Dr. Kenji Hakuta
Dr. Kenji Hakuta is the Co-Chair of Stanford University's Understanding Language initiative and a leading expert in the implementation of the Common Core State Standards with ELLs. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Hakuta discusses how he became interested in the bilingual education field, describes how Understanding Language is addressing the challenges of helping ELLs meet the CCSS, and addresses ELL-specific questions around hot topics such as pre-reading and assessment.
An interview transcript and biography can be found below.
Part I: Understanding Language
Getting started in bilingual education
I got introduced into the issue of English learner education when I was a psychologist teaching in the Psychology department at Yale University doing work with bilingual children and looking at the positive benefits of bilingualism. It's a line of research that has been picked up recently around the benefits of bilingualism for executive function and even the delay of the onset of dementia in older people.
But I was working on some earlier lines on that. And in the course of doing that work, I got to know the bilingual student population in New Haven, Connecticut, which was mostly Puerto Rican. And I got into it in a funny period. In some ways, Secretary William Bennett got me into this, he was Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration.
And he was making a big, kind of a political maneuver around politicizing bilingual education, native language and so forth. And because I was doing work that highlighted the positive aspects of bilingual education, I became sort of a target of some of that debate.
So that's how I got introduced into it and it's really been interesting seeing how the field has evolved from simply a single kind of controversy over whether to use native instruction or not to what standards-based instruction means. And the Common Core really represents the most recent wave of how to include all students in the attainment of high expectations as represented by the standards.
Kenji's language background
My native language is Japanese and I also have picked up quite a bit of Spanish in the course of my work. I was born in Japan and grew up there and then I went to international schools in Japan where I learned English. But my home language was always Japanese.
Understanding Language's mission
The Understanding Language Initiative came about in response to the – well, it really is in response to the challenge of including English language learners in this newest wave of standards-based reform. I have been involved in sort of such efforts in the two previous waves of standards- based reform, during the Clinton era, Improving America's Schools Act with standards-based reform first emerged on the policy scene and then with No Child Left Behind and its implementation. And of course now we are trying to reauthorize the ESEA, but the Common Core is really a big part of what is going on.
And a group of educators who kind of saw both that the enormous challenges that raising the standards would present to English language learners, but also then we saw the opportunities. Because when you look at the Common Core, they really represent a demand for engaged use of language by students in a way that I think highlights many of the higher functions of language.
The actual use of language for explanation and debate and discussion and arguments and so forth related to the content, that that really represented a true opportunity for English language learners if we could really seize and develop it.
Including different perspectives
It's clear that the standards alone don't mean much if it doesn't come along with policy supports and implementation. And implementation is complicated because it involves states and school districts and schools within that and teachers. So it's clear that you need a group that can reflect all of those constituencies.
So our thinking was that we would want representation from some of the original writers of the standards, so we have people who were involved in the ELA and the math Common Core, as well as the Next Generation Science Framework which became the standards.
We have ELL experts who represent those domains, as well as again, because it's implementation and policy supports are important, we've involved people from the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of Great City Schools, as well as people involved in professional development of teachers.
Research on language shifts
For one thing, we are housed in a university, so we wrote a bunch of papers. So we have some academic papers that are posted on our website, that is ell.stanford.edu. And so academic papers that address the language demands and the content areas, as well as the changes in the ways in which language is characterized.
And the big shift in sort of the way in which language is characterized in the Common Core is not as just the grammatical or the vocabulary or the semantics structure in the language, but also the ways in which it is used by students for learning.
So take the mathematical practices involving understanding the reasoning of others and having the students to talk about how they understand mathematical concepts. So we have kind of elaborated on that in our papers.
We also are posting some instructional resources, not that we are going to build out the Common Core, but rather as examples.
Essentially the implementation of the Common Core will have to involve some combination of what publishers provide, as well as what's produced locally by either school districts or even at the school site level to support the Common Core.
So we want to have examples out there that show what it means to maintain the rigor that is expected by the Common Core in the content area, but also providing language opportunities for English language learners. We also feel that our materials would also model what good language is for all students, not just English language learners.
