The following is an excerpt from McNamara, S., & Smith, A. (2015). What do teachers need to understand about the  challenges that the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards  present for students with interrupted formal education? In G. Valdes, M. Castro, & K. Menken (Eds.), Common Core, Bilingual and English Language Learners: A Resource for Educators (pp. 222–227). Philadelphia: Caslon. © Caslon, Inc. All rights reserved.

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What do teachers need to understand about the challenges that the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards present for students with interrupted formal education?

  • Suzanna McNamara and Annie Smith

In answering this question, we draw on our work developing the New York State (NYS) Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) Curriculum (2013–2015) to de- sign Common Core–aligned curricula targeted to the unique instructional needs of SIFE with the lowest levels of home language literacy. This project is an offshoot of a larger initiative called Bridges, a one-year, four-subject academic program for low-literacy SIFE entering high school as newcomers. The goals of the SIFE curricula are to target: foundational literacy, academic conceptual knowledge, and academic ways of thinking and using language so that low-literacy SIFE (LL SIFE) can meaningfully participate in grade- level curricula.

Students with Interrupted Formal Education Characteristics

It is important to understand the heterogeneity of the SIFE population (see the follow- ing figure). Our work has focused on the LL SIFE subgroup of SIFE. Decisions about which CCSS to target, and how to embed the CCSS in curriculum and instruction, first requires an understanding of the nuances among SIFE, a population often as- sumed to be homogeneous.

In New York, SIFE are defined as English language learners (ELLs) who are at least two years below grade level in home language literacy and math skills, as a result of interrupted or inconsistent schooling (New York State Education Department, 2014). Although students entering grade 9 with grade 7 home language literacy skills are con- sidered SIFE, these SIFE are already readers and writers in their home languages and are able to transfer their reading skills to the new language. In our experience, many stu- dents at this level can participate in content classes with appropriate scaffolds.

By contrast, LL SIFE are at or below grade 3 literacy in their home language, meaning they are not yet fluent readers in any language and do not independently use text as a resource to build new knowledge. Their levels of literacy include emergent, early, and transitional (1). Emergent and early readers have had little to no exposure to print in the home country or may have some alphabetic skills, but little to no reading comprehension or writing skills.

SIFE Population

They are learning to go to school, perhaps for the first time, and most importantly—they are learning to read for the first time in a language they do not speak.

LL SIFE require curricula and intensive, daily instruction that targets all of the CCSS foundational skills, typically reserved for early elementary students. These in- clude orientation to print, the concept of print carrying meaning, how to track print on a page, connecting sound-symbol relationships, blending sounds to read words, segmenting sounds to spell, and instantly recognizing a large number of sight words. In most cases, these students must develop these skills in a language they do not yet know, which poses great challenges for students and teachers. LL SIFE, therefore, face the greatest challenges in accessing curricula and meeting the CCSS at the secondary level. LL SIFE with transitional literacy have grade 2 or 3 home language literacy levels.

They understand that print carries meaning, can often decode, and can recognize some sight words. These students can track print, hold a pencil, and write basic texts. Stu- dents near grade 3 levels of home language literacy bring many foundational skills that transfer to English. While they cannot yet read and write to learn in the home language, they are on the cusp.

Common Core State Standards Challenges for Students with Interrupted Formal Education

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) articulate rigorous grade-level standards for all students including ELLs/emergent bilinguals (EBs). The emphasis on rigor and quality teaching for all students is imperative; even more so for secondary SIFE who must gain foundational literacy, academic conceptual knowledge, and academic ways of thinking and using language in a few years.

The CCSS pivot on six pedagogical shifts that direct instruction for all students. These shifts are predicated on students’ ability to access and acquire grade-appropriate academic language. A closer look at two of the shifts reveals the challenge that attaining the CCSS poses for LL SIFE.

  • Shift 2: Knowledge in the disciplines demands that students build knowledge about the world through text, rather than through the teacher or activities.

  • Shift 3: Staircase of complexity demands that students read the central, grade-appropriate text around which instruction is centered.

Each of these shifts makes evident the emphasis on acquiring knowledge through grade- level text. This stance assumes that all students have the skills necessary to use text to learn and acquire knowledge. It implies that students have levels of literacy in their home language(s) that transfer to English and allow them to access and analyze text at close to grade level. In this scenario, students make use of their literacy and academic conceptual knowledge and ways of thinking to build both language and content knowledge. It is a process of leveraging and transferring what they have already developed in the home context to the context of the U.S. classroom. Clearly this scenario characterizes students with a very different profile than the LL SIFE who arrive in secondary classrooms throughout the United States.

Curricula that meet the needs of LL SIFE must build academic conceptual knowl- edge across the disciplines and teach students to read and write, so that they can use text as a learning resource. A standards-based, grade-level curriculum without these components risks disenfranchising LL SIFE who are unable to participate in the class- room discourse and build academic identities. In many circumstances, this leads to educational foreclosure; LL SIFE sitting in secondary classrooms without engaging meaningfully with the curricula often drop out.

