Dr. Cobb is the Administrative Coordinator for Los Angeles Unified School District’s Office of Academic English Mastery/Standard English Learner Programs. Its mission is two-fold: to eliminate educational disparities for African American, Mexican American, Native American, and Hawaiian American students; and to train teachers, administrators, and support staff in cultural responsiveness to ensure equitable access to quality education for historically under-served students.  For twenty years Dr. Cobb has been an independent training consultant, providing training in culturally relevant and responsive education; change management; leadership development; strategic planning; and coalition building.

Who are Standard English Language Learners?

Standard English Learners (SELs) are students for whom Standard English is not native, whose home languages differ in structure and form from the language of school [i.e. standard American or academic English]. These students are generally classified as “English Only” African American, Hawaiian American, Mexican American, and Native American because their home language incorporates English vocabulary while embodying phonology, grammar, and sentence structure rules transitioned from indigenous/native languages other than English including African languages, Native American languages, Hawaiian languages and Latin American Spanish.

How are SELs identified?

A large percentage of students in inner-city urban school districts are SELs and perform in the low and far below basic range on standardized achievement tests. The research suggests 75-80 percent of African American students who attend urban public schools arrive speaking African American language (AAL)/Black English, their home language.  A large percentage of students in urban school districts also arrive speaking their home languages: Mexican American Language/Chicano English, Hawaiian American Language/Pidgin English, and American Indian Language/Red English respectively.

What to look for:

SELs are a population of students who bring to school rich and diverse experiences, “funds of knowledge” and home language and literacy patterns that when embraced can serve as a bridge to the acquisition of school language and literacy. Their language profile is characterized by speech patterns that differ from standard and academic English phonologically–in the sounds used to construct words; morphosyntactically–in how words and sentences are formed to carry meaning; and pragmatically–in how language is used in social contexts. SELs are distinguished by their language difference and often by below grade level performance in reading, English language arts, and other content areas.

Progress in school:

Limited proficiency in standard and academic English is part of the problem, however the negative attitudes of educators toward the language of SELs is often an antecedent to their academic failure and may be the principal barrier to their academic achievement. When provided opportunities to learn that are pedagogically responsive to their linguistic and cultural needs and that incorporate rigor and high order thinking, SELs achieve at high levels.

What is AEMP?

The Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP) is a comprehensive, research-based program designed to address the acquisition of school language, literacy, and learning in students who are Standard English Learners. AEMP’s primary goal is for SELs to acquire proficiency in Standard American and academic English [the language of schools] as an important tool in accessing the core curriculum and increasing their academic achievement. This goal is achieved by building administrators’, teachers’, coaches’, paraeducators’ and parents’ knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the language and literacy experiences SELs bring to the learning environment through on-going professional development and training on linguistic and cultural diversity; on pedagogical issues; and instructional methodologies that build on those experiences to facilitate the acquisition of school language, literacy, and learning.

How do we address the specific instructional needs of SELs?

AEMP’s major focus area is enhancing classroom instruction. In order to fully access the core curriculum and post-secondary educational opportunities in the dominant U.S. culture, Standard English Learners need to be proficient in Standard American and Academic English (e.g., become literate in the forms of English that appear in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, voting materials, and consumer contracts).  They must also be given opportunities to validate, appreciate, and build upon their own rich cultural, language, and literacy heritage. Six research-based access/instructional strategies that support learning for Standard English Learners are:

  1. Making Cultural Connections: connecting instruction to students’ lives to increase motivation, engagement, and learning, i.e., Activate Prior Knowledge, Infuse History/Culture of Students, Understand and utilize students’ frames of reference, Utilize Culturally Relevant Literature, and Create Authentic Learning Experiences
  2. Contrastive Analysis: the systematic study of a pair of languages with a view to identifying their structural differences and similarities, Contrastive Analysis promotes the acquisition of academic language and helps students become proficient readers, writers, and speakers of Standard American and academic English.
  3. Cooperative and Communal Learning Environments: supportive learning environments that motivate students to engage more with learning and that promote language acquisition through meaningful interactions and positive learning experiences to achieve an instructional goal.
  4. Instructional Conversations (IC): discussion-based lessons carried out with the assistance of more competent others who help students arrive at a deeper understanding of academic content. ICs provide opportunities for students to use language in interactions that promote analysis, reflection, and critical thinking.
  5. Academic Language Development (ALD): the teaching of specialized language, vocabulary, grammar, structures, patterns, and features that occur with high frequency in academic texts and discourse. ALD builds on the conceptual knowledge and vocabulary students bring from their home and community environments.
  6. Advanced Graphic Organizers: visual tools and representations of information that show the structure of concepts and the relationships between ideas to support critical thinking processes.

As we all work to reduce achievement disparities, educators must continually revise and refine practices so that all students have opportunities to succeed.  Remember, “We all have a stake”. For more information on best practices for serving Standard English Learners, visit Los Angeles Unified School District’s Culturally Relevant and Responsive Education Clearinghouse or contact Dr. Cobb at 213-241-3340 or carole.cobb@lausd.net

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10 Responses to “The Truth About Standard English Learners by Carole A. Cobb, PhD”

  1. Mary Sue Hamilton on 8/2/10 1:20 PM US/Eastern

    What have been some of the outcomes from the implementation of programs like AEMP?

    In an area like Los Angeles, what are some of the increased challenges that come with the vast diversity across the region. How do you go about reducing achievement disparities from South Los Angeles to the Valley?

