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HomeFeaturesMultilingual LearnersDeconstructing English Learner Labels, Constructing Multilingual Schools

Deconstructing English Learner Labels, Constructing Multilingual Schools

Samantha Harris and Owen Silverman Andrews delve into the consequences of learner labeling and propose a constructive alternative


Across tens of thousands of US schools, a myriad of labels, from limited English proficient, former limited English proficient, and English language learners to English learners, have been assigned to students who speak languages in addition to English. These designations, often condensed into acronyms like LEPS, FLEPS, ELLs, and ELs, essentialize and constrain students’ educational experiences. Students learning the dominant, majoritized language, English, are legally and prescriptively labeled, unlike their classmates learning “foreign,” “modern,” or “world” languages. For instance, students learning French are not legally referred to as French learners or FLs. Research has determined that labeling students, regardless of the specific nomenclature of the label, results in tracked, inferior, and limited schooling (Callahan and Gandara, 2004; Callahan et al., 2010; Dabach, 2014). This persistent and harmful practice calls for a paradigm shift. Instead of categorizing students based on language abilities (Kanno et al., 2024), there should be a shift in focus over time to the language proficiencies and identities of schools, rather than the students in them. We offer guidance for teachers and researchers to evaluate the labels they encounter or use and call for the abolition of both the term and the legal designation English learner.

Previously defended as neutral and simply descriptive, the aforementioned labels are now more commonly understood to be deficit-based and dehumanizing— that is, they define students by what they supposedly lack, rather than by their strengths and abilities. Understandably, there is an ongoing debate and caution regarding the labeling of students, especially when these labels are tied to histories of racism and linguistic discrimination. Additionally, categorizing practices have a real impact on how teachers and institutions view students and their potential (García, 2021), and even how students think of themselves. Terms like English learner also lend more social and educational prestige to English than students’ other language(s) and erase the multiple language varieties students engage in.

Recently, the terms multilingual learner (ML), emergent multilingual learner (EML), and multilingual English learner (MEL) (Najarro, 2023) have become more and more popular. This trend has culminated from varied efforts to seek more assetbased terminology and to acknowledge that students speak many languages in addition to learning English. However, it’s important to also recognize these terms come with their own limitations. For instance, emergent multilingual learner suggests that multilingualism is not fully accomplished until the student has acquired English. Multilingual learner is too broad, as it could encompass the large number of students who are not placed in English language classes but who speak multiple languages. Even the term multilingual English learner (Orbe et al., 2023), although specific and inclusive of students’ other languages, is imperfect, as any label would be. The misconception stems from the reality that the label is only needed because current school structures and systems are insufficient for students whose primary language is not English. Language education policies of the past and present make this reality evident.

Take, for instance, current language education policy in California, the state with the highest number of students designated as English learners. Removal of this label, in California, is based on the state’s reclassification criteria (California Department of Education), which include:

• Criterion 1: Assessment of English language proficiency
• Criterion 2: Teacher evaluations
• Criterion 3: Parent consultation
• Criterion 4: Basic skills relative to English-proficient students

While many educators and researchers have critiqued Criteria 1–3, let’s focus primarily on the fourth item. It is particularly intriguing in the context of understanding labels, as it introduces a new categorizing term: English-proficient students. This term is not widely used outside of its comparative purpose, as in non-English-proficient students and reclassified fluent English-proficient students. It is also not reduced to an acronym of EPS to be socially and legally attached to students whose primary language is English and who might be learning some other languages. The term English-proficient students has a different function. In the explanation of the fourth criterion, the phrase “basic skills relative to English-proficient students” is described further as being:

“Comparison of the performance of the pupil in basic skills against an empirically established range of performance in basic skills based upon the performance of English-proficient pupils of the same age, which demonstrates whether the pupil is sufficiently proficient in English to participate effectively in a curriculum designed for pupils of the same age whose native language is English” (California Department of Education).

