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Misconceptions About English Language Learners

For almost a century now, the English language has held a hegemony as the most-spoken global language. The vast majority of films, music, games, and media are produced and consumed in English. It’s hard to travel somewhere and not find someone who doesn’t speak English. Therefore, it’s easy to assume that most people speak some English. However, some teachers may be surprised to learn that this may not be the case for their English language learning (ELL) students — even those born in the U.S.

Misconceptions about ELLs can be harmful and detrimental to students’ success. To support learners’ language needs, educators must be aware of these myths and actively combat them. Graduates of the University of Mount Saint Vincent (UMSV) Master of Science (M.S.) in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) online program are equipped to best help language learners.

Myth One: ELLs Are Not From the U.S.

“We often think of English learners as foreigners, born somewhere else and unfamiliar with this country,” says Amy Rudat for UnboundEd. “In fact, a 2016 study found that ’82 percent of prekindergarten to 5th grade English-learners and 65 percent of 6th and 12th grade English-learners are U.S.-born.’ Myths like this can contribute to the ways that we unintentionally ‘other’ students who are learning English.”

This is the first misconception about ELLs, which, accompanied by other biases, deter these students from receiving the proper education they need. Many students grow up in households speaking primarily another language, but this doesn’t mean their parents don’t speak English — another common misconception. Even those with an immigration background are not a monolith, as they have very diverse and unique stories about their family’s arrival in the U.S.

Myth Two: Assimilation Is the Answer

It is also not uncommon, therefore, for people to think that for a student to succeed in learning English, they must assimilate into American culture, according to a Confianza article. This idea may be harmful because students see themselves being forced to learn a new language and detach from a culture they’ve known their whole lives. Instead, encouraging students to be bicultural and bilingual will make them learn to appreciate their uniqueness and use it to their advantage socially and in educational and work contexts later in life.

When students do acquire a level of English that is conversational, it also shouldn’t be assumed that they can automatically exceed academically. As mentioned on a page dedicated entirely to Learning Strategies for ELLs, “While ELLs may acquire social language [within] three years, it may take up to seven years for an ELL to achieve academic proficiency in English. Levels of knowledge and literacy in the native language impact the rate in which students can perform academically in English.”

So how can educators positively influence the learning process of such students? First of all, it’s important to let them speak freely in class and give them space to communicate in whichever language they choose — especially during breaks.

To the first point, ELLs are most likely to feel comfortable speaking English when they are not corrected constantly. Stopping and correcting, although well-meaning, may increase a student’s self-consciousness and influence how much they participate in class. Teachers can point out some corrections at the end of their speech, but also know that, over time, students will learn to apply grammar rules properly.

The authors of Confianza say it best: “When ELLs understand the instruction fully using their native language, students are able to concentrate on the task at hand rather than trying to figure out what the instruction means.” That’s not to say that educators can always rely on a “buddy” for translation — this, too, is detrimental to both students.

Myth Three: Teachers Must Know Many Other Languages

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions is that teachers must either be ESL-focused or proficient in a student’s native language to engage with ELLs. Programs such as UMSV’s online M.S. in TESOL equip educators with the knowledge to teach ELL students through a “combination of language knowledge, sociocultural context, lesson-planning instruction, and evaluation techniques that are beneficial to teachers of English language learners.” Freeing oneself from biases and misconceptions is the first step in helping ELLs and other language learners, notes the Confianza article.

Graduates of UMSV’s program are prepared to identify English language structures and their instruction application, analyze cultural contexts that influence language learning and development, advocate for awareness of identities and cultural differences, follow ELL standards, and integrate research-proven strategies in the classroom. These skills will help language educators better help the nearly 5.1 million English learners in the U.S. (as of 2019).

Learn more about the University of Mount Saint Vincent’s M.S. in TESOL online program.

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