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Blogging Towards Equity

A forum to share information relevant to the education of linguistically and culturally diverse students and their teachers. 


Response: Ways to Build Speaking Skills With ELLs

Maneka Brooks

Recently, I contributed to a post that was published on Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo. The five different respondents shared their tips for creating a classroom environment in which students have opportunities to speak. It is an important topic because communication is fundamental to language learning.

Below, I include my contribution in which I talk about the importance of teachers’ understanding students’ experiences of race and racism for language teaching. Importantly, I give tips about what this understanding looks like in classroom practice.

“I don’t speak English fluently, but I understand it and I know how to speak and write it…not the best. But, they [teachers] think that just because we look like Mexicans that they need to keep repeating, repeating, repeating…like the ones who learn Spanish first they don’t think we are going to understand it and they keep us like away from the other ones that know English.”

-Francisco, a high school student

After Francisco (a pseudonym) shared these thoughts, I was surprised. His comment surprised me because over the three months that I had observed him in his high school English language arts class he rarely said a word. He spoke so little that because of his English language learner (ELL) classification, I was unclear as to how much he could communicate in English.

Towards the end of our interview, I shared my initial assumptions about his English abilities with Francisco. He responded by recounting experiences of teachers assuming that he could not speak English because he sat near students who (unlike him) were recent immigrants from Latin America. He shared his frustration with being spoken to by White English-speaking teachers in broken Spanish because they assumed that he did not know English. Moreover, he understood White teachers’ disrespect towards those they perceived as Latino immigrant students as emblematic of racial dynamics that he witnessed outside of school. His decision to remain silent during class was a way to ensure that his intellectual and linguistic dignity would be protected.

My conversation with Francisco situates my response to this week’s question within the importance of perceptions about race in English language teaching. I highlight two areas of learning that are fundamental to educators setting the groundwork for students, like Francisco, to believe that their contributions are important in the classroom.

1.     Learn about the linguistic and educational experiences of ELLs in your classroom.

Francisco shared how educators’ assumptions about his English proficiency contributed to his silence within the classroom. Create opportunities for students to share about their educational and linguistic experiences to allow educators to avoid these types of mistakes. Importantly, this does not mean asking students to respond to direct questions about these topics in front of the entire class. This type of information can be integrated into “getting-to-know-you” projects like linguistic autobiographies, linguistic surveys, identity collages, and other such classroom activities.

2.     Learn about the racial histories of the United States and the countries with which your students have connections.

As Francisco’s comments illustrate, students come into the classroom with histories of being treated certain ways because of their racial identities. Educating ELLs, most of whom also belong to minoritized racial groups, requires recognizing the impact of racism inside and outside of the classroom. Educators who understand how race and racism operates can make informed decisions about how to best incorporate students’ identities into instruction, avoid racist practices within their classroom, and can advocate on behalf of their students. While learning about these topics through reputable external resources (e.g., documentaries, articles, etc.) is necessary, students can also teach educators through sharing their own experiences. For example, teachers can design activities in which students talk about resilience within their communities.

Students who are identified as ELLs (like all other students) are multifaceted individuals. As a result, the racial dynamics that impact the rest of society also impacts their learning. If educators want to create spaces for ELLs to use their voices, it is necessary to create classroom environments where students understand that all of their identities are valued.

Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for providing a venue to share these ideas. Don’t forget to check out his website that has a plethora of other resources:

Does the long-term English learner label hurt the students it was intended to help?

Maneka Brooks

This post was originally written as a guest post on Nelson Flores' The Educational Linguist Blog. I discuss how the long-term English learner label can providing a limiting lens for teaching and learning. Importantly, I discuss the potential of alternative perspectives. This topic is particularly relevant to those who are involved in the education of adolescent bilinguals. I am very appreciative to Dr. Flores for providing a space for my work on his blog.  

There has been an explosion of academic and popular articles lamenting the crisis of long-term English learners (LTELs) in U.S. schools. Although these students have spent many years in the U.S. school system (usually six or more), they remain classified as “learning English.” These publications frequently caution educators not to be seduced by LTELs abilities to use English (and other languages) in multifaceted situations. LTELs are frequently described as lacking proficiency in any language. For instance, a recent publication from the National Education Association describes their language as “imprecise and inadequate for deeper expression and communication.” Every time I read these types of description, I cringe. These characterizations are in stark contrast to the capabilities of the adolescents with whom I have worked.

