Does the long-term English learner label hurt the students it was intended to help?

Those of you who have followed my work know that I am extremely critical of the label long-term English learner. I have argued that the category reflects a raciolinguistic ideology that positions these students as deficient while a white student who engages in similar bilingual language practices would be categorized as linguistically gifted. I have posed a challenge to our field to reconceptualize the language practices of so-called long-term English learners outside of the white gaze and the white listening subject.

One person who has been leading these efforts is Maneka Brooks, currently an assistant professor of reading education at Texas State University. I am honored and thrilled that she accepted my invitation to write a guest blog where she describes her research. This is important work that I hope you share with your colleagues.

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There has been an explosion of academic and popular articles lamenting the crisis of long-term English learners (LTELs) in U.S. schools. Although these students have spent many years in the U.S. school system (usually six or more), they remain classified as “learning English.” These publications frequently caution educators not to be seduced by LTELs abilities to use English (and other languages) in multifaceted situations. LTELs are frequently described as lacking proficiency in any language. For instance, a recent publication from the National Education Association describes their language as “imprecise and inadequate for deeper expression and communication.” Every time I read these types of description, I cringe. These characterizations are in stark contrast to the capabilities of the adolescents with whom I have worked.

I draw on the words of 16-year-old Eliza (a pseudonym) to illustrate what a student who is considered an LTEL can do in English. The following quotation was taken from a conversation in which Eliza was discussing her new 20-year-old stepmother:

At least I am smart about my education and me being independent when I grow up. Not just getting somebody you really like and wanting to get with them. Yeah so, I was like…oh yeah I think of her life. I wonder if she would go—like would have gone to college and not just get married right away. It’s like a fairytale in a way. ‘Cause she got married when she was eighteen. I think it’s a fairytale because I know some girls out there that would be like, ‘I wish that somebody could come and get me and take me to another place.’

In this excerpt, Eliza engages in multiple sophisticated linguistic moves that are celebrated by the Common Core and other educational standards. For example, she does not solely critique her stepmother’s decisions. She uses a simile to convey her stepmother’s viewpoint. Moreover, Eliza explains how this simile is relevant to this specific context. Eliza’s language is precise and communicates a deep understanding of multiple perspectives and life trajectories.

How can someone with the ability to use English in this manner remain classified as an EL for 11 years? In order to fully understand Eliza’s extended classification as an EL, it is important to recognize that the criteria used to determine students’ English proficiency varies according to their language background. For students who come from households where English is the only language spoken, their home language environment is sufficient to be considered proficient in English. Their academic performance does not play a role in making this determination. On the other hand, Eliza’s EL classification meant that she had to demonstrate her English proficiency through specific levels of performance on multiple measures. Depending on the district, these measures can include assessments of oral English, written English, English language arts, and math. In addition, classroom grades and teacher approval are often included. These criteria expand beyond the knowledge of English to include various measures of academic achievement and compliance with school policies.

The multiple criteria that Eliza needed to meet to be considered proficient in English must be taken into account when understanding her trajectory as a high school student. It cannot be assumed that the primary reason that she remains classified as an EL is because of her English proficiency. This interpretation reflects a very narrow understanding of the various measures that are used to determine English proficiency. For instance, the fact that a student does not perform at a certain level on standardized assessment of English language arts (ELA) does not mean that s/he has yet to acquire English. The existence of monolingual English-speakers with “low” scores on ELA assessments illustrates that there is not one test score that is synonymous with English proficiency. Moreover, there is an extensive research literature that highlights multiple factors that can impact how an individual performs on an assessment. These factors include, but are not limited to, differences in background knowledge, test anxiety, and biases within the test itself. Unfortunately, these considerations are frequently pushed to the periphery when discussing so-called LTELs.

In working with students like Eliza, I have witnessed how the LTEL lens can be harmful when used to guide teaching and learning. The normative LTELs lens obscures what this population of adolescent bilinguals is able to do with literacy, their experiences with literacy, and the nature of their literacy difficulties. For instance, I found that the everyday academic reading experiences of five students who were identified as LTELs were very different from the kinds of reading practices that were used as evidence of English proficiency on assessments. Reading in the classroom primarily centered on oral reading in groups; however, the tests gave priority to silent and individual comprehension. Rather than not “knowing” English, my research highlighted that these students were inexperienced with the tested reading practices. In other publications, I have demonstrated how the prevalent descriptions of LTELs dismiss the way in which students in this demographic are engaging in successful academic literacy practices within the classroom and other spaces.

The predominant framing of the LTEL marginalizes many young people’s sophisticated use of English and erases other relevant aspects of their identities and experiences. I argue that a more productive instructional orientation would center on creating academic environments in which this population can experience on-going success. This orientation entails moving away from seeing, representing, and teaching students who are labeled as LTELs as individuals who have “broken” or “incomplete” linguistic abilities. A first step toward in this journey is for administrators, educators, and researchers to recognize and incorporate the linguistic expertise (in English and other languages) that so-called LTELs bring into the classroom. On a more holistic level, this instructional orientation requires designing learning experiences that are situated in a multidimensional understanding of the academic, social, and linguistic abilities and experiences of these young people. These students deserve an educational experience that provides this kind of respect and academic enrichment.

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5 comments
  1. Great post! Thanks to you both. I’m commenting with the hope of opening a discussion on what Prof. Brooks’ conclusion would look like in the classroom.