Teacher Understanding of Common Core State Standards and Implications for Low-Literacy Students with Interrupted Formal Education

Students advancing through the grades are expected to meet each year’s grade-specific standards, retain or further develop skills and understandings mastered in preceding grades, and work steadily toward meeting the more general expectations described by the CCR standards.(2)

The college and career-readiness (CCR) goals of the CCSS give students thirteen years (K–12) to progress vertically up each standard. The grade-level articulation of any standard assumes that students have mastered that standard in earlier grades. The articulation of a given standard in the early grades contains the building blocks for meeting the demands of that standard in the higher grades. The standards assume that students are meeting the increasingly complex cognitive demands of each standard with increas- ingly complex text.

These assumptions may hold true for many U.S. students, but not for LL SIFE. The LL SIFE for whom our curricula are designed have not had the academic instruction necessary to master the subskills articulated at the lower grade levels. As a result, LL SIFE come to secondary classrooms not having developed key foundational academic skills expected from early elementary standards. A closer look at one standard reveals the challenges.

Reading for Information standard 2 (RI.2) requires students to: Determine central ideas or themes of a text, analyze their development, and summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

According to this standard, a student in grade 9 must be able to determine a central idea in a grade 9 text, analyze its development throughout the text, discuss how it is shaped by details, and provide a summary. ELLs with grade-level literacy in the home language, strong academic conceptual knowledge, and academic ways of thinking and using language can meet these standards, with appropriate scaffolds (see 2.15b for further information about Common Core progressions). These students transfer many skills from the home country academic context to U.S. secondary classrooms.


Component of Grade 9 Standard

Subskills Required for Proficiency in this Standard

Determine a central idea
  • Identify topic in text
  • Identify key details
  • Use details to articulate a central idea
Analyze the development of central idea throughout the text
(how it emerges and is shaped by details)
  • Identify text structure
  • Understand the relationship between text structure and central idea
Provide a Summary
  • Distinguish fact from opinion
  • Determine importance


The table unpacks three main components of the grade 9 standard to reveal the sub- skills that lay beneath. LL SIFE most likely have not mastered these subskills in the home context before arriving in a grade 9 U.S. classroom.

Before students can approach RI.2 in grade 9, they must learn these subskills. Stu- dents must know how to identify the topic of a text before determining a central idea. They must be able to identify text structure before analyzing the development of a central idea in text. They must be able to distinguish fact from opinion, as well as more important from less important information before providing a summary. They must understand how the relationship between text structure, key ideas, and details supports comprehension. Above all, students must reach a certain threshold of literacy to grapple with ideas in text they read on their own. Students who have not yet developed foun- dational literacy skills in any language expend all of their cognitive resources on deciphering words, with limited resources remaining for comprehension.

Curriculum Designed for Low-Literacy Students with Interrupted Formal Education in the Context of Common Core State Standards

Curricula and instruction for LL SIFE must strategically target these building blocks of grade-level standards. Students need explicit instruction and repeated opportunities to apply these skills to increasingly complex text. LL SIFE need to engage with the skills using both read-aloud text and text they can read on their own. We designed our curriculum to serve these purposes.

The goals of the SIFE curriculum are to target the three major “cracks in the foundation” for LL SIFE: foundational literacy, academic conceptual knowledge, and academic ways of thinking and using language so that they can meaningfully participate in grade- level curricula.

The NYS Curriculum Project focuses on the development of two courses for SIFE in both middle and high school. The two courses, English language arts (ELA) (3) and foundational language and literacy (FLL), comprise a three-strand model to accelerate learning for the lowest-level SIFE in secondary schools. The figure illustrates the three curriculum strands and goals: ELA part 1, ELA part 2, and FLL.

Three Strands of NYS SIFE Curriculum

This unique design for secondary schools reflects our beliefs about what SIFE need to progress up the CCSS ladders of complexity. The integration of the three strands builds skills that support students to learn to read and write and read and write to learn. All students must learn to read and write, but only when students can use academic language and literacy as tools for acquiring new knowledge can they fully participate in school and society.

The goal is for all students to meet grade-level standards with grade-level texts. How- ever, because of the mismatch between the knowledge and skills that LL SIFE bring from their home contexts and the demands of U.S. classrooms, instruction must cut across a wider scope of knowledge and skills. While moving students toward grade-level standards, instructers must consider where students are now and what they need next. This requires scooping under the K–12 progressions for each standard, and teaching the building blocks that will support students in eventually meeting the grade-level standard.

There are chasms, rather than small gaps, between the demands of grade-level CCSS and LL SIFE literacy levels, academic conceptual knowledge, and academic ways of think- ing and using language skills on entry into U.S. middle and high school classrooms. The goal must be to work toward the grade-level standards, while providing explicit instruc- tion and practice in the subskills, ensuring that students are exposed to rich academic conceptual knowledge along the way.

  1. We use the terms “emergent” and “transitional” to refer to the developmental literacy levels of students in their home languages. These are not to be confused with the same terms used by the NYS Bilingual Common Core Progressions, which refer to English language proficiency levels.

  2. Retrieved from

    The SIFE ELA class is assumed to be multilingual, with limited if any resources for teaching students to read and write in the home language. If schools have an ELA class where there is a shared home language, then it is highly recommended that schools develop a learning-to-read component in the home language.