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Lesson 6.3

Ensuring All Kids Learn to Read, Write and Speak English

School is harder for 40% of California students because…

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What kind of mastery of the English language do high school graduates need to be successful in college, career, and life?

That question was the starting point for the development of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy.

The standards define grade-by-grade expectations for four broad areas of English language readiness: reading, writing, "speaking and listening," and the use of language.

English Literacy in Education

The Common Core standards establish expectations that are broader than English class: they set requirements for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

From about 6th grade on, teachers in history, science, and other subjects help students develop and use their literacy skills through practice. For example, the standards don’t say a student has to take physics. But if a student does take physics, then the teacher needs to supplement content information with instruction on how to read the textbook, write about the subject, and so on. Students develop English skills in many classes — not just in English class.

The Common Core defines a set of capacities that students need to exhibit with increasing "fullness and regularity" (Yes, it's education jargon, but read on. We explain.)

The Common Core English Language Arts Capacities

They demonstrate independence.
They build strong content knowledge.
They respond to the varying demands of audience,
task, purpose, and discipline.
They comprehend as well as critique.
They value evidence.
They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.

To provide guidance to school districts and curriculum developers, the state officially adopted a curriculum framework that sets out expectations for textbooks and other instructional materials. The framework is aligned to the standards.

School districts approve their own materials.

In the past, school districts could only purchase books that were specifically approved by the State Board of Education. In 2013, California removed this requirement, allowing for more local control. School districts now have the authority to certify that the materials they select are aligned with the standards.

California has a weak record when it comes to literacy. In 2019, California placed 41st in the nation on 4th grade reading and 39th in the nation on 8th grade reading. (Read more about this in our blog.)

English Learners

In California, more than 40% of public school children speak a language other than English as their “first” language. In education-speak, these students are called “English Learners” (EL) or “English Language Learners” (ELL).

In California, more than 40% of public school children are "English Learners" who speak a language other than English as their “first” language.

Schools gauge students' progress toward fluency using a relatively new set of tests, the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC). After an initial assessment, students are tested annually to evaluate their progress. When a student scores high enough, teachers and parents may reclassify them as fluent.

Schools and Districts Must Support Literacy Development

If your school has more than twenty English Learners, according to California law it must set up an English Language Advisory Committee (ELAC). This committee's purpose is to advise your school's leadership, particularly when it comes to determining the goals expressed in the School Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA).

Your school district is also required to have a similar district-level committee (DELAC) to advise the district's school board on programs and services for English learners. This advice is meant to include input on the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP — see Lesson 7.10). The ELAC and DELAC may be particularly important if your district is expanding programs for bilingual education based on the 2017 passage of Proposition 58.

English Learning in California was a focus area of the 2018 Getting Down to Facts II studies. Unfortunately, the limitations of California's education data systems severely hampered the study. Among the indirect findings, the research suggests that English Learners are probably more likely than other California students to be taught by early career teachers. In their conclusion, the authors argue for more clarity:

"The state should be concerned if new teachers, who are already struggling with so much, are particularly underprepared to teach ELs. Ensuring that novice teachers are adequately prepared with the specialized skills, knowledge and dispositions to teach ELs is of paramount importance to a state that concentrates one-quarter of all ELs in the nation — an extremely vulnerable and at-risk population by any measure."

If your school district has a pattern of assigning inexperienced teachers to schools with high concentrations of English Learners, your Site Council, ELAC and DLAC should be talking about it. School districts are obligated to provide cost-free training to members of ELACs and DELACs. (Ahem... May we point out that Ed100 is available in English and Spanish? If your ELAC members aren't aware of Ed100, please drop them a note!)

Bilingual education

In November 2012, the State Board of Education adopted a set of English Language Development standards to help guide instruction for English learners.

California's English Learner Roadmap, created in 2017, sets out a path for improving instruction for English language learners. In 2018, research conducted for the Getting Down to Facts II project suggested a to-do list that includes stronger investment in programs to prepare bilingual teachers and improved access to preschool for English learners.

The Politics of Multilingual Education

Unsurprisingly, political considerations electrify discussion of these matters. In 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, which required that nearly all California public school instruction (except foreign language classes) be conducted in English. Times change. In 2016, voters took another look at the issue and overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58. The law repealed restrictions on bilingual education, allowing schools to choose how to teach English learners, whether in English–only, bilingual, or other types of programs.

Educators in California are not limited to teaching in English

This policy shift is reflected in Global California 2030, an initiative of the California Department of Education (CDE) to embrace the multiple languages of California’s students. In describing the goals of the program, the CDE declares that "By 2030, we want half of all K–12 students to participate in programs leading to proficiency in two or more languages, either through a class, a program, or an experience."

Ed100 Lesson 6.16 provides research on the importance of biliteracy skills, and on the California State Seal of Biliteracy).

