The Common Core State Standards and the Looming Linguistic Perfect Storm

By PrinciPal Connection posted 02-05-2014 13:00


Dennis Terdy has been a frequent national presenter and consultant in the field of English language learners for over 40 years, providing consulting for the Center for Applied Linguistics, World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), and school districts across the United States. Authoring one of the first sheltered ELL texts, Content ESL: Social Studies, his interest continues with making academic content accessible to all students especially with the complex linguistic demands of the Common Core State Standards. In addition, he served as developer and principal of the District 214 High School (Illinois) Newcomer Center, a nationally recognized, comprehensive single year high school program serving recently arrived immigrant students.

For more than a decade, dramatic communication pattern changes have been occurring in the United States. Consider the following:

  • The past twenty years have seen a 33 percent decline in the number of families who eat dinner together regularly. Parents and children are having decreasing opportunities to talk - across all socio-economic levels. (Doherty)
  • Young adults and teenagers are reading less than they were the last ten to fifteen years: 

Less than one-third of thirteen-year-olds are daily readers

The percentage of seventeen-year olds who read nothing at all for pleasure has doubled over a twenty-year period.
(National Endowment for the Arts, 2007)

Sherry Turkle in her ironically titled book, Alone Together, (2011) disturbingly notes the negative impact technology has had on communication patterns. Underscoring this, I witnessed the following one evening: three teen-aged boys sitting on the floor, two on a futon, and one in a chair. Each had a cell phone in hand staring intently at the screen. Then came a burst of laughter from one, then in sequence, the others. To my surprise, there was minimal interaction-minimal language being exchanged. They were texting – each other!

These revealing examples of diminishing language use come at a critical time with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Ironically, the expanded linguistic demands of the CCSS combined with the diminished and changing language patterns across our society may be creating a linguistic perfect storm. Just at a critical juncture for the US education system, more language, particularly academic language, is being demanded of students while there is a diminishing societal and cultural emphasis on those very skills. 

In the late 1970s in his work with English learners, Jim Cummin’s identified a simple linguistic distinction between everyday conversation, what he called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and academic or school language that he called Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) (1979). Interestingly, this distinction is quite relevant today with ALL learners. Kate Kinsella, adjunct faculty member at San Francisco State University’s Center for Teacher Efficacy and academic language researcher, more recently has stated that perhaps ALL students are Academic English learners (AELs) (Kinsella, 2013).

Children in a school context have linguistic expectations that are substantially different from informal settings outside of school. Today, in light of Kate Kinsella’s declaration and the ever-increasing linguistic demands within the Common Core State Standards, efforts need to be taken to infuse more explicit academic language emphasis and instruction into content classrooms for ALL students.

The following are four areas of consideration to address this need:

1. Recognize that every teacher is a teacher of language, academic language.

2. Identify and Use Content and Language Objectives

3. Explicitly model Academic Language

4. Build More Structured Interaction Opportunities into the Classroom

1. Recognize that every teacher is a teacher of language, academic language.
The first and most basic need is to recognize that academic language expectations are pervasive and increasing in our school system especially as we begin to implement the Common Core State Standards. Because of this emerging need, all teachers must acknowledge themselves as teachers of language, especially specialized content, academic language. This means, in addition to their content expertise, teachers should be able to Identify, in addition to vocabulary, pervasive language, expressions, and language functions that undergird their varied academic content areas. Plus, they need to explicitly teach and expect academic language use in the classroom.

The national effort to integrate the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) places an even greater emphasis on the expectation of student language, specifically academic language use. Kenji Hakuta of Stanford University and a leading researcher on bilingualism and second-language development notes that the new Content Core State Standards “raise the bar for content learning and highlight the role of construct-relevant disciplinary language.” He notes that the new standards, “Define language not just as in cognitive terms but also in terms of teacher-student and student-student discourse” (Hakuta, 2012). Basically, the new standards require that students engage in meaningful, focused academic discourse with an increased demand for the explicit application of multiple language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).

Kate Kinsella further emphasizes the expectations that accompany the CCSS. She says,

Four particular competencies are emphasized that represent decidedly new expectations for communication, reading, and writing development: 1) engaging with complex texts, with increased percentage of informational material; 2) conducting research and using evidence from diverse sources to construct verbal and written arguments; 3) participating in collaborative academic discussions and presentations; 4) and developing the advanced language proficiency to accomplish all of the above tasks (Kinsella, 2013).


