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September 2012
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A Glance at the Common Core State Standards
An Interview: Ayanna Cooper and Anita Bright

There is a new acronym that didn’t take long to become a common fixture in the everyday, professional conversations of U.S. teachers: CCSS. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted by 45 states and 3 U.S. Territories. TESOL asked two experienced U.S. educators, Ayanna Cooper and Anita Bright, who are well versed in CCSS for English language arts (ELA) and mathematics, respectively, about what teachers can look ahead to in the coming years regarding these standards.

ELA responses
(Dr. Cooper)

Math responses
(Dr. Bright) 

1. What can ESL teachers expect when diving into the CCSS?

For ELA (Dr. Cooper):  ESL teachers will find an abundant amount of information explaining what the CCSS are and why they came into existence. They will find that the standards include all domains of language acquisition, something we can be very excited about! Affirming the responsibility to teach language lies with all teachers. All teachers will be responsible for developing academic language. This is a paradigm shift for most educators.

We know that academic language and social language are acquired simultaneously and across different contexts. Building opportunities for students to practice using academic language in various and authentic ways is essential for them to be able to continue developing language. In a recent conversation, a colleague suggested:

“Teachers should focus on the CCSS but dissect it using the TESOL PreK–12 ELP Standards, descriptions of language performance levels, descriptors of what students at various levels of English language development can do and other resources to provide students access to the content.”  —Julie M.

Intentionally absent are the explicit directions on how to implement and teach the standards. Differentiated teaching practices and interventions needed for students performing significantly below grade level are not included. Nor is everything a student will need to be college or work force ready.

Diving into the CCSS will require ESL teachers to equip themselves by thinking critically about their students, the TESOL PreK–12 ELP Standards, resources they have and those they’ll need. Involving all stakeholders, including students, in the implementing and designing of units based on the CCSS will take time. 

For Mathematics (Dr. Bright): One of the first things educators may find surprising about the CCSS for Mathematics is the level of detailed explanation. Although there are sections with simple, bulleted lists, the bulk of the CCSS for Mathematics is written in prose, which can be exceptionally useful in crafting appropriate educational experiences for English learners in mathematics.

Something to keep in mind when first exploring the CCSS in Mathematics is that there are essentially two distinct sections. There are the standards for mathematical practice, and standards for mathematical content. Instinctively, perhaps in search of fodder for a “to do” list for the school year, educators of English learners may be drawn to the content section (which is divided by grade level from K–8, and by domains that progress over grades at the high school level).

Although the content standards clearly merit great attention, the standards for mathematical practice are equally important, as they are applicable to all grade levels and describe “varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students” (CCSS, 2012, p. 6).

These mathematical practice standards provide explanation of the foundational thinking and reasoning skills students may build upon and draw from for the rest of their lives, even in areas outside of mathematics. The standards for mathematical practice include skills like “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” and “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” (CCSS, 2012), which have clear applicability across a range of life events. 

2. How can ESL teachers prepare their students to meet the challenges of the CCSS standards?

For ELA (Dr. Cooper):  Knowledge of your state’s implementation plan, provided support, and stated expectations will help teachers prepare students. How the standards should be taught are local decisions. Appropriate scaffolds for all levels of English learners will take time and deeper knowledge of the standards. A review of supports and resources available to foster collaboration across content areas will continue to be one of the best strategies to prepare students.

Moving beyond knowledge of the standards is imperative for ESL teachers to think about how they’ll provide rich experiences for students. Partnering the standards with rich content curriculum and authentic formative assessments will further support student achievement. The sociocultural context of who the students are and how they are taught must be taken into consideration.

A 5th grade Vocabulary Acquisition and Use standard requires students to “recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs” (CCSS, 2012, p. 29). Idioms and adages are challenging for several reasons but primarily because they may be unfamiliar to the student and not used or heard frequently as part of his or her daily discourse. Proverbs are culturally connected. Teachers are encouraged to use proverbs from students’ cultures and backgrounds while teaching this standard, along with those more commonly heard. Students will need to engage with the standards in an authentic way in order to own the knowledge and apply it in the future.

Assuming students have significant background with these concepts is problematic. Working with and supporting content area teachers who have not previously addressed all domains of language acquisition will look to ESL teachers for support. 