If an “English-proficient student” is a student “whose native language is English,” then reclassification out of English learner status hinges upon performing linguistically and academically like a student whose “native” language is English. This is despite the identified fallacy of the native-speaker standard (Cheng et al., 2021; Cook, 1999; Doerr, 2009). This explanation also sheds light on the underlying purpose of the label, along with the associated services, support systems, stigma, and segregation (Gandara, 2020). The purpose is to supplement a curriculum that was not designed for students who do not speak English or even with them in mind (Chang-Bacon, 2022). Even after Lau v. Nichols (1974) confirmed a constitutional right to equitable educational access, equitable educational access has since been reinterpreted through assimilationist, monolingual ideologies to mean access to education through English (Gray, 2020; Reeves, 2004). Rather than restructuring a monolingual system to meet the needs of a multilingual society and student body, the designation is used to remold students’ language into that of their “native-speaker” English-monolingual peers for whom the system was designed. Thus, it is the schools and systems, not students, that are insufficiently multilingual.

Rather than labeling and modifying students and their language, we propose that it is schools that require systemic and structural change. Terms like English learner, related nomenclature, and attendant structures of separation and inequity must be abolished. This is not a destructive act we propose. The practices and processes built around the labeling of linguistically minoritized people marginalize them into externally applied identities that they must “exit” in order to seek parity. Therefore, it is exactly this set of practices and processes, not its termination, that is destructive.

What we are proposing is the intentional, collaborative construction of multilingual schools. These are learning environments designed for all students where they can “use their full linguistic repertoire” (García, 2020) and be their full multi- and translingual selves. These schools will make such labels as English learner obsolete. Intentionality is key, as impulsively rushing to abolish a label without recommendations for systemic or structural change would be, as warned by Gerald (2022), an instinct of Whiteness and an insincere attempt to disrupt White-dominant schooling paradigms. For instance, shifting the label from students to schools would have material consequences for federal funding associated with the number of students designated as ELs. But rather than concluding that labeling students is then required and therefore settling on the most asset-oriented language, we can link the abolition of harmful labels to larger social movements seeking reparative funding structures for public schools in the US and build sites of mutual need.

Indeed, there is movement in the direction of multilingual schooling (Najarro, 2023), though it has been gradual. While maintaining the long-term goal of system-wide educational justice, researchers, leaders, and teachers must, in the short term, be critical and cautious about the language they encounter and use (Kanno et al., 2024). For the educators and researchers who are creating targeted instructional supports, interventions, or policies for students in monolingual, English-dominant schools today and for their foreseeable immediate future, we propose the following guidance for evaluating labels of linguistically minoritized students. If they are already in use or if they must be used at all, they should:

• be premised on the goal of linguistic justice–the dismantling of linguistic racism and the centering of linguistically minoritized students’ language and literacy practices (Baker-Bell, 2020);
• be intentional, specific to their purpose (e.g., research, pedagogy, policy change), and descriptive;
• be relevant and meaningful to students they describe;
• use people-first language (e.g., students learning English) that centers students’ humanity, not their language-proficiency typologies.

Further, before rushing to coin the next slightly more “asset-based” label, make space for students to reclaim their language identities by asking students how they wish to be referred to. Building more liberatory praxis within the shell of hierarchical institutions is, for students and workers, about “self-determination, not secession” (Manji, 2020). Educators and researchers who operate within contemporary monolingual schools should thus seek out ways to recognize students’ right, and their power, to name themselves.

These are provisional goals, not end goals. Stopping at modification of labels would simply be a “reformist reform,” an innovation that is grafted onto the existing structure without affecting the status quo (Solorzano and Yosso, 2000). Reformist reforms have slowed the moment of multilingual education, in spite of its promise, by decrying it with incrementalist critiques and framing it as “pie-in-the-sky” radicalism. For this reason, the conversation about English learner versus emergent multilingual learner is not simply a matter of terminology but a manifestation of a larger change that originates in reorienting our relationships to our students and our understanding of language itself.

Nonreformist reform—that is, transformative abolitionist frameworks of language justice—would extend beyond labels to collective action that transforms societal attitudes and systems. Of course, there will be some churn in professional associations and licensure types as we teachers of English come to see ourselves as teachers of a language, not teachers of the language. But since the harm caused by labeling and the tracking it leads to is well-evidenced, we should not cling to the professional associations and practices that have enabled this harm for decades. Instead, we should build new communities and strategically seek out ways to build multilingual schools capable of meeting the needs of both our multilingual moment and our students.

References
Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge.

California Department of Education (2024). Reclassification. www.cde.ca.gov/sp/el/rd

Callahan, R. M., and Gándara, P. (2004). “On Nobody’s Agenda: Improving English language learners’ access to higher education.” Teaching Immigrant and Second-Language Students: Strategies for Success, 107–127.

