The alphabet soup of working with students whose first language is not English…or what ESL, ELL, ESOL, EAP, EAL, EFL, ELT, ESOL, TESL, TEFL, and TESOL mean

These labels are an alphabet soup of confusing mixed messages that makes the debate about how to best educate children who are learning or speaking English as a second language confusing and difficult to follow. Is a child labeled ESL or ELL? Do we have a certification in TESL or TESOL? Or does it matter what we call it? What is interesting about the labels and acronyms is how rarely these labels define the students and instead define how policy makers are comfortable defining groups of students based on how they appear to people who do not work in schools.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I work in a school which has an extremely high percentage of students who do not speak English as their first language. In fact, almost all of them speak, or at some point spoke, Spanish as their first language. Some are now considered to speak at a level equivalent to that of a native English speaker but even then they tend to slip Spanish words into their conversations along with culturally and linguistically influenced slang. Frankly, if you aren’t bilingual in my school you are likely to wish you were because you’ll need a knowledge of both languages to keep up with the conversations going on around you.

The world of education is full of ways to label students who speak English as their second language. Although there is no differentiation between students learning English as their second language and those who are learning it as their third, fourth, fifth, etc. the general assumption is that most children in American schools are speaking one other language while trying to learn English. It is clearly a simplified view of our multicultural and multilingual population but since I can’t change that (at least not today) it does at least make it easier for the lay person to understand the basics of educating children who do not speak English as their first language.

Here’s the rub…it doesn’t matter what letters you write on a report or a form. The children don’t know if they are an ELL or an EFL and even if they do, they have no idea what it means. What they know is that they struggle with content because they do not yet have the level of English proficiency to be able to understand the text that the teacher uses. It is literally that simple. In fact, they may not even be able to understand the teacher. When you can’t read it you can’t learn it. When you can’t understand anything what are you taking away from your school day? Nothing really. You can do the labs in a science class and you can do the computations in a math class and you can locate the things in the key on a map in your humanities class but you have no idea why you are doing those things and you are not building any real learning so the whole day was about producing finished products through which someone will judge your grasp of complex content knowledge. You will also likely be found wanting since you can’t answer the questions and can’t explain what you did or describe the outcomes or your thinking or reasoning. Why are we doing this to bilingual children?

The easy answer is that they have to learn and it isn’t easy to design curriculum for children who don’t speak English so we have to ‘make do’ with what we can find…but it isn’t the right answer. The right answer is that we shouldn’t be. We should acknowledge that speaking two languages in 2013 is a global norm and by the time this generation of children graduates from college they will be part of a global economy which will not tolerate people who cannot communicate effectively in more than one language. Instead of making second language students seem to be a burden who aren’t we holding them up as the future for our monolingual students? Frankly, I think we are scared to lose English as our primary language but the reality is that if we don’t start teaching children to be global citizens we may lose that in the end anyway. If we can’t compete in a global economy then why would anyone else want to speak English…and if the world stops speaking English then our children will almost have to learn other languages to guarantee their financial futures.  Imagine instead we are proactive and we make students who speak more than one language the norm. We improve communication, we have a workforce that can compete globally, we have the ability to open businesses in other parts of the world. Maybe it’s time to stop and think about how we really want to approach education for our students learning English as a second language and how we want to educate students who only speak one language so they are ready fro the future.

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