"Principles for ELL Instruction"
The principles really extract from the examples, the instructional resources that we put out there. the maintenance of rigor, modeling of good language, not getting stuck on the form of language, but rather what it's used for because that's often a stumbling block, especially when you get content teachers involved.
We also talk about the importance of collaboration, that you need to create opportunities in which the responsibility for teaching English language learners doesn't just rest with the teacher who carries the ESL or the ELD teacher label, that it's really the responsibility of all teachers.
Middle School Exemplar on Persuasion
The instructional unit that we have posted out there right now on English language arts for middle school takes one of the examples that is part of the Common Core discussion for all students, which is Lincoln's Gettysburg address. And of course now we lucked out by having Lincoln as a movie come out, so that is sort of woven itself in the popular culture as well.
But what we do is we spiral, so it's not just a lesson, it's a series of lesson in an instructional unit that is addressing the issue of persuasion and persuasive messages with the Gettysburg address being one. And it's a very complex persuasive message because it's not just sort of about the moment, but speaks to the idea of democracy and people.
And so we provide various background readings that lead up to it, provide opportunities for scaffolding by engaging students in various activities that require them to use language to talk, using jigsaw and other kinds of instructional strategies.
And so we are essentially trying to model what instruction would look like that engages or that entails students using rich language, talking to each other. We build further from Lincoln's Gettysburg address to more contemporary pieces that students read around the civil rights movement.
And then we end up with a speech that was given, it's on You Tube, it's a girl addressing the United Nations around its environmental responsibility and challenges students to write their own persuasive speech. And so it really builds and shows how rigor can be achieved even for English language learners.
It is primarily intended for students in sort of the intermediate to advanced levels of English language proficiency. We are working on something that is more appropriate for students who are beginners. But we hope that what it does is to both model, encourage, invite discussion, invite debate. It's not a perfect unit, no unit is perfect, but we want to get it out there just as an exemplar.
Piloting the Persuasion Unit
We sort of had several district teams review it just on paper over the summer and then this year we are implementing it in three pilot districts, Chicago and Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Denver.
And what we are doing is we are kind of creating a reality show out of it by documenting the challenges of implementation. So we are doing some of the professional development support, but also have a documentation team that will be both collecting data, as well as a film crew that will capture some of the implementation and we'll be sharing that through our website.
Student engagement and Common Core
In terms of how students are responding to our work, I mean we just have anecdotal evidence. Students seem quite engaged, excited. One student said in Oakland who tried it said that she had learned more in this unit than all the year and so forth.
They are just testimonials, but it is really exciting to be able to see this kind of engagement. But no, we are in our pilot collecting more systematic data from students, but so far we are just piloting.
Upcoming work on math resources
The next ones we'll have up are around math. These won't be units, but rather annotations of supports for math instruction. We are working with the work that the Math Design Collaborative is putting out. And so these are all sort of publicly available resources.
The math group felt that there are already some existing resources out there that we could further annotate for English language learners. But a lot of that has to do with sort of supporting sort of mathematical understanding and language that advances mathematical understanding.
Part II: Common Core & ELLs
Encouraging student language use
I think in order to deliver these lessons successfully and for teachers to be facilitators of the use of language and to be very disciplined facilitators of that rather than just sort of say you guys talk or just turn to your partner and talk, but rather to really have it be focused on the academic content, I think that's a shift for a lot of teachers.
I think you'll see this a lot if you want to sort of witness this yourself. You can go to various video resources that are out there of teaching and try to look for instances in which there's extended dialogue by students, either multiple sentences or utterances by students or a student building on another student and then there being discourse.
And I've tried to do that just to see, of the resources that are out there on the web, various websites with teaching examples and so forth. And if you go and try to listen for examples in which that is modeled, there aren't too many of them. But that's what we really need to do in order to create the kind of language-rich environments.
Pre-reading and the Common Core
I think what that whole issue ofavoiding pre-reading of text really comes from trying to avoid situations in which the joys of discovery of new information or the meaning of a text from reading it are removed because you are told before even reading the text, "This is what it's about."