Callahan, R., Wilkinson, L., and Muller, C. (2010). “Academic Achievement and Course Taking among Language-Minority Youth in US Schools: Effects of ESL placement.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32(1), 84–117.

Chang-Bacon, C. K. (2022). “Monolingual Language Ideologies and the Massachusetts Sheltered English Immersion Endorsement Initiative: A critical policy analysis.” Educational Policy, 36(3), 479–519.

Cheng, L. S., Burgess, D., Vernooij, N., Solís-Barroso, C., McDermott, A., and Namboodiripad, S. (2021). “The Problematic Concept of Native Speaker in Psycholinguistics: Replacing vague and harmful terminology with inclusive and accurate measures.” Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 715843.

Cook, V. (1999). “Going beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching.” TESOL quarterly, 33(2), 185–209.

Dabach, D. B. (2014). “‘I Am Not a Shelter!’: Stigma and social boundaries in teachers’ accounts of students’ experience in separate ‘sheltered’ English learner classrooms.” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 19(2), 98–124.

Doerr, N. M. (2009). “Investigating ‘Native Speaker Effects’: Toward a new model of analyzing ‘native speaker’ ideologies.” The Native Speaker Concept: Ethnographic Investigations of Native Speaker Effects, 15–46.

Gándara, P. (2020). “Equity Considerations in Addressing English Learner Segregation.” Leadership and Policy in Schools, 19(1), 141–143.

García, A. (2021). “Words Matter: The Case for Shifting to ‘Emergent Bilingual.’” Language Magazine. www.languagemagazine.com/2021/06/17/words-matter-the-case-for-shifting-to-emergent-bilingual

García, O., and Kleifgen, J. A. (2020). “Translanguaging and Literacies.” Reading Research Quarterly, 55(4), 553–571.

Gray, T. (2020). “Teaching and Learning amid Demographic Change: A thematic review of school responses to newcomer students in the new Latinx diaspora.” Journal of Latinos and Education, 1–22.

Gerald, J. P. B. (2022). Antisocial Language Teaching: English and the Pervasive Pathology of Whiteness (Vol. 110). Channel View Publications.

Kanno, Y., Rios-Aguilar, C., and Bunch, G. C. (2024). “English Learners? Emergent Bilinguals? Multilingual Learners?: Goals, contexts, and consequences in labeling students.” TESOL Journal, e797.

Manji, F. (2020). “Amilcar Cabral and Ken Saro-Wiwa: Their commonalities on culture and the struggle for freedom.” Ukombozi Review. https://ukombozireview.com/blog/amilcar-cabral-and-ken-saro-wiwa-their-commonalities-on-culture-and-the-struggle-for-freedom

Najarro, I. (2023) “The Debate over English Learner Terminology, Explained.” EdWeek. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/the-debate-over-english-learner-terminology-explained/2023/03

Najarro, I. (2023) “Here’s Why Miguel Cardona Is Pushing Multilingual Education.” EdWeek. www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/heres-why-miguel-cardona-is-pushing-multilingual-education/2023/11

Orbe, C. Jr., O’Neill, E., Otero Asmar, Y. I., and Andrews, O. S. (2023). “Commentary: Maryland Can Do More to Support English Learners.” Baltimore Banner. www.thebaltimorebanner.com/opinion/community-voices/english-learners-education-general-assembly-YBTRDDS7QBAW3GQIKNRXX5TFKI

Reeves, J. R. (2004). “‘Like Everybody Else’: Equalizing educational opportunity for English language learners.” TESOL Quarterly, 38(1), 43–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/3588258

Solorzano, D. G., and Yosso, T. J. (2000). “Maintaining Social Justice Hopes within Academic Realities: A Freirean approach to critical race/LatCrit pedagogy.” Denver Law Review, 78, 595.

Samantha Harris (she/her) is a researcher and educator in Santa Barbara, California. Her research focuses on the intersections of immigration, race, and language education with a specific focus on policy, curriculum, and pedagogy for newcomer students and students classified as English learners.

Owen Silverman Andrews, MA TESOL, works toward language justice as part of building a more socially and racially just society. He is an instructional specialist in English language learning at Anne Arundel Community College and an EdD student at University of Virginia. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, US.

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