Thinking Beyond the Traditional Concept of What Constitutes an English Language Learner

In September, I eagerly started taking the coursework necessary to become an English as a Second Language  teacher, a lifelong goal of mine. During my very first class, the professor asked a series of poignant questions about factors that influence practitioners’ teaching that stirred up something in me. Firstly, how does information influence how I work with English Language Learners (ELLs)  in my classroom? How does my own background/culture and that of my students influence my work with ELLs?

These questions, coupled with the articles, videos, and lectures shared in the class, intrigued me. They really made me think beyond the traditional concept of what constitutes an English Language Learner. So much of what I was learning was familiar to me. Why was that?  Does an ELL always have to come to the U.S. from another country in order to be one?

 I adamantly challenge that notion.

For the majority of my career, I’ve taught Black children from the lower socio-economic echelon of society who are often less familiar with the grammar, syntax, spelling, phonics, and vocabulary of Standard English language than their traditional ELL or White counterparts. The African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) they speak is misunderstood, wrongly put down, and many times directly contributes to teachers, unfamiliar with Black English, having low expectations for their Black students.

According to Sharroky Hollie in “Acknowledging the Language of African American Students: Instructional Strategies,” 

Many African-American students will walk into classrooms and be discreetly taught in most cases, and explicitly told in others, that the language of their forefathers, their families, and their communities is bad language, street language, the speech of the ignorant and/or uneducated. They will be “corrected” and told that their “she be” should be “she is” and that two negatives in a sentence equals a positive; therefore, they should not use multiple negation.

There’s no other way to put this: Low teacher expectation is poisonous. Sadly, Black and Brown  students from underserved neighborhoods are fed this poison daily, like cancer patients painfully receiving their chemo drip. Students feed off of the energy and the tone that the teacher sets for the class. Teachers who aren’t looking to get quality work, high achievement, or appropriate behavior from their students function as the antithesis of the professed goal of preparing our students to be college and career-ready. These teachers need to be eradicated from the education equation. Neither our students nor our society have room for  such rampant, debilitating  negativity.

I am not writing as a linguist, nor am I here to debate whether or not AAVE is an actual language.What I am putting forth is we must address a key component to the ever-widening chasm of the achievement gap — the  education debt —  between Black children and their peers from other races. Solutions lie with teachers constructing culturally-relevant, culturally responsive pedagogy that respectfully and effectively addresses their unique language needs.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Thinking Beyond the Traditional Concept of What Constitutes an English Language Learner

  1. Thank you for posting. I completely agree with your view. We need open-minded educators who understand that all cultures are valid. We need to begin from a place of love and inclusion. We teach our students what they need to know about a different culture to be successful in that culture. That new culture is neither better nor worse than their own – just different. The differences are what make our world rich and exciting. Our differences should not be a source of contention and power politics but of exploration, mind-enriching, and understanding. I will continue to be a bridge rather than a road block and source of egocentrism. I am thrilled that you are creating awareness about our own group dynamics right here in our backyard.

  2. Thank you. Your thoughtful words are well-received. I find at times that addressing issues of a large scale (like educational inequity) are more effectively done when begun, as you so rightfully say, “right here in our backyard.”

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