10 Assumptions to Rethink About English-Language Learners

English-language learners are among the fastest-growing populations in our schools. They comprise about 10 percent of the student population across the nation and about six percent of the student population in Iowa. At Northwest AEA, we serve around 5,400 ELs within our public and nonpublic schools who speak more than 55 languages.

New and veteran teachers may often feel unprepared when teaching English-language learners (ELLs).  These feelings may manifest into assumptions that are not based on facts.  Anabel Gonzales, Secondary ESL Teacher in the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, has compiled a list of common assumptions that might affect our ability to relate to our ELLs.

Assumption #1: ELLs are homogeneous.

Reality: English-language learners span a wide array of cultures, races, socio-economic levels, and academic experiences.  Many ELL families come to the United States for professional reasons and are well-educated and economically stable.

Assumption #2: All ELLs are immigrants.

Reality: The majority of English-language learners enrolled in U.S. schools were born in the United States.  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.

Assumption #3: Parents of ELLs do not speak English.

Reality:  Many parents of English Learners are actually proficient in English, even though their child or children are not proficient.  Some parents choose to purposely not expose their children to English prior to attending school.  There are various reasons for this decision.  Some children live with one American parent and one immigrant parent.  Some children are raised in a foreign country with an American English speaking parent and a parent who speaks the language where the family resides until they move to the United States.  An English-language learner may be adopted into an English speaking family.

Assumption #4: ELLs are fluent in their native language.

Reality: Many children replace their first language with English, especially if they are adoptees.  This may happen because there is no one in their home to converse with them in their first language.  Children coming from another culture and country may have interrupted education, which affects their social and academic fluency in their first language.  It is important for educators to make accommodations and provide scaffolds during class instruction.

Assumption #5: English-language proficiency is an indicator of intellect.

Reality: An English-language learner can be academically gifted.  An English-language learner can also have learning differences, althought we need to rule out language issues by taking into account specific data and considerations when making such a determination.  In order to meet the needs of all ELs, it is important that educators offer comprehensible input and scaffolded instruction.  This involves making connections to a student’s background and cultural experiences, building background knowledge, teaching tiered academic vocabulary, grouping students so they have time to discuss content, providing sentence frames, asking higher-order questions, etc.

Assumption #6: Social English proficiency equates with academic English proficiency.

Reality:  There are two types of language, social and academic.  Social language is referred to as Basic Interpersonal Communication skills (BICS).  This is the language needed in everyday, face-to-face social interactions.  This is the language we use to socialize with others.  These language skills are used out on the playground, on the phone, in the grocery store, etc.  It can take 6 months to 2 years to become fluent in BICS.  Academic language is referred to as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).  These are the oral and written language skills students need to succeed in school.  It can take 5 or more years to become proficient in CALP.  It is not uncommon for a EL student to be able to communicate fluently with teachers and peers in a social conversation and yet struggle with academic language in the classroom.  ELs who struggle may appear to be lazy and unattentive.  It’s important to note language gaps and limited proficiency in CALP may cause a student to tire and give up easily.

Assumption #7: Using a native language in school interferes with English-language acquisition.

Reality: English-language learners should be allowed to use their native language when needed.  Many educators and even a few parents believe that if their child is allowed to use their native language they will not become fluent in English.  In actuality, allowing and EL student to use their native language helps maximize learning and make connections between the two languages.  It can be an effective way to scaffold learning, by building background knowledge and increasing comprehension.  Many educators fear the EL student will get off task and cause behavioral problems. Although this is a fear, most educators know when a child is off-task by their body language and behavior, no matter what language the child speaks.

Assumption #8: English is their second language.

Reality:  Many English-language learners are multilingual, meaning they speak more than two languages.  It’s important for educators to ask the ELL which language they prefer to recieve translations in.  Never assume that the student’s strongest language is the official language of their most recent residence.

Assumption #9: A classroom buddy is a translator.

Reality:  A classroom buddy or mentor does not need to speak the ELL’s native language, however it could be an asset.  Classroom buddies or mentors are students who will watch over the ELL, making sure he is on the right page, has the correct handouts, helps explain  directions, clarifies content,  knows how to use his lunch ticket, and guides him through the school day.  The buddy or mentor is a student who is willing and eager to take on this responsibility.

Assumption #10: Communication is not possible because of language barriers.

Reality: Translation devices and tools are very accessible in this day and age.  They may not provide a 100% perfect translation, but they are very helpful.  Visual aids, gestures and body language help bridge the communication gap.

Showing kindness and wearing a smile lets students of all languages know you are on their side and routing for their success!  It is human nature to develop assumptions about others when we do not understand or do not have the facts about people who come from different cultures, languages and backgrounds.  It’s vital that educators question their assumptions and learn as much about their ELL students as possible so every student can strive to reach their potential.

10 Assumptions to Rethink About English-Language Learners


6 myths about English Language Learners debunked to make supporting them easier: