Model Standards for English Language Development: National Trends and a Local Response

Article excerpt

This article addresses recent trends in the development of standards for English language arts and their relevance for English learners who speak languages other than English (ESOL). First, the article reviews mainstream efforts to develop English standards at the national level and examines the extent to which those standards are sensitive to issues of language diversity. Next, it discusses efforts to develop English language development (ELD) standards specifically for ESOL students. An examination follows of one district's efforts to design ELD standards as a bridge to mainstream standards. The article concludes by considering the appropriate role of standards for English learners.

Background: Language Diversity and the Need for ESL/ELD Standards

The recent national emphasis on formal standards for the English language arts is of particular interest to curriculum planners seeking to promote equitable instruction tot students who are learning English as a second or new language. In this article we concur with those who argue that efforts to develop standards and model programs of study are well motivated for several reasons. First, there is a need to ensure that there is a well-defined curriculum of English for Speakers of other languages (ESOL). English language development (ELD) needs to be guided by specific goals and standards for the traditional skill areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, there is also a need for a formal plan that articulates the ELD curriculum with the rest of the academic curriculum. Such a plan needs to include an assessment of the English language demands associated with the mastery of traditional subject areas because English learners face the dual task of both learning English and using English to learn. Thus, an explication of the relationship between English and academic content mediated by English as the language of instruction is essential. Last, standards are needed to ensure that expectations for achievement among language minority students are equal to those for all other students.

There are several areas of ambiguity that arise in discussions of standards generally. Consideration of the use of content standards in the curriculum planning process necessarily involves the issues of assessment and evaluation. The distinction between content standards and performance standards is a subtle one. Content standards are designed to define what a student is to be able to know or do. Performance standards are intended to specify how well the students achieve the standard and at what level of performance they are able to achieve it. A student's level of performance is evaluated in terms of benchmarks. Performance standards also specify the method by which students will achieve them (Teachers of English to Speaker of Other Languages, 1997).

A second area of confusion or ambiguity in discussions about language standards results from differences in the way linguists use the term and how it is understood by the public at large. McGroarty notes the following tension:

   The notion of standard strongly cognates attention to written language; as
   linguists note, `a standard language variety is one which has undergone the
   lengthy process of standardization' (Finegan & Besnier, 1984, p. 496).
   Public discussions of language standards, heard mainly in the context of
   laments about declines in school-related skills or achievement measures,
   nearly always present the linguistic uniformity embodied in a standard as
   evidence of felicity and appropriateness of expression, threatened by
   incorrect use, or as evidence of moral superiority and accurate thinking,
   which has been threatened by changes or variant forms. [p. 23]

Because language is central to all learning, policies and expectations regarding how to use it appropriately are operative across the curriculum, even in schools that are relatively linguistically homogenous. …