"Mistakes" = Opportunities for ELL Growth

by Sarah Ottow

In my work building the capacity of educators to serve English language learners (ELLs), I find myself tackling a common issue with my clients across districts and states: "This student is not proficient yet; he/she has a lot of errors and makes a lot of mistakes." While we educators are challenged with increasingly high academic standards, the pressure to perform in evaluation systems and many other stressors, understanding language development isn't always on the proverbial radar even when the concern for student progress is.    

Yes, ELL students make lots of "mistakes" which, frankly put, is an expected part of the process.  These multilingual learners are integrating a new language system--and accompanying culture--into their world.  As my reading specialist and ESL/bilingual education training taught me, mistakes are opportunities, not something to be shamed, penalized or judged.  Mistakes, or more accurately "miscues", are windows into a child's thinking and processing (Goodman, 1969).  And when we take the time to look through that window, we can see tremendous opportunities to meet students where they are in order to support their next steps for learning language.  In doing this, we can move away from a deficit lens of perceiving language development as full of "mistakes" and instead use this data as opportunities to more effectively target the student's continuous improvement and growth.

Let's take an example from one of my former students, Ahmed.  In the middle of a month-long unit on plants in his second grade curriculum, I was working with Ahmed to check for understanding on key concepts and vocabulary taught so far, asking, "What does a seed need to grow?"  Ahmed paused, closed his eyes and with a furrowed brow carefully stated, "A seed needs sun, water and oil."  I responded, "Yes, sun, water.  Oil?"  He looked up into my eyes with such confidence, repeating, "Yes, Ms. Ottow.  Seeds need oil to grow!" and touched the soil inside the potted plant on our table.  

What I realized in that moment is that Ahmed understood very well the concept of "soil" but had instead heard the word "oil".  This miscue likely occurred because of two reasons.  First, he heard "connected text"--when words are said aloud together in phrases or sentences and the beginning and ending sounds of words become strung together.  In this case, if his content teacher had said repeatedly, "A seed needs oil" it sounds exactly the same as "A seed need soil".  And if one doesn't have a broad base of vocabulary and fluency in English yet, one could easily confuse the word "oil" for "soil".  (Might you or I do the same if we were learning a new language too?)

Second, even though Ahmed had read and written the key vocabulary word "soil" numerous times throughout the unit so far, as an ELL, he required more exposure with the language to get it right.  In this case, he clearly needed more practice using the words in context, connecting oral language to written text.  Again, I stress that he had the concept right but made a miscued the exact word.  This data gave me insight into Ahmed's specific needs in the language of science so I provided him some quick word work and cut-up sentences so he could hear and see the difference in the two words.  We also unpacked the difference in meaning between "soil" and "oil" and "need" and "needs".  He then added these words with pictures, sentences and how to say and write them in his heritage language of Arabic into his personal academic language journal. 

"Mistakes", as Ahmed taught me and so many students have over the years, are simply indicators of where students are in the exciting and nuanced process of learning another language.  What's more is that our mindset around the process of English language development can either help or hinder students' efficacy in their learning journey.  On one hand, we can stay stuck on pointing out how students "aren't proficient yet" by admiring the problem.  This delays the real work of rolling up our sleeves to provide responsive teaching and differentiation on our part to drive student growth.  A more linguistically responsive approach allows us to more joyfully see miscues as windows into a child's thinking in order to better instruct them and meet them where they are at the time.  We can, in fact, not see the process of language learning as a "problem" at all but embrace it as a beautiful journey we are privileged to accompany children on in our schools.

Given that ELL students comprise our fastest growing subgroup nationwide, it is time for the field of education as a whole to come to the common understanding and knowledge base about the simple fact that becoming proficient in another language is a developmental process.  A process that is natural, a process that times and support, and a process that is full of learning opportunities not just for the students but also for us!  It's time for all educators to know and accept this process as what ELLs experience so that they can differentiate for their needs.  It's time to move into a shared responsibility of meeting students where they are.  As the adage says, let's focus on progress, not perfection.  And as language experts say, let's focus on language development, not necessarily always language proficiency. My dream and mission is for all educators to see themselves as teachers of language and, therefore, facilitators and celebrators of "mistakes".

--Sarah Ottow, Director and Founder, Confianza: Educating for ELL Equity, an educational organization focused on preventing the opportunity gap for multilingual learners.  



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