    “A first step toward in this journey is for administrators, educators, and researchers to recognize and incorporate the linguistic expertise (in English and other languages) that so-called LTELs bring into the classroom. On a more holistic level, this instructional orientation requires designing learning experiences that are situated in a multidimensional understanding of the academic, social, and linguistic abilities and experiences of these young people. These students deserve an educational experience that provides this kind of respect and academic enrichment.”

    I’d say this starts with respecting learners’ L1s and creating space for learners to use it in the classroom, but I’m not sure where it goes from there in terms of practical application. (I’m coming at this from an adult continuing ed ESOL perspective.)

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    • Thanks for the question!

      I think an excellent example of how this can happen in the classroom is demonstrated by some work that is available on UCLA’s CenterX’s website. I have linked to one of their lesson plans below. The really powerful thing about the way they have organized these learning experiences is that they take center “everyday” practices of bilinguals as rich linguistic resources. (These practices are the ones that are frequently denigrated in publications about so-called LTELs.) Then, they connect the abilities that the students already have to additional ways of communicating. The link which I have included begins with the actual lesson plans. However, if you are unfamiliar with language brokering then you could check out some of the earlier pages where they provide an overview. https://centerx.gseis.ucla.edu/xchange/repertoires-of-linguistic-practice/suppliment-to-lesson-plan/connecting-language-brokering-to-academic-literacies

      Although these lesson plans are designed for high school students (and you work with a different population), I think they illustrate what can happen when you recognize what students are able to do with language. I have some articles with other examples if you want to send me an email.

      Another way of operationalizing this perspective in practice is to really talk to students about what their previous experiences with schooling and literacy have been. In my work with students who are considered to be LTELs, many have shared with me a perspective on reading that highlights oral reading fluency. This aspect of reading was central to their self-assessment about whether or not they have read something well. A necessary step for literacy instruction with students in this context would be to highlight the significance of comprehension and meaning making. This kind of focus would help to better align the literacy instructional practices of the classroom with those that are valued in other contexts. This way of approaching literacy pedagogy is centered in engaging with the understandings that students’ bring to the classroom about what successful reading entails. Whether it is language brokering or reading comprehension, these instructional decisions are centered on looking at students holistically and shaping curriculum to draw on their experiences and understandings.

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  2. Dr. Brooks–Exceptional work! I actual should be called a long-term Spanish learner, yet due to the position in society my race and education affords me, people often remark how wonderful my Spanish is. I see this unequal treatment regularly when working with bilingual adolescents. I’m glad you expertly called it out.

    I’m currently writing a practitioner friendly book and need to address literacy, language and biliteracy instruction for students in the dynamic process of second language acquisition including students who often get the negative LTEL label. Could you suggest some academic publications that share the same sentiment as this blog post? Do you suggest an alternative way to refer to these students?

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    • Thanks so much for commenting! I love your work. I just saw a presentation that you gave about poetry at AERA in D.C. As a non-Latinx that speaks Spanish I completely understand what you mean about linguistic positioning. I have included a couple citations on here that are specifically share this perspective on LTELs.

      Brooks, M. D. (2015). ” It’s Like a Script”: Long-Term English Learners’ Experiences with and Ideas about Academic Reading. Research in the Teaching of English, 49(4), 383.

      Brooks, M. D. (2016). “Tell me what you are thinking”: An investigation of five Latina LTELs constructing meaning with academic texts. Linguistics and Education, 35, 1-14.

      Brooks, M. D. (2015). Notes and talk: an examination of a long-term English learner reading-to-learn in a high school biology classroom. Language and Education, 1-17.

      Flores, N., Kleyn, T., & Menken, K. (2015). Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14(2), 113-132.

      Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

      Kibler, A. K., & Valdés, G. (2016). Conceptualizing language learners: Socioinstitutional mechanisms and their consequences. The Modern Language Journal, 100(S1), 96-116.

      Menken, K. (2013). Emergent bilingual students in secondary school: Along the academic language and literacy continuum. Language Teaching, 46(04), 438-476.

      Valdés, G., Poza, L., & Brooks, M.D. (2014). Educating students who do not speak the societal language: The social construction of language learner categories. Profession. Retrieved from http://profession.commons.mla.org/2014/10/09/educating-students-whodo-not-speak-the-societal-language/

      With regard to naming, in my research I have used the term English-speaking bilinguals who remain classified as English learners. It is long and wordy. But, I have found that it more accurately captures the abilities of these students. At an AERA session this year, Guadalupe Valdes encouraged researchers to be wordy with their descriptions. When I refer to the length of time that a student remains in a policy classification, I may use the term. But, I avoid using it as a description of linguistic ability. I am in Texas too! So, I am happy to talk with you more!

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      • I am currently reading Common Core Bilingual and English Language Learners: A Resource for Educators edited by Valdes, Menken, & Castro (2015, Caslon Publishing) and find their term “Emergent Bilingual” (EB) paradigm shifting. Even though the prefix “bi” is potential limiting in terms of emerging multilingual language users, the view of the learner in the privileged and valued position of additional language as cultural capital shifts our thinking from deficit to strength from the outset. This seemingly small change (word usage) in identity is powerful and has changed my lens. Thanks to Dr. Brooks for the post and additional resources and to Andrew and Mandy for continuing the conversation.

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