And that's quite different from reading other texts that are, if these were a unit on persuasion, and so you think about Lincoln addressing the audience in the Gettysburg address and that it's an act of persuasion, saying this is really not just about this moment, but about sort of moments that extend across time, that there are other texts that one could read to, first of all, prepare, background knowledge of what the Civil War is about and so forth. You're not telling the student that's what it's about, you're giving students background, especially English learners who may not have the cultural history to take that, so giving them sort of more specific background readings on that and then having them read and even, not all students reading all of them, but having jigsawing some of that and then having them sort of discuss it prior to the reading.
And even before that we kind of warm the students up by having them look at advertising – advertising, a form of persuasion. So I think there are just different ways that you could address the, kind of preparing students for reading complex text without having them kind of not experience the joy of discovery of what is in a text.
The role of ELP standards
The idea of English language proficiency standards for most states came with No Child Left Behind where states were required under Title III to develop English language proficiency standards that align to the content standards but it didn't really say what that would entail.
But most states developed English language proficiency standards usually focused around some kind of, well, around the four skill areas, reading, writing, speaking and listening, but also with typically an emphasis on vocabulary, grammar, communication and less on content.
The WIDA standards did address, does address language use in the content areas, oo by and large the standards in English language proficiency that were, that currently exist are separated from content standards.
The ELPD Framework
If you were a policy wonk, you would be really interested in the fact that the push towards aligning or linking the English language proficiency standards to the Common Core came about through administered regulation rather than through legislation.
That is there was a requirement in the waiver from ESEA flexibility that state chiefs had to sign in their application that their state would adopt English language proficiency standards that correspond to the Common Core.
And throwing that language of "correspond" in there really kind of threw in a additional motivation for people to pick up and say, "Well, what is the relationship between our English language proficiency standards and the Common Core?"
And what the Council of Chief State School Officers did in their wisdom in developing a document that they called the English Language Proficiency Development Framework, or ELPD framework. And I think even though that document is written for state standards people to look at their state standards and in a sense certify that it corresponds to the Common Core, it can be a quite useful document for teachers to look at some pieces of it, especially the pieces that break down the content area so that there is a separate analysis for English language arts, for math and for science that talk about the classroom uses of language in those areas and how language might be used.
And unpacking that could be a really kind of interesting exercise for language teachers or English as a second language teachers to do in kind of collaboration with the content teachers to talk about what would language look like in those content areas.
And so I would say that currently the English language proficiency standards are in that state of evolution where they are looking not just at sort of internally the language, what's the grammar, what's the vocabulary, what are the semantic sort of structures of the language and so forth, but rather to say, "What kinds of discourse are required among students in the content areas to build knowledge?"
And so I think that's a pretty kind of exciting connection made between language and content that is enabled by the ways in which the Common Core captures language.
Implementing the CCSS
Where I think there is the best engagement is in schools where they don't think of Common Core implementation as, "Oh, okay, so it's a new day, let's sort of forget what we have been doing and let's just sort of do Common Core," whatever that means, I think that the most thoughtful implementation really comes about when a school district or a school thinks about Common Core in the context of what they are already doing.
So they it invites thoughtfulness on the part of school leaders to say well, "We've been working on 21st century skills. And so if we are thinking about 21st century skills, what is the relationship between that and the Common Core and how does the Common Core help us build on that?" Or, "The Common Core really seems at odds with what we're doing, which is primarily a grammar focused English as a second language program and we've been doing a lot of it, maybe we should rethink how that goes."
And so it really is using the change as an occasion for visiting current practice and trying to be strategic. If the Common Core is sort of a crisis because otherwise, I mean if we don't do something various problems will happen.
I guess the saying is never let a good crisis go to waste. So districts that are doing that, saying, "Okay, well let's use this as a way of galvanizing, to create more teamwork among our school staff and so forth,"I think those are the most promising areas.
State help for small districts
So the country has 15,000 school districts. I don't know how many members the Council of Great City Schools has, but they represent the larger districts which contain most of the students in the country and that number is fairly small.
So something like 14,700 or eight hundred school districts are on the smaller side and they have very different capacity than large school districts do. In most places, school districts, large school districts have more staff than the State Department does.
But then you have many districts in which you have two or three people doing all of the work, administrative work of the entire school district. And I think they are going to need, they are often, there are many visionary small school districts, but there are many that are just basically making ends meet and they are the last to hear about the Common Core.
