The Bilingual Learner's Journey

A new lens on how teachers can support English-language learners by affirming their identities

February 21, 2017

Asil Yassine, who taught English-language learners (ELLs) in Detroit before enrolling in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was herself an ELL student as a child. Drawing on her experiences as learner, teacher, and researcher, she offers guidance about the crucial support that ELL teachers can provide. In a short video (below), she remembers her own school days — and how hard it can be to be “different.”

As an ELL student, what did you wish your teachers had known?

Lead the charge and encourage your entire school to make this meaningful vocabulary switch: Instead of ELLs, call them “bilingual learners.” 

I grew up in a district that had very few ELLs at the time, so I have distinct memories of being incredibly self-conscious of the fact that I was the only one getting pulled out for services or the only one who had a special helper during reading time. That sense of "I'm different" can manifest itself into a variety of esteem issues, so I am grateful my teachers recognized the enormous importance of community. I remember how warm each classroom felt, how loving the teachers were, and how much camaraderie I found amongst my classmates. I don't, however, remember too many occasions where I was invited to explore my identity or my classmates' identities to unpack this notion of "I'm different." It was not until college where I was able to really dissect my identity as a Lebanese-Palestinian, Muslim-American speaking Arabic growing up in Texas and all the ways it shaped my relationship with learning. I wish I had been able to start exploring that earlier in elementary school.

What small or big things can ELL teachers do today, with current resources, to make a difference, in terms of social-emotional wellness and inclusivity?

What we need to recognize is the importance of affirming our students' identities. This is a step away from the annual "multicultural day" or general displays of diversity. It is the practice of bringing identity to the forefront of learning, because through understanding identity, we can understand the power that unfortunately defines so much of our students' experiences.

Take a look at your curriculum and create opportunities for your students to share their backgrounds, journeys, families, and culture in the context of your content area.

For our bilingual learners, much of this has to do with language. Lisa Delpit says language is "the skin that we speak," meaning that language is a massive part of anyone's identity. So one of the very first things I would encourage teachers to do is to shift their mindset about ELLs. Paola Uccelli suggests that instead of calling these students ELLs, we call them "bilingual learners." The argument here is that by recognizing their language diversity, we see their home language as an asset, not a deficit. Lead the charge and encourage your entire school to make this vocabulary switch too.

Then, take a look at your curriculum and create opportunities for your students to share information about their backgrounds, journeys, families, and culture in the context of your content area. Encouraging students, particularly newcomers, to share their wealth of experiences sends a strong message that their identity is important and that it is affirmed. As students dig for words to share their stories, it can foster community in the classroom and can spur the growth of academic vocabulary. Further, allow students to speak in their home language as they brainstorm, draft assignments, or work in groups. There is good research to back up this idea, as it allows students to fully participate in rigorous, critical thinking in a language they are comfortable in. They may not be able to do that in English yet, but we shouldn't rob them of the opportunity to do highly analytical thinking in their home language.

What must ELL teachers ask for or receive, in terms of structural/administrative support, to make a difference?

You and your principal may be on the same page, but is your school board?

I would start by asking a simple but crucial question: "What does our system of support currently look like for bilinguals?" You might find that only newcomers get targeted resources, leaving other bilingual students who still need support behind. It takes five to seven years for a student to fully develop academic proficiency in a different language, so there are likely many students who are slipping through the cracks. The big gaps are often in curriculum and human capital. Step back with your colleagues and look at both.

Then advocate, advocate, advocate. You and your principal may be on the same page, but is your school board? Attend their next meeting and explain the need for another interventionist or ELL teacher, for example. All of this is important for instruction, but again, we're also working here to affirm identities.

Remember that your school is inseparable from the community. As Karen Mapp points out, it’s critical for schools to partner with families and the community if they want to see transformation. Does your school have a dedicated team thinking through ways this trifecta — school, family, and community — can partner to boost student achievement and identity? You are a powerful individual, but you cannot and should not do this alone.

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