Are Language Learners a Disadvantage in the Classroom?

Language Learner Pic

At a recent forum, I listened to three regional secretaries of education discuss their states’ different approaches to education. While each took a variety of stances on big educational issues like standardized testing, charter schools, and “Race to the Top” funding, they all agreed on one thing – that having more English Language Learners (ELLs) in their states has created challenges. 

Someone had asked a well-intentioned question about how each state addresses the needs of its ELLs, but what followed was a general tirade about all the difficulties schools were now having because of “these kids’” increased presence in the classroom. The discussion was off-putting – not because meeting the needs of linguistically diverse students isn’t challenging – but because no one thought to ask about the advantages of having ELLs in schools. 

Think about it – we wouldn’t discuss other forms of diversity this way, with a laundry list of negatives. An influx of racial diversity, for example, can also bring complex challenges, but school leaders embrace these changes as an asset to their schools (as they should). They wouldn’t be caught dead making comments about how hard it is having “these kids” come into “their” schools.

So why is it ok to talk about ELLs this way?

Time ran out during the forum discussion, but I was curious how other educators would answer questions about linguistic diversity as an asset. So I asked a group of high school teachers I work with, and we came up with an extensive list of answers. From what we discussed, here are three of the biggest advantages of having ELLs in the classroom:

1. They make us better teachers: Most of the teaching techniques we use to help ELLs fall under the umbrella of “Just Good Teaching,” meaning that these approaches help all students. More visual aides, pre-teaching vocabulary, focusing on the mechanics of language across subject areas – these are pedagogical techniques that give ALL student better access to the material.

Sometimes, teachers ask if they should take my ELL methods course even if they “don’t have any ELLs in their class.” I usually ask them if any of their students are behind in reading, have trouble with complex  vocabulary, or need to work on their writing. Inevitably, the answers are yes, yes, and yes. In which case I say, “Then this course is for you.”

Many teachers who incorporate ELL teaching techniques into their classrooms notice that it really does help them reach more students, making their lessons more multimodal (teaching ELLs really lets you put the theory of multiple intelligences into action), and in many cases, more enjoyable all around.

2. Incredible Motivation: While many of the teachers I spoke to discussed cultural assets (unsurprisingly, linguistic and cultural diversity usually go hand and hand), I really wanted us to focus specifically on linguistic diversity (as cultural diversity is, thankfully, more widely embraced as an asset). But one aspect teachers discussed that may mix a bit of both is the incredible motivation teachers saw among many of their ELLs. When you’re working to learn the language that is used around you every day, there’s a lot less “What does this have to do with my life?” to deal with in the classroom. Many of the teachers in our group said that their ELLs were often their top performers in terms of attendance, punctuality, and homework completion. Some even said that seeing this example helped kick their non-ELL students into higher gear as well!

3. More languages: You’d think this would be an obvious one, but for some reason it’s not: THESE STUDENTS SPEAK OTHER LANGUAGES. At a time when we have parents lining up to get their kids into bilingual immersion programs, why would an influx of students who are all experts in that language be seen as an inconvenience in our schools? I mean, instead of waiting in line or paying for a private language school, we should be capitalizing on the language assets that already exist in our classrooms, celebrating an influx of linguistic diversity rather than discussing it as a malady that needs to be cured.

All this reminded me of one of the best quotes on linguistic diversity I have ever come across, from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. While discussing the Biblical “Tower of Babel” story, in which humans were “afflicted” with multiple languages so they couldn’t finish building a tower to heaven, Morrison says:

“The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven… And what kind?

Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.”

And since no one can really follow up on Toni Morrison, I’m just going to leave it at that. But please let me know if you have other assets of having ELLs in schools that should be added to the list!

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