This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Houa Yang-Xiong.
English Language Learners (ELLs) or Multilingual Learners (MLs) are steadily increasing in our schools and come from a wide range of backgrounds. As educators, we need to understand that ELLs do not learn differently from native-English speakers, they have specific needs. We will have to touch upon scaffolds and differentiation strategies another time. But I would like to share the importance for educators to understand and avoid misconceptions we have when we have ELLs in our schools. I’ve compiled a few myths I have run into over the years as an ELL teacher.
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Myth #1: All ELLs are born outside of the U.S.
Actually, many ELLs are born in the U.S. and most are the second or third generation in their families. The U.S. Census data found that 82 percent of K-5 grade ELLs and 65 percent of 6-12th grade ELLs are US-born. Most ELLs grow up learning English in school but hear and speak another language at home. Also, it is important to understand that many of our ELL families come from a wide range of cultures, academic backgrounds, and socio-economic levels. So as we think about our students and families, be aware of the experiences and background they have that might be the “typical American experience” or holiday celebrated.
Myth #2: All ELLs are fluent in their native language.
Not necessarily! Growing up, I spoke Hmong until I went to school where I was immersed in English. Then at home, I was only using English primarily. That is when some ELLs rapidly lose their native language as they don’t use it that much anymore. Some might just hear another language at home but don’t even speak it. I am noticing this tread a lot more with ELLs. Also, English might not be their “second language”, they might know up to 2-3 languages! We can’t assume that just because a student is in the ESOL program, they fluently know another language. It is important for districts and schools to develop a specific home language survey for this.
Myth #3: “I don’t know the language so I can’t communicate with ELLs.”
Most people ask, “Do you have to know another language to be an ESOL teacher?” when I tell them what I do. The primary goal of an ESL program is to learn English so you don’t need another language to teach ELs. Many assume that you have to know another language or the students’ home language to work with them. I’ve had over 5+ languages represented in my classrooms, which is pretty typical. Get to know your students’, their families, and their backgrounds. Sometimes, there are no in-person interpreters, so communicate through technology, visuals, and physical gestures. Relationships are key when working with ELLs. Don’t assume that because families might not speak English, they don’t want to engage in their child’s education.
Myth #4: ELLs need to speak only English at school and at home.
Actually, when students are fluent in one language, it makes the transition to learning another language smoother even when there are no cognates or similar words to English in their first language. Yes, it gets a bit trickier but I’ve seen ELLs make huge language growth when they are fluent in a language. When ELLs are able to transfer one language to English, whether through translated materials, audio/videos, etc., it actually gives them more accessible tools to be successful with content. Not only do educators assume this, but parents also do as well. So we want to be mindful and share with families to encourage their native language at home, and at school, we’ll focus on helping with English.
Myth #5: “They speak English fine in class.”
The ESL program is focused on English which means all-around social and academic English. ELLs develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), which is a language needed for informal, daily conversations and interactions. BICS takes about 1-2 years to develop, if not even sooner since students are so immersed in English. Then there is Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) that focuses on content and academic language used in the classroom. It could take over 5-10 years to develop this type of English language! Educators should focus on scaffolding the content and academic language used in the classroom to help ELLs.
Myth #6: ELLs can get all the support they need through the ESL teacher.
ESL teachers are usually stretched across so many grade levels, schools, and have a high number of ELLs on their caseload. So this means, sometimes, we see a student only 2-3 times a week for a short amount of time. ELLs are immersed in the classroom the rest of the time. As educators, we have to start seeing ourselves also as language teachers. We use so much language in our classrooms daily that we don’t even realize it. Language is what we say and how we teach in our classrooms whether it’d be specific content vocabulary, teaching strategies and skills, and through engagement.
As our ELLs population continues to grow in our schools and classrooms, as educators, we should not allow these assumptions to stop us from best serving all of our students. It is time that we debunk these myths and see the resiliency in ELLs as they navigate and learn a new language. Share this with other educators to help them understand ELLs in their schools and classrooms better.
I am currently an elementary English Speaker of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher. I teach students in grades 3-5 of various backgrounds, native languages, and English-proficiency levels. I also have my licensure in Elementary Education (1-6) and a Master’s in Educational Technology. Aside from teaching, I enjoy being with my family, reading, and binging on the newest tv show.
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