Many of the posts I publish about the Common Core are about the federally funded tests aligned to the standards. Here’s a different one, about a new book by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski “to maximize whatever opportunities the Common Core might offer” to English Language Learners — and, for that matter, to all students. Ferlazzo and Sypnieski are veteran teachers who have written a new book about how to teach “to maximize whatever opportunities the Common Core might offer” to English Language Learners — and, for that matter, all students. Ferlazzo has taught English and social studies to English Language Learners and mainstream students at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, for years. He has written numerous books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. Sypnieski has worked with English Language Learners at the secondary level for 20 years and has taught English and English Language Development at Luther Burbank High School for the last 13 years.

This is an excerpt from “Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners,” by Ferlazzo and Sypnieski.


We don’t believe that a set of new standards is high on the list of our students’ needs.  However, since we live in the world as it is, and not the one we would like it to be, we felt a need to write about how to maximize whatever opportunities the Common Core might offer to our students.  In addition,  though we have concerns about how some are manipulating Social Emotional Learning, we felt that its positive aspects needed to be re-emphasized.

 Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow…What you do is provide the conditions for growth.

 — Sir Ken Robinson

 This quotation illustrates the important role that Social Emotional Skills (also known as non-cognitive skills, along with many other labels) can play in students learning the academic skills listed in the Common Core Standards. It’s important to note that this notion is not one that is just coming out of our heads.  In fact, it’s being promoted by the originators of the Common Core Standards and education researchers.

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), one of the author’s of the Common Core standards, says:

 Along with mastery and application of essential content as typically prescribed and monitored in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems, it is necessary that students cultivate higher-order cognitive and meta-cognitive skills that allow them to engage in meaningful interaction with the world around them. Further, members agreed that these knowledge and skills are not achieved in a vacuum but require the development of underlying dispositions or behavioral capacities (such as self-regulation, persistence, adaptability) that enable lifelong pursuit of learning. (p. 3)

 The CCSSO suggests that these “Socio Emotional Skills,” “higher-order cognitive and meta-cognitive skills,” and “dispositions” are “mutually reinforcing” with the academic knowledge in the Common Core Standards.  In other words, all elements can be learned better when they are taught side-by-side.

Without them, it’s like teaching someone to sing by providing them the words, but not the music.

The CCSSO lists many “skills” which they define as “strategies,” and “dispositions” which they define as “mindsets” (p. 5).  These include the “skills” of goal-setting, metacognition, critical thinking and creativity/innovation; and the “dispositions” of agency, self-control, and persistence/resilience.

These “skills and dispositions,” taught in the context of encouraging intrinsic motivation,  are important for all learners. They are especially critical to apply in the English Language Learner  classroom because of the extra challenges most of our students face. They are adapting to a new culture, customs and country;  they are learning the content knowledge all the other students are learning while at the same time acquiring a new, difficult-to-learn language; some might be recovering from trauma they experienced in their home countries;  and a number are coming from uneven and limited academic backgrounds.  Many of our ELL students, because of their background, might very well have a number of these skills and dispositions  — perseverance, for example — precisely because of the previous challenges they have faced.  Yet, they may need help in learning how to channel those mindsets into an academic context.

One of these needed “skills” is critical thinking.



Critical thinking skills have been found to help English Language Learners in language acquisition, particularly through increasing problem-solving abilities, oral communication skills, writing competence, and student motivation. However, teaching critical thinking skills is considered to be a major challenge by many ELL teachers because of a number of issues, including students’ lack of vocabulary and, in some cases, students coming from prior school environments where that skill was not promoted.

There are ways to help ELLs, even at the Beginning Level, to begin developing critical thinking skills.  Here are some ideas:

*        Inductive Learning is the process of providing examples to students and having them categorize them to identify patterns and concepts, and can be an exceptional instructional strategy for developing critical thinking skills.  It contrasts with “deductive” learning, which is when the teacher starts with the concept, and then students are given examples to reinforce it.

In these types of inductive lessons, students can categorize words, text passages, images, etc., provide evidence to support their conclusions, and find additional examples to expand the content in their categories.  This method can be used to teach grammar, text structures, phonics, etc., as well as knowledge needed in content classes.