English teachers lack nothing when it comes to passion for their work. A prolonged disagreement about how best to teach elementary English once earned such explosive headlines that it was dubbed "the reading wars." The debate centered on whether all students should be taught to sound out words phonetically (the "phonics" camp) or whether it was enough to recognize them as distinct words in context (the "whole language" camp). Over time the emotion drained out of this issue without fully resolving it; learning materials evolved to include elements of both approaches, leaving teachers without a clear mandate to teach phonics. Some argue that the continued tolerance of "whole language" teaching methods is part of the reason for California's weak literacy scores, especially for students who struggle with reading.

A new debate is evolving in the digital era: what constitutes “reading” and how does that play into how we define literacy? Now, you might be thinking the answer is pretty simple. Students with reading literacy skills can look at words on a page and answer questions about the content, right? But what about content from videos, audio, or other digital sources? Surely comprehension of non-written sources has some role in students’ overall literacy. Teachers, education policymakers and test designers are currently grappling with how large a role that will be.

For now, at least, reading remains the primary skill that matters for test scores and progress in school. As time goes on, the debate might be settled in the same way the "reading wars" weren't: Elements of both reading skills and digital skills will be included without clear guidance. So, how can you best support the literacy development of your child right now?

Next Steps for Developing English Language Skills

Literacy starts at home. The earlier the better. There is some evidence that children from high-income families are exposed to more words than children from families on welfare — the gap was once reckoned to be as large as 30 million words. Research now indicates that reading to children builds richer language skills than talking with them. It makes sense: The language in books is usually more enriching than everyday speech.

How is your school supporting English Learners? This advocacy guide from EdTrust-West helps parents and communities know their rights.

Schools and parent groups can do a lot to support literacy at home. For example, Reading Rockets and Colorin Colorado provide downloadable fliers in many languages. The California State PTA provides grade level guides to help parents understand Common Core literacy standards and see if their children are on track.

Next we’ll look at fluency of a different sort: science, technology, engineering, and math, known in edu-lingo as the "STEM" subjects.

Updated September 2017
Updated October 2018, Feb 2019, Mar 2019, Dec 2019, Dec 2020, Oct 2021.


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 24, 2020 at 12:29 pm
These information links should be prominent in PTA literature given to schools.
user avatar
Frida November 4, 2019 at 10:32 am
It is actually not true that the “reading wars” are over. There is overwhelming evidence that all children learn to read when exposed to explicit phonics. There is no scientific support for the “cueing” method. I suggest you read the article below or listen to the podcast. I would also suggest that anyone interested in why only 37% of American kids read at grade level, reads “Reading in the Brain” by French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 11:10 am
I have heard anecdotally only that there are disincentives to recategorizing ELL students from being less proficient to proficient because the school (or district?) loses money that comes to support ELL students. If you are successful and the students "graduate," then the school suffers. Is there some truth to this?
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 2, 2019 at 1:04 pm
The short answer is yes. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF, explained in Ed100 Lesson 8.5) directs additional funds to school districts (not schools) based on the need to provide additional instruction for English learners. When students are reclassified English Proficient, the additional funds are not provided... but reclassification practices vary widely by school district. Reclassification was a major source of study in the Getting Down to Facts II study, which concludes that the policies in this area are "in flux."
user avatar
nkbird August 12, 2018 at 4:21 pm
There is a typo in that pie chart -- the numbers don't add up.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 13, 2018 at 4:38 pm
The chart might need clearer wording but the numbers are correct. The pie reflects the fraction of all English learners. The percentages are of all California public school enrollment (of which English Learners are a subset.)
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 2, 2017 at 11:16 am
The California Department of Education has practice tests for English lanugauge learners.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:05 pm
"The Word Gap and 1 City's Plan" outlines a promising strategy for communities to look at
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 12, 2017 at 9:54 am
From San Francisco Public Press: "How San Francisco Paved the Way for California to Embrace Bilingual Education" outlines the growth and success of programs and implications for Prop. 58.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 12, 2016 at 1:43 pm
The future of Proposition 227 is on the ballot in California in November 2016.
The California Multilingual Education Act (Senate Bill 1174) repeals the requirement that all children be taught English by being taught in English and instead allows school districts and county offices of education, in consultation with language experts in the field and parents, to determine the best language instruction methods and language acquisition programs to implement.
Find out more...
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 9, 2015 at 10:51 am
Here is the link to the California English Language Standards Electronic edition.
A little easier reading presentation:
user avatar
g4joer6 April 15, 2015 at 9:39 pm
The English Language Development Standards doc in the link above is a bit overwhelming. I like the idea of recognizing "emerging" skills. Thanks for all this good info. Will review it a second time.
user avatar
dnplank May 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm
We persist in thinking of English learners as if they are somehow marginal to California's education system, but in fact more than half of the students entering California public schools speak a language other than English--Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Arabic and dozens of others--at home. Many other students in urban and rural areas speak non-standard dialects of English and have little or no familiarity with the linguistic conventions on which academic success depends when they enter school. And yet both our policy and our practice too often remain bound to the comfortable but mistaken idea that teachers and students speak the same language.

If we want our students to master the conventions of standard English we have to TEACH them those conventions, not just in ESL class but across the curriculum. Doing this would require us to think very differently about how schools work, though, so instead we shift the main burden of responsibility to the students themselves.
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