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Debunking Three Myths about English Learners

by Amy Rudat

One of the many inequities highlighted by the pandemic is the failure of our K-12 system in its support of English learners. For example, in one survey of California teachers, only 17 percent of respondents reported that most of their ELs were regularly participating in distance learning each week. Surveys like this one highlight what has been true for generations:  Our education system does not yet serve English learners equitably. While educators can’t guarantee how often students will submit assignments or engage, we can create learning environments that set up English Learners for success. 

Doing so would require a shift in our mindsets. We often talk about English learners through a deficit lens (“they don’t know English”); compare this to how we talk about and fund foreign language programs. Learning a “foreign” language is viewed as an asset; districts affluent enough to begin these programs in elementary grades are sought after by parents and guardians looking to ‘get an edge’ for their children in an increasingly global society. Multilingualism seems to be an asset when we begin with English language proficiency; why is it not an asset when English is a developing proficiency on top of one, and sometimes two or three others?  It’s past time to examine our collective beliefs about students who aren’t yet speaking English proficiently and how those beliefs impact policies and practices in our schools. Let’s take a look at three common myths. 

Myth #1: Most English learners were born in a foreign country. We often think of English learners as foreigners, born somewhere else and unfamiliar with this country. In fact, a 2016 study found that “82 percent of prekindergarten to 5th grade English-learners and 65 percent of 6th and 12th grade English-learners are U.S.-born.” Myths like this can contribute to the ways that we unintentionally “other” students who are learning English. Examining how this bias lives in schools, classrooms, and ourselves, and including English Learners as full members of the school community, is vital if we are to systematically meet their needs. 

Myth #2: It’s the ESL teacher’s job to teach English learners. Our classrooms are filled with students who have various needs that are sometimes challenging for teachers to meet, especially remotely. It can be easy to deflect responsibility for teaching English learners on to teachers of English as a second language, yet students need language development in addition to–not instead of–the instruction in an ESL classroom. Collaboration, academic conversation, and well-scaffolded opportunities to work with proficient English speakers on grade-level texts and tasks are what move English learners along the continuum of English language proficiency; it can’t all happen in ESL. There is so much we can do to support English learners in our classrooms, and there are resources to help teachers determine the best way to support English learners as they engage with their peers. 

Myth #3: Students can’t access grade-level materials unless they are proficient in English. Another way we can unknowingly set English Learners back is by assuming that they aren’t capable of accessing grade-level texts and tasks, and engaging in the critical thinking demanded in state standards. This can come from a place of genuine care, perhaps even a concern about overwhelming students with overly challenging assignments. But we know better. In fact, what we know about good instruction and curriculum in general holds true for English Learners. This includes exposure to and support with developing rich content knowledge, tackling complex texts, collaborative and individual problem-solving, and acquisition of foundational skills, including systematic phonics instruction in early grades. 

Examining these myths, how they shape or perpetuate biased policies and practices, and how they invite narratives that often strip English learners’ identities, language, intelligences, and abilities, is a step we can take. We can also educate ourselves and our professional communities and work to build classrooms where all students are welcome, and where all students are viewed with valuable funds of knowledge. And focusing on the students in the class as a community of learners is another step that can make the learning in a classroom meaningful, engaging, and affirming to English learners.  Together, these steps move us toward the day when our system will do right by all students. 

Playback our panel discussion with the English Language Success Forum on addressing the immediate needs of teachers serving English language learners and examples of what’s working in districts we serve.