And so I think that there's an important role for states and states need to think what are the mechanisms that they have in place for professional development. Of course, in most states they play a big role in materials around professional development and what they should be doing in supporting the small districts.
In the case of California, one mechanism are the county offices of education, which are intermediaries. There are these various federal centers, regional labs and centers that need to play a role. But their capacity is pretty taxed, too. So I think the state really just has to step up and think about how they can play a more supportive role.
ELL assessment and the Common Core
I think the assessments will drive a lot. I think the implementation of the assessments is going to be messy because they are on a very aggressive timeframe trying to do a lot. And that some of the parts of the assessment that are the most important such as formative assessment are the slowest moving at the moment.
So it's really, the parts of the assessments that will be implemented initially will be the ones that look more traditional. So even the assessments themselves are going to kind of lag in terms of delivering on the promise of the Common Core.
And so the current assessments that we have that accompany the implementation of the Common Core is really just the rough draft of where we need to be. And I hope in the process of doing that that we don't lose sight of the fact that where knowledge gets built is through the meaningful, rich conversations that happen between students and that is shifting the role of teachers as we go along. But education is a very slow moving enterprise.
A new approach to assessment
In my ideal world there would be kind of a different kind of assessment that would take the sorts of assessments that are being developed right now for summative assessment, but would be more assessments that are embedded throughout the year and could be used in formative fashion, but also aggregated over time.
So that it gives a sense of how the students are doing and give immediate feedback and that teachers find meaningful. And then that the actual sort of high stakes assessment for individual students be really kind of irregular, that it doesn't have to be annual.
I don't see any reason why something like that needs to be annual. But also that we sample much more broadly and deeply about, in areas by using matrix sampling, that is not all students take the same test so we can get sort of aggregate pictures.
We already are living in a world of big data where we know how to analyze massive amounts of data that are collected sort of on the fly. And ideally that is I think how we should be monitoring and assessing our system.
And in that world we would also not be assessing sort of language in a separate assessment from content. I mean, even in this current world we're talking about trying to develop the best of a system in which we separate out language assessment and content assessment.
They should be really seamless in the long run. And of course, the instruction needs to go along with that. But that is looking at it in fifteen, twenty years. That is the next generation.
A long-term view of the Common Core
I think that the Common Core implementation is itself a very long-term proposition. I think we are talking about major shifts in instruction. And I think there's already some political pushback anyway. But I think you just have to think about this in terms of series of reforms.
I look back in history and say well, the Common Core is really the third wave. We've been at this since the 1980s. So we also need to say in order to appreciate where we are today, we need to look back thirty years and we should also look forward thirty years and say, "Where are we going to be in thirty year's time?"
Optimism about the Common Core
My main closing thought it really having just said that this is a slow moving thing, that there is a sense of urgency because every student is growing and developing and so forth.
I think that, I am sort of much more optimistic than pessimistic about where we are today, partly because as I said at the beginning of this conversation, I came into this field during a time of contentiousness over bilingual education.
And that was sort of the sole defining issue and I spent about the first half of my career trying to get the field out of just thinking of that as the single issue. I mean, I think it's still an issue, but it isn't the only issue and many more, and the Common Core has brought focus to it.
And I think that partly that the demographics have forced the shift. It is no longer a marginal issue, it's a central issue in state policy thinking. People are recognizing that if English learners don't succeed, the whole system is going to fail.
So I think there is a sense of kind of understanding and appreciation of that's the case.
So that shift I think is why people are paying much more attention now to the research.
And this research has always been there, it's just that people are paying more attention to it, to the benefits of bilingualism. So I think the receptivity to these issues in the general public is warming up. I think if we kind of address it right at this moment in time, we are going to be much better off.
Part III: Language and Content
The role of ESL teachers in collaboration
So English as a second language teachers or ELD teachers, however you want to characterize, are really far more aware of language. They have a high level of meta linguistic knowledge about English, as well as other languages.
They have general knowledge about the structure, the communicative demands and so forth about language. So, they are really the resident experts.