These new expectations clearly demand expanded linguistic skills, academic language of ALL students.

2. Identify and Use Content and, in particular, Language Objectives

Over the past seven years, I have provided Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) training around the United States that targets mainstream teachers working with English learners. The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) Model is a research-based and validated instructional model that has proven effective in addressing the academic needs of English learners. However, one of the key elements of the SIOP Model is to assist teachers in creating and using Content and Language Objectives on a daily basis.  

The role of language objectives in instruction is particularly new for most teachers. The SIOP authors state, “Language objectives articulate for learners the academic language functions and skills that they need to master to fully participate in the lesson and meet the grade-level content standards” (Echevarria, 2008).

Language objectives reflect one of the four areas of listening, speaking, reading, and writing and are directly correlated to content objectives. Once a teacher determines the lesson topic from the appropriate content standards, the teacher will want to begin thinking about the academic language necessary for English learners to complete the tasks that support the content objectives. This identification of the academic language embedded in the lesson's content will become the basis for the lesson's language objectives. (Himmel, 2012) The following are examples of content and language objectives for a social studies lesson addressing the Civil War:

Content Objective: Students will be able to:

Compare and Contrast life in the North and life in the South prior to the Civil War.

Language Objective: Students will be able to:

Discuss at least two differences between the North and the South with a partner and share their findings with the class.

Himmel expands the benefit of using language objectives to all students noting, “The requisite academic language to be learned and mastered in each lesson are beneficial not only for language learners but for all students in a class, as everyone can benefit from the clarity that comes with a teacher outlining the requisite academic language to be learned and mastered in each lesson.” (Himmel, 2012)

With frequent SIOP classroom visits and coaching opportunities, I have seen remarkable positive responses from mainstream teachers in recent years particularly related to the use of language objectives.  After these visits, teachers consistently say that reflecting on and developing content, and in particular, language objectives, have changed their teaching.  Further, they have regularly stressed that using language objectives has provided them (and their students) with concrete insight into the prominent role language, primarily academic language, has in their instruction for ALL students not just English learners.

3. Explicitly model Academic Language 

Kinsella (2013) recommends initiating a “Register Campaign” one, which clarifies exactly what academic language includes. She emphasizes the need for the teacher to accurately model what is meant by academic language. Further, she suggests increasing the academic formality of language in the classroom. A basic initial step might include something as simple as referring to students in various ways as “co-authors” or “collaborators” instead of “kids” or “guys”. She accurately notes, “Children of all ages have infinite capacities to rise to the linguistic occasion when pressed.” Further, she goes on to stress,

An equally significant way to ramp up the register in daily instruction is to make mindful, meaningful word choices when assigning verbal directions or eliciting verbal contributions throughout a lesson. As language role models, we are frequently guilty of employing generic vocabulary with the intent of eliciting precise academic responses from students (Kinsella, 2013).

In short, conscious modeling of academic language sets the stage for more regular student use, clearly a prerequisite for the expanded CCSS. Kinsella concludes, “To actualize the goal of 21st century literacy skills for our increasingly diverse student population, every K-12 educator will need to simultaneously teach rigorous content while modeling and coaching adept academic English register with integrity and tenacity” (Kinsella, 2013).

4. Build More Structured Interaction Opportunities into the Classroom
Recently, I was performing classroom coaching visits at a local school district focusing on SIOP methods. During one day I observed two fifthgrade classes in the same school, during back-to-back periods that were surprisingly addressing the same social studies topic, Westward Expansion. In the first period, I witnessed a very talented teacher with very strong, engaging questioning skills leading the discussion. Students eagerly participated. I estimate fifty-sixty percent of the class was enthusiastically contributing during the ten to fifteen minute discussion and review session.

After a brief coaching post conference, I proceeded to the second observation. During this lesson, the next teacher posed very similar questions as the preceding instructor. However, first she asked students to talk over their initial responses with “their shoulder partners”, “buddies”, small group partners, etc. After each question, the teacher then posed the same question to the larger class for further feedback. However, what I witnessed in the large group responses in the second class was what was remarkable. Consistently, throughout the entire ten to fifteen minute questioning period, there was almost 100% participation. Not only did all hands go up, but also the responses were correct, in most cases, and remarkably articulate. Reflecting on this, I felt that I witnessed, first hand, the need for explicit and frequent listening and speaking practice opportunities, especially within the fertile academic language context of content area study.   