    Of the 5 instructional strategies, where do you suggest a teacher start for effective and long term results? Is there a combination, when getting going, that seems to get the most bang for the buck?

  2. David Hernandez-Saca on 8/7/10 6:25 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Carole,

    First of all I wanted to thank you for this much needed discussion and perspective: that is, that students who speak African American Language/English, are students who have language, culture, and their language use needs to be honored and used as a linguistic resource!

    Currently, I have been doing a lot of reading of the body of literature regarding African American English, and much of what you have wrote truly summaries the research out there regarding African American English speakers who are learning Standard English.

    Specifically, I have been focusing on researching myths regarding both English Language Learners and speakers of African American English, and I was surprised at the amount of myths that are out there regarding these two population of students.

    One of the biggest insights that I learned was that the struggles that English Language Learners and African American English speakers face, directly and indirectly, is the mis-information about who they are, what they can do, and what can teachers do to facilitate authentic human and educational development with these students.

    Again, thank you for this informative LeadCast Blog.

    With Respect,
    David I. Hernandez-Saca

  3. Lisa Lacy on 8/18/10 3:21 PM US/Eastern

    The article by Dr. Cobb, was powerful in that she validates the language spoken by African Americans or Black English. She noted that these students often struggle in school due to negative attitudes encountered by educators which in turn often lead to poor academic achievement by these students. How do we ensure that today’s educators are culturally responsive to the academic plight of SELS? Especially in Arizona, in which a tremendous amount of funds are directed into ELL learning mostly for Spanish speaking students… Where is the equity?

  4. Dr. Carole A. Cobb on 12/15/10 5:24 PM US/Eastern

    To Mary Sue Hamilton:
    First, let me thank you for posting your comments. Second, let me humbly apologize for just now responding to your questions. I could offer a myriad of reasons but none would be adequate enough. In addressing your questions, please consider the following:
    1. Schools that implement the Program with fidelity have increased their API from a range of 21 to 78 points in one year for these cohort of students (don’t like the word subgroups).
    2. The challenges come when we have to first deconstruct negative attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of administrators and teachers about Standard English Learners. Once we do that, no matter the geographical local, we can begin the process of changing teacher practice.
    3. Of the 6 strategies, the two that seem to go hand-in-hand are Making Cultural Connections and Cooperative/Communal Learning Environments. I would start there first. The most difficult to master (without professional development/training) are contrastive analysis and instructional conversation.
    Feel free to contact me at my new number, 323-731-6762.

  5. Dr. Carole A. Cobb on 12/15/10 5:34 PM US/Eastern

    To David Hernandez-Saca:
    First, let me thank you as well for posting your comments. Second, let me humbly apologize for just now responding. Again, I could offer a myriad of reasons but none would be adequate enough.

    Thank you for your supportive comments. As I shared in my response to Mary, we have to first start with debunking the myths/deconstructing negative attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions which we know are perpetuated because of a lack of knowledge about this cohort of students. Hence when the teachers and administrators are misinformed (miseducated) so are our children.

    This work that we do is continuous and so important. If I can do anything to support you in your endeavors, please let me know. Would love to do some collaboration.
    Feel free to contact me at my new number, 323-731-6762.

  6. Dr. Carole A. Cobb on 12/15/10 5:56 PM US/Eastern

    To Lisa Lacy:
    First, let me thank you as well for posting your comments. Second, let me humbly apologize for just now responding to your questions. Again, I could offer a myriad of reasons but none would be adequate enough.

    In addressing your questions/concerns, please consider the following. In “keeping it real”, equity nor parity exists for a number of reasons which I don’t have time to address here. However, I would like to suggest two ways to close this “access gap”:

    1) intentional integration of this topic/culturally response educational practices/pedagogy into all teacher education programs as part of certification requirement; and

    2) school systems redirecting their efforts to making the student the center of the learning process and committing to a purposeful/systemic focus on culturally responsive pedagogy for all professional development until it becomes a part of the school culture reflective in classroom environments, teacher practices, and curriculum adoptions/design. Hope this helps.

    Feel free to contact me at my new number, 323-731-6762 for further dialogue.

  7. Maximo Schnack on 3/3/11 12:38 PM US/Eastern

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  8. dyford on 3/9/11 8:06 PM US/Eastern

    I think it is also important to add to the discussion that Black English Vernacular BEV) is a legitimate language form. It is not a speech impediment or disorder. I am pleased that this is recognized by the American Speech and Hearing Association. Having said this, as Lisa Delpit, Geneva Smitherman, John Dillard, and others contend, ALL students must learn Standard American English… in doing so, ADD Standard English to BEV, don’t take it away; as one does when helping students to become bilingual. BEV has a rich history….

    I am a professor; I am pretty successful. I speak both — proudly so.

  9. Jen Friedman on 9/22/11 8:57 PM US/Eastern

    I enjoyed your post and thank you. I’m glad you mentioned Mexican Americans who are classified as EO when they appear to need strategies similar to their ELL counterparts. Regardless of background, I am able to use visuals, and sound out the letters during vocabulary instruction. An example includes “i” as in pin (showing a visual of a pin) and “e” as in pen (showing a visual of a pen). Do you have any other suggestions?

  10. Lea Edwards on 9/27/11 12:31 AM US/Eastern

    I agree that we as educators need to embrace the differences of our SEL and through our understanding and support, standard English learners (SEL) can be just as successful as their peers. We as educators must always strive to make sure that every student who comes to us, is respected,understood, and has a quality education that is culturally

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