The Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards, hereafter referred to as “the standards”, represent a significant change in standards-based reform in education. Their release has generated considerable interest among education stakeholders, with 45 out of 50 states now having formally adopted these standards. To leverage this strong interest in the standards for greater content learning and language development opportunities for English learners (ELs), Stanford University recently launched the Understanding Language initiative. The initiative, cochaired by Kenji Hakuta and María Santos, is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its goal is to increase educators’ awareness of the critical role language plays in literacy, learning, and assessment in the content areas. Working in close partnership with schools and districts, the initiative promotes the ideas that (a) language and content are inseparable, (b) learning the language of each academic discipline is essential to learning disciplinary content, and (c) English language proficiency and disciplinary knowledge can be developed simultaneously in the context of content instruction. This column highlights the challenges and opportunities that the standards present for language development in the context of content area learning.
The article provides a summary of the papers and presentations shared at the 2013 Understanding Language meeting, focusing on the implications of the new standards (Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards) for teaching language to both English learner and non-English learner students. Leading researchers in the field of English Language Learners and Academic Language were convened as part of the January 2012 meeting on which this article is based. This presents a summary of and introduction to the work they are doing in the field regarding the instructional shifts for language development required by the new standards. While this article does not dive deeply into the concepts presented at this meeting, it provides an overview for accessing the materials and resources, which are available on the Understanding Language website (ell.stanford.edu). The papers and presentations are very clearly laid out and easy to follow for both those being introduced to the issues, and those who are ready for a deeper discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing language instruction within the CCSS and the NGSS. This article includes a very timely discussion of academic language instruction and content literacy as necessitated by the CCSS and NGSS, and implications of language instruction for EL students. This paper should be viewed as an introduction to the work of the Understanding Language initiative, or as a guide to the deeper content laid out in the papers and presentations that are referenced.