TESOL Discussion: What is the role of the ESL teacher in the Common Core?

Earlier this month, TESOL International Association invited a group of guests from the ELL field to its national headquarters in Alexandria, VA to discuss the role of the ESL teacher in the implementation of the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Attendees included ESL teachers, district administrators, researchers, and policymakers.  Rosa Aronson, TESOL’s Executive Director, moderated the discussion along with John Segota, TESOL’s Associate Executive Director for Public Policy & Professional Relations, and our blogger, Diane Staehr Fenner (also a frequent collaborator with TESOL).

Educator Voices

To kick off the meeting, ESL teachers and district leaders were given the floor for the first large group discussion to talk about how CCSS implementation is working so far in their districts, while policymakers and researchers listened  to their reports and asked questions.  The degree of involvement in CCSS implementation varied across the group, and a point often repeated was that “as the administrator goes, so goes the building.”  That is, if the administrator sends a message that ELLs are “everybody’s kids,” that message is far more likely to be absorbed and embraced by the entire staff, which in turn is reflected in CCSS planning.

The teachers and leaders also discussed the kinds of CCSS professional development they were beginning to see in their districts and what role they were (or weren’t) playing in CCSS planning. For example, Anne Marie Foerster Luu, the 2013 TESOL Teacher of the Year, reported that she was asked by a colleague why she was attending a CCSS meeting recently held at her school, suggesting that her colleague didn't see the ESL team as part of the school's Common Core implementation. At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Karen C. Woodson, Director of the Division of ESOL/Bilingual Programs in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, discussed the importance of “leveraging the capacity” and linguistic knowledge of ESL teachers in the era of Common Core and making sure they have a place at the table in CCSS planning.

Following the big group discussion, attendees were broken into small groups in order to delve more deeply into the issues raised by the teachers before coming together one more time to share concluding thoughts. A number of challenging yet intriguing questions emerged from the afternoon, including the following:

ELLs and the Common Core

  • How are schools and district leaders taking ELLs’ needs into account when planning for the CCSS?
  • What role does language play in the Common Core State Standards?
  • What kinds of academic language instruction do all students, and particularly ELLs, need to successfully master the CCSS?
  • What kinds of supports and bridges will beginner ELLs need when working with the standards?

ESL Teachers and the Common Core

  • In what ways can/should ESL teachers be included in CCSS planning?
  • How can ESL teachers better position themselves as language experts within their building in order to share their expertise across disciplines?
  • What role are English language proficiency standards playing in district-level CCSS planning?
  • How is the ESL teacher responsible for helping ELLs meet the Common Core?
  • How can collaboration models be expanded and improved to build upon teachers’ individual strengths from both the content and ELL sides?


  • How do ELL placement and assessment models need to change to reflect the more rigorous standards? (For example, one educator reported that her district’s more rigorous math standards resulted in a higher number of Response-to-Intervention referrals for ELLs at her school rather than a review of the ways in which ELLs were being supported to meet the standards.)
  • What implications will the standards have in ELL sub-group accountability measures?
  • What implications will the CCSS have in the evaluation of ESL educators and other educators who teach ELLs?

Policy and Advocacy for ESL Teachers

  • How do current policy definitions of “highly qualified” educators impact the hierarchy of professional development teams and who is included in CCSS professional development?
  • How can educators ensure that the Common Core is sustainable for ELLs and their educators?
  • What are ESL teacher education programs doing to prepare their candidates for implementing the CCSS?
  •  What kinds of shifts are needed to empower ELL educators and to help them understand and embrace their role in the implementation of CCSS?
  • What does the shift mentioned in the previous bullet look like at school, district, and broader policy level?
  • What kind of talking points would help ESL teachers advocate for themselves in that role?

Phew!  As you can tell from the range and depth of the questions, it was quite an afternoon – but the attendees were optimistic that the CCSS could provide an opportunity for the kinds of paradigm shifts evident from these questions that ELL educators have been championing for a long time.

TESOL will continue to gather input about the role of ESL teachers in the Common Core from its members and at its upcoming conference in Dallas, TX, and they expect to publish a related policy brief in the spring.

To share your input on these questions and your experiences, feel free to comment on this blog post below – and stay tuned!


I am a Dual language teacher and a Common Core fascilitator for my school. I am also part of a district wide committee for designing and evaluating CCSS across our district. I believe ESL teachers need to get more involved in this kind of initiatives and speak out for what we believe and for what we know is best. We have a great amount of knowledge and expertise in the language and educational field and should use it to empower our colleagues and administrators make wise decisions for all our students. CCSS are for ALL students. Regardless of students' English proficiency, teachers should use differentiation strategies in the classroom, and keep high expectations for all students while respecting and valuing their home culture and language.

More questions than answers! There are many districts working on developing rigorous curriculums aigned with common core shifts and pushing for publishers to meet this demand with complex text for ells. ESL Teachers need to make the shifts and embrace the changes. No more dummy materials, low expectations and "how does this story make you feel" . Finally, on equal playing field and ells are everyones responsibility to move ahead!

Reader-response, connecting to texts is valuable. Critical thinking can be taught through multiple modes. We have to connect to our students, not just be drones teaching drone material.

It's important for ELL and reg ed teachers to talk about scaffolding approaches and reading strategies to help ELL students receive just the right amount of support. That "just the right amount" is the hardest part but the key to helping students reach higher standards. With too much support, students are not challenged, with not enough support, students become frustrated and may even quit. The same is true for teachers!

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