Understanding Language (UL) is an initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Education dedicated to help policymakers, researchers, states, district staff, and schools better serve multilingual learners.

Started by Dr. Kenji Hakuta and Maria Santos, UL has collaborated with professional development organizations, departments of education, and universities to conduct research, provide professional learning for leaders and educators, write policy documents, develop assessments, and enhance curriculum.

Our team members use their classroom teaching experience, international research and assessment expertise, and technology backgrounds to support traditionally underserved students systemically.


Understanding Language aims to heighten educator awareness of the critical role that language plays in the college-and-career-ready Standards.


The long-term goal of the initiative is to increase recognition that learning the language of each academic discipline and its use in higher order cognitive skills is essential to learning content.

Our team

Director of Research-Practice Partnerships
Lead Researcher
Director of Leadership Initiatives
Director of Professional Development

40% of teachers have English Language Learners in their classroom, but less than 13% have had formal preparation to teach ELLs.

Chart showing 40% teachers have EL learners, less than 13% have formal prep


Understanding Language was created with the aim of heightening educator awareness of the critical role that language plays in the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.

The initiative’s main goal continues to be increasing recognition that learning the language of each academic discipline is essential to learning content. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information; articulating and building on ideas; constructing explanations; engaging in argument from evidence—such language-rich performance expectations permeate the new Standards.

Meet founding members

Kenji Hakuta and two young students.

“I launched the Understanding Language Initiative in 2011, joined by my co-chair Maria Santos and with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Our main purpose was to highlight the opportunities and challenges of the language demands inherent in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, particularly in the arenas of education policy and practice. We envisioned a broad national network of educational actors and researchers that help to tie together the needs of English Learners with respect to their needs in language and academic content."

— Kenji Hakuta

Professor of Education at Stanford University and Co-Chair, UL


Understanding Language has collaborated with a number of diverse organizations on various projects:

  • Local education agencies across the country: Salinas, Tahoe Truckee, Golden Planes, Azusa, Santa Paula, West Contra Costa, Seattle, New York City…[county office]
  • State education agencies: New York State Department of Education, California Department of Education
  • Curriculum developers: the English Language Success Forum, Open Educational Resources, Illustrative Mathematics
  • National policy organizations: the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Migration Policy Institute, Student Achievement Partners.
  • Assessment Organizations




Get in touch

Reach out if you think we can support your work with diverse learners. We can help you identify your local needs and create a plan on how best to address them.

Contact us