There are enough myths about emergent bilinguals to drive English learner (EL) educators crazy trying to correct them all. We’ve gathered six of the most common myths and looked to see if, by dispelling them, we might uncover truths about teaching and learning that extend beyond the EL classroom to offer insights for teachers of any subject.
Have Faith in Your Students and Engage Them
Doris Chávez-Linville: This tip is based on the myth that students must begin learning a second language early or they will never master it. Late starters often bring a lot more to the table than younger emergent bilinguals. They already have quite a bit of knowledge in their own language, after all. They may never sound exactly like a native speaker, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of learning and making connections and becoming just as competent in the understanding and use of the language as anyone else. There’s research showing that adults outperform children in initial language learning.1 Long-term, early starters may have a better accent, but early on, late starters seem to do better.
Carol Johnson: Earlier in my career, I taught adults English at a community college. They ranged in age from young adults fresh out of high school to senior citizens in their 80s, and they collectively spoke nearly any language you could name. People who were developing skills unique to their careers had a particular focus that helped them progress faster than those picking up more general language skills. People can learn languages or anything else at any age, but they’ll make better progress if they understand how the material is relevant to their lives.
Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Kids
Carol Johnson: There’s a myth that learning two languages will confuse a child, but most teachers know that if you challenge a child, they will often rise to that challenge.
A quick survey of the research will confirm that children are not confused by learning two languages. We don’t need research, however, to tell us that students are more likely to excel when we ask them to show us what they are capable of, instead of setting limits on what they can achieve.
Doris Chávez-Linville: When my nephew came to the U.S., he was five years old and only spoke Spanish. His teacher told him they only spoke English at school and wouldn’t let him speak Spanish. He told his mother that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to keep up with his classmates unless he focused on learning English only. And that’s exactly what he did. Now he understands Spanish, but he’s functionally lost the language. Instead of telling him what he couldn’t do, that teacher might have tried saying something like, “It’s great that you already speak Spanish! Now we’re going to build on that and you’re going to learn to speak English too!”
Assess to Find Strengths and Weaknesses
Carol Johnson: Trying to guess what’s harder to learn and what’s easier to learn is not the most productive way to help students fill gaps in their emerging language. There’s a common myth that English is “more complex” or harder to learn than other languages. When you ask people what they mean when they say this, they usually can’t explain what makes English harder except for some spelling exceptions. The truth is that all languages are equally complex, but in different ways.
Doris Chávez-Linville: English, for example, has pretty complex spelling and a lot of vowels. Spanish, on the other hand, asks verbs to do a lot of work through complex rules about how those words change according to their use in a sentence. Deciding what’s hard or easy for students is less productive than monitoring their progress and assessing to determine where they’re excelling and where they need additional support.2
Help Students Feel Welcome
Carol Johnson: There’s a myth that bilingual children never feel at home within either language, and that they’ll always be caught between two worlds. This myth likely has more to do with how society traditionally sees some kinds of students than how they actually feel about themselves. If we welcome students—into the culture, into the language, or into math or any other subject—those students will feel welcomed.
Doris Chávez-Linville: Believe it or not, someone once asked me if we rode around on donkeys in Mexico or if we had cars. I’m from one of the largest cities in Mexico, so the question felt more like an insult than a welcoming attempt to learn more about me as a person. Asking me how transportation was different in Mexico would have been a more inviting question and would have given me room to respond as an individual, rather than putting me in a position to correct a stereotype and making me feel uncomfortable.
Build on What Students Bring to the Classroom
Carol Johnson: Many people believe that the best way to promote English literacy is to immerse students in English-only instruction.
Researchers Thomas and Collier found that emergent bilinguals were more successful in learning to read English over time in dual language programs than in English-only programs.3 That’s no surprise because strong literacy skills in a second language build on strong literacy skills in a first language. All learning sticks to learning that came before, so as students learn more in their first language, it just gives them more to stick the second language on to.
The takeaway: build on the learning that students bring with them to the classroom.4
Don’t Build Silos
Doris Chávez-Linville: The final myth is the idea that language needs to be taught separately from other content areas. You can see that this myth continues to be widespread by the prevalence of the pullout model for ESL programs around the country. The idea is that we’ll take students out of class to give them English, and then put them back in to learn all the other content areas.
As Dana Hardt points out, all teachers are language teachers, helping students learn and access specialized language for math or biology or economics, among other subjects.5 It goes the other way, too. Background knowledge has a great effect on reading comprehension. Learning takes place wherever people are, and language learning is no different. Don’t be afraid to reach across the curriculum and help students find the ways math connects with biology or economics relates to history, even if you’re not a math or economics teacher.
Carol M. Johnson, PhD, is a national education officer for Renaissance. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Doris Chávez-Linville is the director of English learner innovations at Renaissance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.