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What kind of mastery of the English language do high school graduates need if they are going to be successful in college, career, and life? That question was the starting point for the creation of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy that are now driving much of what gets taught in California’s classrooms.
The standards define grade-by-grade expectations across four broad areas: reading, writing, "speaking and listening," and the use of language. They also describe a set of "capacities" that students need to exhibit with increasing “fullness and regularity” (see below).
The Common Core English Language Arts Capacities
The standards establish expectations that are broader than English class, as their official title indicates: The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 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 in the specific content areas. The standards don’t say a student has to take physics, for example. 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.
To provide guidance to school districts and curriculum developers, the state officially adopts a "curriculum framework" that sets out expectations for textbooks and other instructional materials aligned to the standards. In the past, the state also adopted specific materials and earmarked funds for their purchase. With the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula in California and other legislation, districts will no longer have to purchase state-adopted materials. But they will have to certify that materials align with the standards.
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”
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) until they are “reclassified” as English proficient, a process that varies by district. One important and required yardstick is the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which measures the English reading, writing, speaking and listening skills of EL students.
In November 2012, the State Board of Education adopted a set of English Language Development standards to help guide instruction for English learners.
To meet the unique learning needs of non-English speaking children, some recommend separate learning materials and classes. Some also propose that a multi-lingual educational system should embrace and expand these students’ proficiency in their primary language.
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. But times change. In 2016, voters took another look at the issue and overwhelmingly passed Proposition 58, which repealed the restrictions on bilingual education in Prop. 227. Ed100 Lesson 6.16 provides research on the importance of biliteracy skills).
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 students should learn to sound out words phonetically (the "phonetics" camp) or to recognize them as distinct words (the "whole language" camp). This complex debate no longer seems to spark much emotion; learning materials evolved to include elements of both approaches.
Literacy starts at home. The earlier the better. By age 3, children from high-income families are exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Research now indicates that reading to children, more than talking, builds greater literacy skills. It makes sense: The language in books is usually more enriching than everyday speech.
Schools and parent groups can use this research 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.
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