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Unrealistic expectations for ELLs reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking”

By February 4, 2016June 10th, 20165 Comments

6a010536aec25c970b01bb08b5f1bc970dDespite years of trying various approaches to reduce the achievement gap between English language learners (ELLs) and their non-ELL peers, the gap has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1990s. Why? Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine this question—and what can be done about it—in the February Research Says column for Educational Leadership magazine.

Though the number of ELLs in mainstream classrooms has increased dramatically across the country, teachers still frequently underestimate the complexity of becoming proficient in academic English—largely because few of them receive the professional development they need, the authors write. Research shows that misconceptions about language acquisition and the role of the primary language can affect teachers’ interactions with their students.

Unrealistic expectations, say Goodwin and Hein, may reflect deeply ingrained “deficit thinking” about ELLs, or a belief that they are at fault for their low performance. But researchers and practitioners are increasingly calling for educators to flip the paradigm—to use asset-based approaches that see language and diversity not as a problem to solve but as an opportunity to prepare all students for a globally connected world.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Elizabeth says:

    As a general education teacher, I feel that I do not have the training I need to meet the needs of the increasing population of ELL students in my classroom. What professional development is recommended for elementary teachers working with students who are English language learners? My school is looking into providing teachers with professional development on the SIOP instructional model.

  • CRomero says:

    Helping students acquire the English language is a a challenge I face. I’m looking for ways and opportunities to involve mainstream teachers immerse ELL students in language throughout the day. There is so much to address that it is overwhelming. I understand mainstream teachers have a lot on their plate already as they get used to new Common Core Standards, behavior management, parent communication, and the responsibility to teach. I believe that if teachers support each other and make student learning a priority, they can offer the instruction our ELL need so they can learn the content. All students can benefit from the sheltered instruction ELLs need. Teacher preparation programs need to have a major focus on sheltered instruction. Diversity is welcomed at my school, we need ways to support teachers with the content curriculum.

  • CMarie says:

    Language acquisition is a complex process. Teachers play a very important role on the students’ level on engagement and access to comprehensible content. Mainstream teachers need the support of experts in the field to be able to differentiate the content and still hold a high level of expectations for all students. I’m looking for ways to help mainstream teachers immerse their ELLs in language throughout the day. I think most teachers welcome diversity, but are not experienced with the process of language acquisition.

  • Jane Hill says:

    Other than teachers who place some focus on vocabulary, many teachers are blind to teaching academic language. They know they teach with language but they do not think of themselves as being teachers of language. They have content on the brain. They have degrees and advanced degrees and classroom experiences teaching subject matter. Now with influx of ELLS, we are asking classroom teachers to teach the academic language that supports their content.
    When ELL strategies are shared with content teachers, I’ve heard it said, “That’s just good teaching.” My response is always, “Yes, but …..” “Yes, but it is also about language development; paying attention to the vocabulary, grammar and discourse of content.”
    Since you are looking for ways to assist classroom teachers, I always recommend co-teaching so the academic language can be infused into the content teaching. Job-embedded professional development has been one way to help subject matter teachers experience the language that accompanies content.

  • Jane Hill says:

    Mike Schmoker says, “It’s time to restructure teacher professional development.” (Education Week Online, October 20, 2015). He recommends: PD focused on research–based effective practices. Once highly supported practices are selected, the school should focus all time, personnel, dollars and teacher collaboration on these proven practices. And, finally, schools monitor who is implementing and who needs assistance.
    Is your school ready for a focus on ELLs? I recommend Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners, second edition (Hill &Miller, 2013). Do you have coaches who can provide the necessary support? If so, you could be ready for meeting the needs of your ELLs.

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