1. What is the goal of Understanding Language?

Understanding Language aims to improve education for all students—especially English Language Learners—in Math, Science, and English Language Arts. We plan to develop knowledge and resources that help content area teachers meet their students’ linguistic needs as they address the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. This initiative also opens a dialogue about language and literacy issues, bringing together leading thinkers, researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in the fields of language, literacy, mathematics, and science education.

2. Who are the leaders of Understanding Language?

Kenji Hakuta and Maria Santos are the co-chairs of this national initiative. Kenji Hakuta is the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University. An experimental psycholinguist, his research has focused on bilingualism and second language acquisition. He has also been active in the policy arena, addressing issues of language policy and the education of English Language Learners. 

Maria Santos is the Deputy Superintendent for Oakland Unified School District. Previously, she served as the Executive Director of the Office of English Learners in the New York City Department of Education, supporting over a million students. 

The co-chairs have convened a diverse team of educators with expertise in disciplinary knowledge, language learning, and instructional improvement. The group includes the authors of the Common Core State Standards and the Conceptual Framework for the New Science Education Standards. 

3. Who are the key partners supporting Understanding Language?

Our key partners include the Council of Great City Schools, the New York City Department of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Council of La Raza.  We are working closely with the leaders of each of these organizations to build knowledge, foster learning conversations, and vet, create and pilot resources among their networks and communities.

4. Is Understanding Language creating English Language Development (ELD) standards?

No.  The primary focus of Understanding Language is to develop instructional resources that support content area teachers, professional developers, and learning communities so that all students, especially English Language Learners, can develop stronger content knowledge and language and literacy skills, within and across the content areas in grades K-12.  ELP Standards can be very helpful in supporting content instruction by clearly identifying the language demands inherent in the CCSS and Next Generation Science Standards, and helping to coordinate academic content and ELP/ESL instruction.  We have therefore played a strong supportive role to the Council of Chief State Schools Officers on two projects that help advance the development of ELP Standards that correspond to the new content standards.  One project resulted in the development of the ELPD Framework to provide guidance to states on how to use the expectations of the CCSS and NGSS as tools for the creation and evaluation of ELP standards.  This document can be downloaded here.   Currently, a second project is under development in which Understanding Language will play a similarly supportive role in the development of English Language Proficiency Standards that correspond to the CCSS.  These standards will be used by the newly formed ELPA-21 consortium of states, led by Oregon, as the basis for the development of new state ELP assessments.

5. How is this work related to the development of content assessments led by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC)?

Both SBAC and PARCC are developing a new generation of tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. We plan to work with members of the assessment consortia so that the content assessments developed are valid for students at varying levels of English language proficiency and are fair and unbiased with respect to language.

6. Will teachers be involved in the development of resource materials?

Yes. Teachers will play a critical role in the development of these resources. We plan to collaborate with school districts and teachers and to support online learning communities where knowledge and resources can be shared.

7. What grade levels will be included in these resources?

In our initial phase, we will showcase exemplars in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science for several different grade spans. As the project proceeds, we hope to develop and refine resources for each grade level. 

8. How are Social Studies and History addressed in these resources?

At present, no common standards have been adopted in the areas of Social Studies and History. As a result, these subjects are not a primary focus of the project. However, we do address the Common Core standards for English/Language Arts, which include standards for literacy in Social Studies and History. 

9. What are the implications of the Common Core and the Understanding Language Initiative for bilingual education?

We know the best research evidence indicates that instructing ELL students bilingually strengthens their academic content knowledge and skills.  We also believe bilingualism and biliteracy are twenty-first century skills for global citizenship and competitiveness, and that ELLs represent a natural resource for fostering language competencies in American society.  A thoughtfully planned and well-implemented bilingual education program clearly contributes to students' developing the college- and career-ready capacities envisioned in the Common Core. 

There are two major challenges to realizing this resource for all our students:  political will and systemic capacity. Americans continue to be wary of non-English languages despite the nation’s immigrant history, and many also believe that English language acquisition is impeded by what is perceived as pampering in the native language.  Political will varies and attitudes toward bilingualism change slowly. For communities that do value bilingualism, the challenge of systemic capacity must be addressed by preparing teachers to provide language-rich environments that ensure academic and interpersonal competencies in both languages, and by providing instructional materials in the native language that are aligned to the Common Core.  Comprehensive assessment resources also need to be developed in multiple languages.  None of this is unrealistic, but communities must value their linguistic resources enough to commit firmly to their development.