I draw on the words of 16-year-old Eliza (a pseudonym) to illustrate what a student who is considered an LTEL can do in English. The following quotation was taken from a conversation in which Eliza was discussing her new 20-year-old stepmother:

"At least I am smart about my education and me being independent when I grow up. Not just getting somebody you really like and wanting to get with them. Yeah so, I was like…oh yeah I think of her life. I wonder if she would go—like would have gone to college and not just get married right away. It’s like a fairytale in a way. ‘Cause she got married when she was eighteen. I think it’s a fairytale because I know some girls out there that would be like, ‘I wish that somebody could come and get me and take me to another place.’"

In this excerpt, Eliza engages in multiple sophisticated linguistic moves that are celebrated by the Common Core and other educational standards. For example, she does not solely critique her stepmother’s decisions. She uses a simile to convey her stepmother’s viewpoint. Moreover, Eliza explains how this simile is relevant to this specific context. Eliza’s language is precise and communicates a deep understanding of multiple perspectives and life trajectories.

How can someone with the ability to use English in this manner remain classified as an EL for 11 years? In order to fully understand Eliza’s extended classification as an EL, it is important to recognize that the criteria used to determine students’ English proficiency varies according to their language background. For students who come from households where English is the only language spoken, their home language environment is sufficient to be considered proficient in English. Their academic performance does not play a role in making this determination. On the other hand, Eliza’s EL classification meant that she had to demonstrate her English proficiency through specific levels of performance on multiple measures. Depending on the district, these measures can include assessments of oral English, written English, English language arts, and math. In addition, classroom grades and teacher approval are often included. These criteria expand beyond the knowledge of English to include various measures of academic achievement and compliance with school policies.

The multiple criteria that Eliza needed to meet to be considered proficient in English must be taken into account when understanding her trajectory as a high school student. It cannot be assumed that the primary reason that she remains classified as an EL is because of her English proficiency. This interpretation reflects a very narrow understanding of the various measures that are used to determine English proficiency. For instance, the fact that a student does not perform at a certain level on standardized assessment of English language arts (ELA) does not mean that s/he has yet to acquire English. The existence of monolingual English-speakers with “low” scores on ELA assessments illustrates that there is not one test score that is synonymous with English proficiency. Moreover, there is an extensive research literature that highlights multiple factors that can impact how an individual performs on an assessment. These factors include, but are not limited to, differences in background knowledge, test anxiety, and biases within the test itself. Unfortunately, these considerations are frequently pushed to the periphery when discussing so-called LTELs.

In working with students like Eliza, I have witnessed how the LTEL lens can be harmful when used to guide teaching and learning. The normative LTELs lens obscures what this population of adolescent bilinguals is able to do with literacy, their experiences with literacy, and the nature of their literacy difficulties. For instance, I found that the everyday academic reading experiences of five students who were identified as LTELs were very different from the kinds of reading practices that were used as evidence of English proficiency on assessments. Reading in the classroom primarily centered on oral reading in groups; however, the tests gave priority to silent and individual comprehension. Rather than not “knowing” English, my research highlighted that these students were inexperienced with the tested reading practices. In other publications, I have demonstrated how the prevalent descriptions of LTELs dismiss the way in which students in this demographic are engaging in successful academic literacy practices within the classroom and other spaces.

The predominant framing of the LTEL marginalizes many young people’s sophisticated use of English and erases other relevant aspects of their identities and experiences. I argue that a more productive instructional orientation would center on creating academic environments in which this population can experience on-going success. This orientation entails moving away from seeing, representing, and teaching students who are labeled as LTELs as individuals who have “broken” or “incomplete” linguistic abilities. A first step toward in this journey is for administrators, educators, and researchers to recognize and incorporate the linguistic expertise (in English and other languages) that so-called LTELs bring into the classroom. On a more holistic level, this instructional orientation requires designing learning experiences that are situated in a multidimensional understanding of the academic, social, and linguistic abilities and experiences of these young people. These students deserve an educational experience that provides this kind of respect and academic enrichment.