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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Beyond "ELL"

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TC professor Ofelia Garcia

TC professor Ofelia Garcia at TC's inaugural "Equity Matters" forum in late January.

They’re “emergent bilinguals,” not “English Language Learners”—and teachers should build on their strengths 

What’s in a name? For students branded “English Language Learners (ELLs),” the answer, all too often, is misguided policies that marginalize the assets they bring to a classroom.

So argued TC professor Ofelia Garcia at TC’s inaugural “Equity Matters” forum in late January. Garcia’s presentation, “Equity in the Education of Emergent Bilinguals: The case of English Language Learners,” tackled the focus of U.S. education policy on bi- and multilingualism in the U.S. as well as attitudes toward immigrant children and families.

Clearly, the U.S. needs to harness the talents of these students, Garcia noted, because they represent an ever-growing share of the school population, with a rate of school enrollment increasing at seven times the national average.

Yet it’s just as clear that federal policy isn’t working when it comes to how this country educates its non-native English speakers. According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 4 percent of English language learners in the eighth grade are proficient in reading and only 6 percent in math. Seventy-one percent of ELLs scored below “basic” on the eighth grade NAEP reading and math tests. ELLs trail English proficient students by 39 points in reading and 36 points in math on a 500-point scale nationally. And a survey in 2003 revealed that 50 percent of ELLS fail their graduation tests, compared with 24 percent of English-proficient students.

To Garcia, those failures stem from a fundamentally close-minded approach to language—and one that is very much at odds with mainstream thinking in other countries. 

“Throughout the world, bilingualism is the norm,” she says. “But here, bilingualism in the classroom and society is the elephant in the room. In viewing non-native speakers simply as people who ‘don’t yet speak English’ we’re focusing only on the elephant’s only the tail.”

Garcia said that the very term “English Language Learner” reflects all the failings in the U.S. approach. She argued instead for “emergent bilingual” as a preferable term for students in this population. “Calling them ELL is erasing who they are,” she said. “They already contribute to our society in many different ways. They have divergent thinking, a facility with languages, skills that we can use in the classroom and beyond.”

At the same time, she said, current methods for assessing the abilities and content knowledge of these students are unjust and perpetuate their difficulties in integrating into society.

“Half of their reserves are in another language,” she said. “If you give them tests that are monolingually biased instead of testing content knowledge, you’ll never achieve equity.” Furthermore, recent studies have shown that use of a child’s home language is better for these students’ education than structured English immersion.

Nor is competency in English the only barrier that emergent bilinguals face, Garcia said. “We need to change attitudes about these students’ parents, not branding them as deficient and lazy. Not only do they speak a different language, but many of them can’t even enter their child’s school, since you have to produce an ID.” As a Hispanic woman, she said, “I feel intimidated walking into schools sometimes. Imagine how their parents can feel.”

Inclusion of parents and multilingual assessment are both essential for better serving the needs of emergent bilinguals and capitalizing on their strengths, Garcia said.

“We need a more flexible stance about accepted language. Standard school language is a construct, a way of regulating speech. I’d like to be able to test content without making language the overwhelming barrier.”

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