For Mathematics (Dr. Bright): To begin, educators of English learners should read the standards very carefully, and make use of the rich and explicit details that are included. Of particular interest and use may be the introduction section for each grade, which includes a succinct explanation of the “critical areas” in the given grade level, and states unambiguously, “Instructional time should focus on ___” (CCSS, 2012). This information may be useful in organizing the year’s instructional plans, in that it highlights the broad, essential ideas for the year.

For the richest and most comprehensive experience for English learners, each lesson should include structured opportunities for incorporating speaking, reading, writing, and listening in ways that are meaningful and well supported. The focus should not simply be on the specific vocabulary words, but should be stretched to include supporting students in learning to communicate their mathematical thinking in an academic register (TESOL, 2006). Scaffolded sentence frames, pair work, and mathematics journals are a few ways to approach this goal.

Even though English learners may still be learning vocabulary words and becoming accustomed to using an academic register, it’s important that the rigor built into the standards is not compromised. To this end, educators will need to think creatively to provide a range of experiences, which may include realia, manipulatives, illustrations, and real-life connections.

Additionally, educators may need to consider alternative ways for students to communicate their deep, conceptual understandings and questions—which may take the form of writing in a home language, drawing illustrations, or writing using a set of scaffolded sentence frames. 

3. Do you have any additional advice to give teachers who will be introducing CCSS standards to their ELLs this year?

For ELA (Dr. Cooper):  Knowledge of your students’ levels of English language development and literacy in their native languages is beneficial. Teachers should ask themselves: If a student is proficient in his or her native language, to what degree is that proficiency across all domains of language? What can that information tell you about the student’s experiences with school and academics in general?

Conversations with students about their learning styles, interests and future goals will help you to scaffold their learning. Assuring that all domains of language are written into lesson plans and also fully implemented across content areas will be key to implementation. Connect the standards to the students’ responses in an effort to help them to build their sense of efficacy and responsibility in working towards meeting and exceeding the standards.

As part of curriculum planning, all team members, including administrators, guidance counselors, and support personnel, who work directly with English learners must be prepared to support them. These members should include multiple pieces of evidence that demonstrate how a student is progressing towards meeting and exceeding the standards. For example, what does a student-led discussion sound like in a science class versus a math class and does the student recognize those differences?

A shared responsibility for fully developing student literacy is the essence of CCSS. Lastly, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Students come to us as “complete packages.” Deficits exist but so do strengths! Focusing on and using students’ strengths to address areas in need of development is essential. 

For Mathematics (Dr. Bright): Although the CCSS are intended to provide a universally applicable framework for mathematics education, a holistic approach to educating each student is of utmost importance. Classroom teachers know their own students more intimately than standards writers and, as such, should carefully consider the unique strengths, needs, and life experiences of their learners. Fortunately, the CCSS are intended to be flexible enough to allow for choice in curricular materials and in instructional approaches. Thus, each school district, school, and classroom teacher may make curricular and instructional decisions that will best meet the needs of their own learners.

With this flexibility, however, comes the responsibility of ensuring selected materials are truly aligned to the standards and also that the experiences provided for English learners are genuinely language rich, with a purposeful focus on mathematical communication. This includes authentic opportunities for English learners to present and seek explanations, make conjectures, draw conclusions, construct arguments, defend their thinking, and negotiate meaning—in oral and written formats.

Finally, educators of English learners may wish to draw from the expertise and experiences of others—professional organizations like TESOL International Association, school administrators, other school-based educators, family members of the students, community members, and even the students themselves. Supporting students in meeting the challenges outlined in the CCSS in Mathematics is a daunting task, but by keeping students at the core of our focus, this can be accomplished. 



Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). (2012). The standards. Retrieved from

TESOL. (2006). PreK–12 English Language Proficiency Standards. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages: Alexandria, Virginia.


Ayanna Cooper, Ed.D., is an independent educational consultant who specializes in English language teaching and learning. Dr. Cooper works closely with educators in various states and has taught graduate level courses focused on teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners. In 2009 she was selected as a TESOL Leadership Mentoring Award Recipient and a 2010 ASCD Emerging Leader. She is currently serving a second term on the TESOL Professional Development Standing Committee and is a past president of Georgia TESOL.

Anita Bright, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. With a focus on multicultural, multilingual, and mathematics education, Dr. Bright brings her 20+ years of experience as a Pre-K–12 educator to her work with in-service and preservice teachers. As a National Board Certified teacher, Dr. Bright frames her work as a colearner with students, and focuses on employing a critical constructivist stance in her professional practice.


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