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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Debunking the Myths of English Language Learners

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Children Looking Out Bus Window Myths in the education system are important to debunk in order to build a better support system for students. The future of education depends on looking at past failures, and not just learning from them to move forward, but to rise upwards. There are several myths in English Language classrooms that are often seen as normal practice. 

Identifying these myths will help us meet our students’ needs, and be able to serve them better.

Myth #1: Students cannot use their first language in the classroom

There are still many teachers who enforce this rule in their classrooms despite the fact the it is outdated and has many negative effects on the learner. When students are able to use their first language amongst peers who also speak the same language, they are more likely to use English for communicative purposes in social settings. Another reason to allow students’ use of first language in the classroom is for them to understand instructions fully. In this way, the student is able to concentrate on the task at hand, rather than being preoccupied with trying to understand the instructions.

Myth #2: Students need to be corrected when they’re speaking English

It is often tempting for teachers to correct grammar or pronunciation when student is speaking. However, it’s best to let the students speak freely without the interfering act of correcting. Correcting often decreases students’ self-confidence and diminishes their agency and voice in the classroom. Over time, with lots of practice of oral communication, students will eventually recognize grammar and sentence structure patterns on their own. In the meantime, teachers should support students when speaking by offering help when the student asks for it. Corrective strategies in the classroom, if at all necessary, need to be done privately, with kindness and care. 

Myth #3: All English language learners are immigrants

Many language learners are not immigrants and have in fact been born in the US. Some language learners are also international students, who are here on a study period. It is important to be mindful and empathetic to the backgrounds of our learners to help us meet their learning needs and create a safe classroom culture for them.

Myth #4: To learn English students must assimilate within North American culture

To assimilate is to change or acquire certain characteristics of a group. Many teachers are under the impression that in order for students to succeed in language acquisition, a student must adopt and assimilate in North American culture. It is important to remember that the two processes are completely separate from each other.

Students can and do learn the language regardless whether they assimilate to North American culture practices or not. Understanding that the two processes are unrelated will help teachers be supportive of the student’s learning of the new culture and its practices and ideologies. In this way the teachers can act as a support system to help the student navigate new cultural understandings and help them make sense of what is usually an overwhelming experience.

Myth #5: All English language learners share similar background, culture, socio-economic status

This might seem like an obvious myth, however, often times teachers unconsciously view English language learners as a collective of students. It is absolutely crucial to shift this mindset and focus on the student from an individualistic perspective. English language learners are often so different from each other that they do not relate to their peers for the simple fact that they are both ELLs. Reminding ourselves that our language learners do not share the same culture, religion, socio-economic background, race, etc. helps us see them as the special individuals that they are. Connect with students by knowing who they are, it is the only way to touch their minds and their hearts.


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Comments (24) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

I really like this metaphor, the united nations of high schools... agree with you that's even more reason for us to support ELL's individuality of culture, heritage and background.

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Rusul, thanks so much for replying to my comment. Although I am currently out of the classroom and spend much of my time on advocacy, I am a big fan of Kate Kinsella's work on the formation of academic language, scaffolding vocabulary. I have seen it used in a SDAIE classroom through sentence starters, high use word fill in the blanks and actually teaching academic language before a lesson.

(2)
auryt_j's picture

Rusul, thanks for theses, I agree with all of them. One of the things which really works is to ask the teacher to give you a list of key words for the subject that year e.g. Biology or Maths. You keep a bank of these words translated into the relevant first language and give these to the student at the beginning of the year. It helps enormously both with comprehension, English language acquisition and most of all with confidence as students can then understand what is expected and this allows them to participate and perform

(1)
Martin Phipps's picture

"Over time, with lots of practice of oral communication, students will eventually recognize grammar and sentence structure patterns on their own."

I teach English in Taiwan and the opposite is true: students tend to make the same mistakes so when I correct one student in class I am actually reminding everybody about the error. This is especially true with mistakes in pronunciation: some students cannot hear the difference between, for example, "fifteen" and "fifty" or between "man" and "men" so they WILL continue to make these mistakes if they are not pointed out.

(1)
Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Hi Katie, Thanks for the recommendation, I am sure I have seen Kate Kinsella's name in the ELL world, but will look it up soon based on your recommendation!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Hi thank you for your comment and for this wonderful suggestion! I think it's a great idea and many students would find it helpful for participation.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Writer on education, teaching and learning. Chief Education Officer at The Writing Project

Hi Martin, I understand that some errors need to be pointed out. Though I do think pronunciation errors instead of being pointed out individually, can be a class lesson. A teacher can take down some of the commonly mispronounced words and go over them as a class. In this way, the individual students are not pointed out for their error and avoids any possible embarrassment for them. I think same strategy can be applied for grammar errors. I do this with my students often, especially when I am teaching all ELL class. We devote time for vocabulary pronunciation and grammar questions.

Joanna Gram's picture

Great post! Myth number one and two are very common misconceptions. Students should be allowed to use their first language, especially in their early stages on language development. Cummins CUP theory supports this notion as well. The L1 supports acquisition of the L2. I think that there is a time and place for corrections. Students need to be corrected but it has to occur in a positive way. If a student is embarrassed or constantly corrected it could lower their motivation and possibly negatively affect their confidence. I'm a big fan of Krashen, and his studies have shown that students who have higher motivation and confidence acquire a second language better. English learners already have so much going against them. As educators, we have to show our support and encouragement.

Joanna Gram's picture

Hey Jamie! I found your comment interesting and I don't think its a matter of being argumentative at all. I don't believe that correction is bad as it is necessary for improvement, however you need to be careful how you correct, and how often. As for the student losing confidence in the teacher, that is a major concern. I think if teachers have honest communication with their students certain problems can be prevented.

Andrew_Weiler's picture
Andrew_Weiler
Passionate about leading people to be the great language learners they all once were

Some of these are myths, however there is one that is not black and white, and that is Myth 2. Correction is something that I do all the time in the class and my students inevitably ask me, "Why don't other teachers do what you do?"

It really depends upon how the correction is carried out. In my classes I only stop them as necessary and ask them to correct themselves. I do this for pron, vocab, grammar etc. I do it with humour, care and attention so they never feel belittled but feel like I am helping them.
This kind of correction is a powerful tool as it prompts reflection and over time causes students to be more mindful...all necessary attributes for being a great language learner.

These times can turn into great learning experiences for all as they collectively work out the answer. Sometimes I give hints, sometimes I give simple problems they can work out...all the time leading to THE problem that stumped them.

There is correction and then there is correction! :-)

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