Researchers suggest that learning a second-language is directly linked to a person’s ability to discern patterns. Concepts learned through pattern identification are more easily transferable to new situations by students than knowledge learned in other ways,so inductive learning helps develop a critical thinking skill that is especially beneficial to English Language Learners.

*        Developing question-asking skills is another way to cultivate students’ critical thinking abilities.


Importance of Questions

For a class of Intermediate or Advanced ELLs, one simple first step would be to either give students a list of quotations about the importance of asking good questions or show them on the overhead (you can go to the “A More Beautiful Question” website or just type in ” quotes about the importance of asking good questions” in an Internet search) and then provide students with “The Importance Of Asking Good Questions,” which incorporates the “They Say, I Say” academic writing outline.


Introduction to Literal & Interpretive Questions

One way to emphasize the importance of asking good questions is to teach students the difference between “literal” (also called “Right There”) questions and “interpretative” (also called “Think About”) questions.  The teacher could model these two types of questions by first asking “What color is my hair?” and then “How do you think I’m feeling today?”  Then, provide students with this list:

Literal Question-Starters: Where…, When…, What is…, What happened, Who…, How many…, Which…

Interpretive Question-Starters: Why…, How…,  What if…, How would you compare…, What would you predict…

A teacher could have students practice writing different literal and interpretive questions about simple texts and emphasize the fact that interpretive questions will challenge you to think and learn more.


Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy are, of course, the most well known analyses of higher-order thinking and questioning.  In our ELL classes, as students become more comfortable with the idea of interpretive questions, we simply and gradually introduce the higher-levels one-at-a-time using a similar process that we used to initially teach literal and interpretive ones.  The question starters we use for literal and interpretative roughly correlate to the lower two levels of Bloom’s, so it’s then relatively easy to go up the pyramid.  Lists of question-starters for all the levels are abundant online.

*        Critical pedagogy is a strategy developed by Paolo Freire to develop literacy skills and critical thinking.  One of ways to apply his methods is using a simple learning process: teachers first show students a video or image – let’s say, a hungry person.  Students identify what the problem is, if they have ever been affected by the problem or know others who have, what are possible solutions, and, what is the best solution. Students can also be supported in applying their solutions, as when our English Language Learner class organized a public meeting at the school where hundreds of students and their families met with area agencies and companies offering job training.

*        Encouraging consideration of multiple perspectives is a key part of critical thinking.  There are obviously many opportunities for teachers to raise this point in multiple lessons.

One exercise in this vein that could be used regularly during the year is called “Perceive (or See) – Believe – Care About,” which comes from Project Zero at Harvard. In this exercise, students (either on their own or in small groups), are asked to put themselves in the position of characters in a photo, video, story or essay and have to answer these three questions:

 What do you see?

What might you believe?

What might you care about?

 *        Student reflection, or “reflective thinking,” has been described as the “processes of analyzing and making judgments about what has happened.” Reflecting on the how of learning, considering the implications of what was learned can promote critical thinking and aid in comprehension and boost learning and retention of knowledge.

“Daily Reflection Activity”  is a sheet that we periodically either distribute near the end of our classes or show on the overhead for use as an “Exit Slip.”  Sometimes we tell students which one of the listed questions we would like them to answer, and at other times they can freely choose.  Of course, when we introduce this form near the beginning of the year we model answering the questions.  Beginning ELLs can answer with drawings, as well as in their home language.

*        “What if?” history projects and alternative endings to stories can promote critical thinking , though to maximize that value it’s important to ensure that these alternatives are not just fanciful.  Instead, they need to have some basis in evidence.  Students have to choose a “point of divergence” in history and subsequent future events that are affected by it.  However, those “future events” must be connected to evidence the student finds — if they suggest that Americans would have lost the Revolutionary War if George Washington had died from the harsh conditions at Valley Forge, then they must show evidence about his key role in keeping the army together as an effective fighting force.

These are just a few of the strategies we use with our students. How do you promote critical thinking skills in your classroom?