You can't expect English as a second language teachers to at the same time be polymats (ph.) about every subject area that they work in, that students are learning in – science, math, literature, history and other subject areas as well, art. So they really need to collaborate and be a resource.
Technology and language instruction
I do have one free web resource, Word Sift, it is wordsift.com which provides vocabulary support for teachers looking at, so you can enter text into this box and it provides a cloud of words that represents the text.
It connects the words to visual resources, like on the pictures from the web, as well as the sentences that contain those words. And it's a tool that kind of allows you to sort of slice and dice text. But it also can use some interpretation by people who know language or about language.
So if teachers, content teachers are looking, for example, for a sentence that contains a specific word, so you are reading a passage about Darwin and you want to look at something like mutation, sentences in which the word mutation or gene or whatever gets used.
If you can display all the sentences in which mutation appears, of those sentences, you might want to pick a few to really focus on. And language teachers are the ones who have the expertise to know what might be the best ones that would really advance understanding about language.
Administrators' support for good instruction
I think administrators really play a really important role in how language and content get put together. They live in, often in school districts and in schools where there's a separated time for English as a second language, the so-called ESL or the ELD block. That is often created because of civil rights laws or for compliance reasons to say we are doing this and addressing the specific needs of the students.
And so they think of that block as really a checklist in a compliance sort of world rather than thinking about it as an integrated part of the education for English language learners. And that doesn't have to be the case. You really could think about it as integrated, but it really then needs that, the additional step which is a challenge of thinking about it as a time when collaboration comes about across the language teacher and the content teachers.
And in order for that to be, time is our most valuable commodity. We're already investing 45 minutes of time in many cases to English language development, instruction for English learners. And that's a huge chunk of the instructional time.
And we are probably not using it as wisely as we could if we don't engage content teachers in it. And so we are asking leaders in schools and school districts to, in a sense, take a risk. We are asking them to invest valuable planning time and professional development time and so forth in saying, "How do we collaborate over this time?"
But in some ways, I think it's a risk well worth taking because otherwise it just sort of, with the Common Core I think ELD time becomes, is at risk of being even more isolated than it already is.
Preparing teachers to work with ELLs
In terms of teacher training, I think you could think about both what happens in colleges and universities and pre-service, as well as what happens during sort of the induction phase of teaching where the first few years of teaching and what kind of mentoring and support is provided.
I think in induction, I think the way you address it is really around the school culture and the school climate around collaboration. I think it makes a world of difference to a new teacher coming into a school in which they feel sort of invited to collaborate with other teachers, especially around sort of the language demands of the content areas and ones where they are expected to sit in that modular out there and deliver English as a second language or deliver kind of what you're expected to in your own isolated room.
And so I think that's really important for district administrators of induction programs to really think hard about how to make the most effective use of that.
Aligning pre-service and certification programs
In states like where I live, in California, the certification body for teachers sits quite separate from the state board.
And so the state board is very engaged in these issues of Common Core and even integrating the content with the English language development standards that the state recently adopted. They are very engaged in that.
And the teacher certifying body is sort of out there and they are the ones who govern it. They have heard of the Common Core and so forth, but that's not really central to what they are concerned about. So I think they kind of need to get the message and to really start thinking about it as an opportunity and then somehow think of ways in which they could motivate their teachers to shift practice.
Because what you really need to do is to get the content area curriculum and instruction faculty, the science or the math teachers, to think of themselves as supporters of disciplinary language and not many of them do. So I think that shift is necessary.
Online training with "MOOCs"
I also think that this is a real moment of opportunity for the online education movement. If you're in a university today, you can't help but hear the word MOOC, which is an ugly acronym, but MOOC is Massive Online Open Courses.
At my own university at Stanford, we are MOOC-ing just like other universities. And I think getting good content out there through MOOCs that can then be picked up by pre-service programs can be another way to go. In fact, we are developing a MOOC for the summer, to release this summer that would address some of these issues.
Dr. Kenji Hakuta is the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University and the Co-Chair of the Understanding Language initiative. He is an experimental psycholinguist who has worked on research, practice, and policy supporting English Language Learners for over 30 years. He recently served on the Validation Committee for the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Additional information about Dr. Hakuta and his courses, publications, and research are available through his Stanford University website.