speaking, and listening. My teachers/college students complete the template with the necessary information that then makes it a useful tool that any ESL teacher in their teaching environment or district can pick up and run with. The beauty of working with the template is that it creates collaborative planning sessions for teachers who share ideas, content knowledge, and their own language acquisition pedagogy – their personal tricks of the trade as they build each unit.

Completing the Unit Template: Key Steps

Identifying objectives and standards

To complete the template, the first step is to determine the following components:

  • Essential questions for the unit
  • Common Core State Standards to which the unit is aligned
  • Matching WIDA ELD standards (or your state English language proficiency standards) in whatever content area is being taught
  • Grade-level model performance indicators (MPIs)

The MPIs are aligned to the proficiency levels of students who will interact with the curriculum and are written for each domain of language that will be covered so students can exhibit their content learning based on their language proficiency levels. If there are existing examples of strands of these MPIs in the standards document that match up to the content of the curriculum, the work is much easier. If there are not, original MPIs with a language function, content, and necessary supports are created. These serve as critical definitions of what students will be expected to do by the end of the instruction that surrounds the content of the curriculum.

Evaluating texts

The next part of the process is to decide whether the texts from the original curriculum unit are suitable for the ELs in a teacher’s class. Even if they are considered to be very complex and not in concert with the proficiency levels of the ELs, they need not be ruled out. Those texts as well as matching suggestions from the CCSS appendices should be used as instructional texts for exposure. They can be read aloud to ELs; abbreviated parts of them can be used for analysis; and they also can be broken down with partner or group work. While students might not get the most from complex text if they are working with it independently, they still need exposure to grade-level text with the necessary supports. These texts are programmed into the template, followed by additional adapted or supplemental text selections that students will be able to more easily interact with independently because of their accessibility features.

Instructional components

Another important step is identifying the various elements of the unit that will be included and prepared in instruction. This includes:

  • Unit themes, topics, and concepts
  • Content objectives
  • Language objectives, along with the word level, sentence, and discourse level language needed
  • Skills and background knowledge needed to master content
  • Supports and strategies that can be used for instruction, differentiation, and assessment
  • Materials to be used

Examining sociocultural context

Sociocultural context is also carefully considered for each unit and described in detail. Examining sociocultural context engages teachers in identifying challenges that students may face in interacting with particular texts (socially, emotionally or academically) or in learning the content deeply and producing the products that are required to show what they know. An example of considering sociocultural context might be an in-depth Social Studies curriculum unit about a particular war or battles in that war. A student who has emigrated from a war-torn country may have a strong emotional struggle with reading or writing about a similar topic. Young children who have emigrated from a country with a warm climate who are asked to read and write about snow in fictional passages or informational text probably have no background knowledge about this type of precipitation. Likewise, if a unit assessment involves writing an extended essay and the EL is only producing phrases or short sentences, it is unlikely that they will be able to produce a longer piece of writing. Therefore an alternate assessment would have to be developed. These are all factors that must be considered when transforming a curriculum unit.

Final objectives

As a final step, end-of-unit targets/objectives are developed along with formative and summative assessments that will measure growth toward both language and content standards. Most importantly, strategies and scaffolding techniques for listening, speaking, reading and writing that match the essential question, content of each unit, and the assessments are outlined.

Concluding Thoughts

Using a unit template to analyze and dissect existing or newly developed CCSS-aligned curricular units that have been designed for the general population who are at or near grade level with little consideration for ELs has been a productive way to help my ESL teachers break down the rigorous concepts of the CCSS. It has also allowed them to create an outline of what they can do to move ELs toward meeting the standards. Most importantly, it has assisted them in doing what they do best – teach rigorous content and academic language to a discourse level simultaneously. This is what high-quality ESL teachers have been doing for years, and once they realize this, they will see that what seems like a daunting task to the average teacher is already second nature to them!

Share My Lesson. For teachers, by teachers.

National Education Association. How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners.

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