English Language Learners: 5 Myths and 3 Tips

by Maria Lee, Confinaza Contributor, who has been an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher with students and teachers from Kindergarten to 8th grade.

In my role as an English Language Learning teacher I have worked with various grade levels of classroom teachers and support staff in helping English Language Learners students (ELLs) with their academic language. While working with teachers in different content areas, I noticed some common ELL myths still exist among the staff. Some of these myths are:

  1. All teachers of ELLs speak the native languages of their students.
  2. Students cannot use their first language in the classroom.
  3. To learn English students must assimilate within North American culture.
  4. Younger children are more effective language learners than older children.
  5. Parents of ELLs do not speak English.

In this article, first I will use research to refute some of these myths and realities to each of them. Then, I will end with three practical tips for connecting with ELL students and working successfully with them in the classroom.

Myth #1: All teachers of ELLs speak the native languages of their students.

According to the article “Ten (Usually Wrong) Ideas about ELLs” published in Educational Leadership magazine of ASCD, the author of the article, Barbara Gottschalk, wrote “The assumption is that ESOL [ELL] teachers must know how to speak their students’ home languages. In many ESOL [ELL] classrooms throughout the United States, however, that would be difficult, if not impossible.” Gottschalk provided a scenario where she has had as many as eight different languages represented in her classroom. She spent four years living and working in Japan. She can empathize with Japanese speakers with how they feel when they encounter a new language and new culture because she has lived in another culture and learn a second language herself. Gottschalk pointed out that ELL teachers all have training in how to teach English to ELL students who are learning English as a second language even though ESOL (ELL) teachers may not speak students’ native language. Much like Gottschalk, I have had seven languages represented in my classrooms, and while I have tried to learn basic greetings I certainly didn’t know all of my students’ languages nor did I need to in order to be an effective instructor of English.

Myth #2: Students cannot use their first language in the classroom.

In order to debunk the next myth that students cannot use their first language in the classroom, there is a need to understand that there are advantages when students are able to use their first language. One advantage is that  English Language Learners are more likely to use English for social setting communication purposes when they are able to use their first language with their peers who also speak the same language (Alrubail 2015). Another advantage of letting ELLs to use their native language in the classroom is when ELLs understand the instruction fully using their native language students are able to concentrate on the task at hand rather than trying to figure out what the instruction means (Alrubail 2015). In reality “allowing students to use their native language facilitates cognitive and academic growth” according to Katharine Davies Samway and Denise McKeon authors of the book Myths and Realities Best Practices For English Language Learners (2007, 1999).

Myth #3: To learn English students must assimilate within North American culture.

The definition of assimilate means to change or acquire certain characteristics of a group (Alrubial 2015).  Many educators may be under the assumption that in order for students to succeed in language acquisition they need to adopt and assimilate in North American culture. This is not true.  According to the article “Debunking the Myths of English Language Learners” by Rusaul Alrubail emphasizes that “It is important to remember that the two processes are completely separate from each other.” Alrubial points out that students can learn English regardless of whether they assimilate to North American culture practices or not. So understanding that two processes are not related will help teachers to be supportive of the ELLs learning the new culture, as well as practices and ideologies.

Myth #4: Younger children are more effective language learners than older children.

The myth that younger children are more effective language learners than older learners can be false, depending on the student and their factors affecting their academic performance. In reality older language learners may be  more efficient learners while younger learners may learn to pronounce a new language with little or no accent (Samway, K. McKeon, D. 2007 pg 28). Samway and McKeon explain that younger children are expected to face simple and general linguistic tasks such as face to face communicative activities that fit with their developmental level. As children get older the language becomes more demanding especially the written language. Older school age children are required to maneuver through complex social situations and challenging academic contents so they need more sophisticated language skills to help them understand the English language. As we explain in Essential Elements of a Powerful Language Plan, Confianza recommends learning individual students’ specific strengths and needs in order to see how students’ language and literacy backgrounds and other factors can impact growth.

Myth #5: Parents of ELLs do not speak English.

Anabel Gonzalez, author of the article “10 Assumptions to Rethink About English-Language Learners” points out that children who are not proficient in English does not mean their parents are not proficient. Gonzalez explains that many parents want their children to retain their native language and culture so they will not expose their children to English prior to attending school. She gives a scenario where a student lives in a bicultural and bilingual home with one American Father who had been a missionary in Mexico. The father met and married his immigrant spouse and started a family. The family needs language support due to the immigrant parent who just came to the United States with no understanding of the English Language. I have had similar experience as mentioned by Gonzalez where my parents wanted my brother and I to retain Chinese Mandarin but my parents are willing to expose us to English. My mother graduated from Taiwan University (top university in Taiwan). She learned English when she was in middle school. My father was in the Navy and he was in the top admiral position. My parents decided to move to United States where my brother and I can have a better life and education. My brother and I retained the speaking part of the Chinese Mandarin language but our reading and writing of the Chinese Mandarin are not retained.

3 Tips: How can we make English Language Learners feel included and welcome in our classrooms?

Serena and Cassandra Sachar suggested in their article “3 Tips for Connecting With English Language Learners”:

  1. Find out about students’ backgrounds, cultures, and customs.
  2. Assign an ELL peer to mentor new students during their transitions.
  3. Encourage parental involvement.

Tip #1:  In order to foster mutual understanding between teachers and ELL students it is best that classroom teachers become familiar with students’ cultural heritage and norms. This will help teachers to recognize cultural differences in behavior and reacting appropriately to them will help ease students’ transition to their new school and environment. One way to do this is to ask students and their parents questions such as “Do you come from a big or small town?” and “What holidays do you celebrate?” The answers to these questions will help teachers better understand their ELL students’ backgrounds. Also it is important for teachers to know the answers to these questions because it can be used for building engaging lessons that will include literature relating to ELL students’ cultural background and introduce other students to their new peers’ culture. Learn more about a strengths-based, culturally-responsive method for getting to know your students, check out Your Students Have Assets, Not Deficiencies: Differentiating Instruction for English Learners based on Strengths and Interests.

Tip #2: Serena and Cassandra suggest that assigning an ELL a peer student to mentor new students during their transitions will help ELL mentor/mentee relationship. The relationship can result in increased the mentee confidence with speaking and communicating in English. Plus it can also improve the mentee’s academic performance because mentees lean on their mentor to ask for clarification in their native language regarding a particular subject matter. As a result of the new ELL students’ interaction with peers this relationship will potentially develop into friendship that will lead to connections with other classmates.  Read an example from a Confianza guest blogger here: “Sharing the Ambassadorship” in Lexington Public Schools, MA

Tip 3#: The last tip of connecting with ELL learners is to encourage parental involvement, and, even better as we say at Confianza, true “family engagement”. In the article “3 Tips for Connecting with English Language Learners” the authors point out that in order for parents to feel more comfortable with more involvement in school letters can be translated and sent home and having translators present at parent teacher conferences can help families feel more included. Schools can also educate parents on ins and outs of the U.S school system. This way it will help their understanding of teacher/school expectations, procedures, and curricula. Authors also suggested that when interacting with immigrant families be as culturally responsive and respectful. Authors mentioned a book called Multicultural Manners by Norine Dresser as a source to learn more about different interpretations of everyday socially acceptable actions that may be viewed differently by ELL families. So putting extra effort into developing relationships with ELL students’ parents and their progress can result in a positive atmosphere and lower stress levels for parents and students.  Here are more tips about developing strong, reciprocal relationships with families of English learners: Strong Connections Built on Confianza Between Home & School for English Learners.

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