“The National Literacy Panel concluded in 2006 that high-quality reading instruction alone will be ‘insufficient to support equal academic success’ for ELLs, and that ‘simultaneous efforts to increase the scope and sophistication of these students’ oral language proficiency’ is also required.” (August and Shanahan, 2006)) The same may necessary for developing academic language in ALL students. 

To address the need to develop more academic language proficiency, especially for oral proficiency as a prerequisite for literacy skills development, three strategies are needed minimally:

a. Use cooperative grouping configurations regularly
Identify vocabulary and academic expressions (sentence stems) for practice
Provide an environment that supports and encourages the regular use of academic language


a. Use cooperative grouping configurations regularly
For almost thirty years, Spencer Kagan (1993) has been stressing the need to incorporate more cooperative grouping structures into the classroom to foster greater student engagement and language skills’ development. Among these structures are think-pair-share, shoulder partners, and an array of varied grouping configurations focused on problem solving and communication tasks related to academic content. Given the looming communication dilemma, it is even more critical now to integrate these activities regularly and explicitly to foster the development of academic language in the classroom.

b. Identify vocabulary and academic expressions (sentence stems) for practice
Similar to teaching a second language, all teachers should identify, model, and teach the use of key essential vocabulary and academic expressions related to their respective content areas. This includes the use in both oral and written communications. In Building Academic Language, Jeff Zwiers (2008) provides examples of key, commonly occurring academic vocabulary and expressions in varied content areas. The following, in particular, are samples from math:


Math Vocabulary
balance, power, proof, expression, mixed, real, function

Note the above vocabulary has very specific academic meanings within the context of math that is different from other subject areas.   

Math Academic Expressions
What is the measure of…?
If x equals…, then what is…?
I think the problem makes sense because…
I bet that…because…
I think the answer is…because…

Note these expressions are samples which are commonly used in math especially when asking and responding to questions providing explanations.

Selecting key vocabulary and expressions for practice and use is essential to address new CCSS demands in math while providing an academic language focus for content discussions and explanations.

c. Provide an environment that supports and encourages the regular use of academic language
Recognizing, modeling, and teaching are the initial steps in promoting academic vocabulary and expressions in the classroom. To address their learning and acquisition, teachers must provide frequent practice and application opportunities in which the use of new vocabulary and academic expressions is expected. This is readily facilitated when combined with expectations within cooperative grouping structures highlighted in a, above. During group communication activities, students can be required to use relevant, targeted vocabulary and academic expressions within their group discussions. The important goal is to establish a clear language focus and level of expectations for their use.

It is very clear that the demands of the new Common Core State Standards will raise the academic language expectations for all students. Just raising the bar of expectations is far too insufficient, in fact almost irresponsible, to address these dramatically increased demands. Recognizing and modeling academic language, using objectives, especially language objectives, and building in more explicit language practice are just initial, constructive steps to help all students weather this looming linguistic perfect storm.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth. Center for Applied Linguistics.


"Common Core Standards:." Common Core State Standards Initiative. Council of Chief State School Officers, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.


Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.


Doherty, William. "Overscheduled K, Underconnected families: the Research Evidence." Putting Family First. University of Minnesota, n.d. Web. 22 Dec. 2012. <>.


Echevarria, J., M. E. Vogt, and D. Short. 2008. Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP model. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


Hakuta, Kenji. "Bridging Research to Practice: English Learners and the Common Core State Standards." Regional Educational Laboratory at EDC. REL Northeast and Islands at EDC Waltham, MA, 28 Nov. 2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.


Himmel, Jennifer. "Language Objectives: The Key to Effective Content Area Instruction for English Learners." Colorin Colorado. N.p., 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.


Kagan, S. Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993.


Kinsella, Kate. "Cutting to the Common Core: Disrupting Discourse." Language Magazine (January 2013): n. pag. Jan. 2013. Web. 18 Jan. 2013.


National Endowment for the Arts, comp. To Read or Not to Read. Rep. Washington, DC: National Endowments for the Arts, 2007.


Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic, 2011.


Zwier, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5-12. Jossey-Bass. P. 95.

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