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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Do We Have a Deficit Mindset With ELL/ENL Students?

By Peter DeWitt — February 25, 2016 6 min read
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A long time ago when I was teaching first grade, a parent came to our parent-teacher conference to hear about the progress of her child. She was a Spanish professor at a local university and Spanish was her primary language, and the primary language of her child because he was not born in the US. At the end of the meeting she told me that other children were making unnecessary comments towards her son because he was eating snacks that were a part of his culture.

First graders will make fun of things they don’t understand, and I knew that and wanted to do something about it. Later on in that week he came in with grape leaves for a snack and I had already worked out with his mom that she would send in an extra one for me. It definitely beat my carrots and Ranch dressing.

This is awesome!” “I’ve never had one of these.” “Thanks for introducing me to something I’ve never eaten before.” I tried my best to support his snack that was unfamiliar to his peers. Truth be told, I had never had grape leaves so I was not lying.

When I ate one I said how great it tasted and how lucky he was to be able to have these foods that were a part of his culture. I remarked about how unique the snack was, and how important it is for all of us to try new foods. The students in the class stopped saying mean things about his food, because as first graders they didn’t initially realize how hurtful the comments could be, and they saw their teacher respecting his choice of snack rather than make fun of it.

What bothered me the most about the parent-teacher conference that led up to the snack moment was that the parent told me that they only speak Spanish at home, and she seemed worried I would make a judgment. I told her how fortunate her son was to be bilingual, and she remarked that the teacher from the year before had told her speaking Spanish at home was a mistake, because it would confuse the child.

That was the first moment that I saw a deficit model in place for ELL/ENL students.

A Deficit Model
I understand that it’s a complicated issue. We have ELL/ENL students who may have moved to our country because they wanted to, and sometimes we have students who come as refugees who didn’t want to leave their home country but lacked very little choice. Additionally, we have indigenous populations of students who have been minoritized by those around them, even though they have always lived here.

What all of these populations have in common is that we often treat them with a deficit mindset.

Very often when teachers and leaders talk about ELL/ENL and indigenous students, it seems to come from a deficit model, which only leads to the idea that these groups are minoritized by their peers living in the majority. They focus on what the students cannot do, instead of what they can do. Additionally, they seem to provide these populations with less status than their English speaking peers. We should all brush up on our reading so we can have more of a growth mindset.

Russell Bishop, Merre Berryman, and Janice Wearmouth wrote Te Kotahitanga: Towards Effective Education Reform for Indigenous and Other Minoritized Students (Nzcer Press, 2014), which is also a program used by schools across Australia, New Zealand and Canada to help connect with their indigenous populations. When it comes to the deficit model, Bishop et al focus on the work of Valencia (1997) when they write,

In effect, if we think that other people have deficiencies, then our actions will tend to follow our thinking and the relationships we develop and the interactions we have with these people will tend to be negative and unproductive."

If you have not read Te Kotahitanga, please get a copy. The book and program focuses on celebrating the diversity we have in our schools, and provides ways in which to best do that. Regardless of whether we are working with ELL/ENL or indigenous populations, we can learn many lessons from the book.

The Possibilities
Recently I visited a school in Melbourne, Australia where around 90% of the student population comes from another country because they have accepted a lot of refugees into their country. Yes, those students have to learn English to get along in school, but the school also highlighted and celebrated the primary language of each student as well. There were many examples of the strengths the students brought from their home country hanging around each and every classroom.

Imagine how scary it is to enter a country and not be able to fully understand the language? Imagine what it’s like to have always lived here and be treated as though you are an unwelcomed guest?

When students come to our country we seem to expect them to speak our language and they lack a sense of status until they do. That is flawed and harmful thinking. Our ELL/ENL students will at some point be bilingual, and many of our indigenous students already are, while most of us continue to be monolingual.

When a First Grader Schooled Me
Juyeon entered our first grade classroom in a relatively impoverished city school knowing no English at all. She cried, and sat in her chair hugging the back of it, as if she never wanted to let go. I imagined how scary the moment was for her, and how frightening I must have been, so I called the students to the floor and found a very funny picture book to read.

Juyeon stayed put in her chair. Nothing was moving her from it. It was her new found safety zone.

As I went from page to page, the students laughed at the pictures and content. They laughed at the way I read the book. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Juyeon slowly let go of the chair. Another page with another load of laughter, and Juyeon slowly made her way to the floor with very little fan fair. One more page and Juyeon was laughing with the rest of the class.

Everything changed after that. For her...and for me.

Within a few months she learned English but I saw her strengths through the way she drew in her journal. I will never forget looking over her shoulder and notcing that she drew movement into her characters. That was merely the beginning of what she had to offer.

On the 100th day she made a long chain of 100 paper cranes of many diverse colors attached together, and I still have it at my home. Her classmates were in awe and supportive. It was one moment that I was proudest of the students.

After school ended her mother invited me to their apartment for dinner and Juyeon played the violin and then the piano. She was gifted. Not a child prodigy but she was gifted. I left dinner absolutely amazed by some of these hidden strengths that I did not see surface through the year. I focused on reading, writing and math, and she excelled, but that didn’t scratch the surface of what else she could do.

Typical of all ELL/ENL or indigenous students? Maybe not. But they all have strengths that may be hidden from our view because we only see what we want to see.

In the End
I understand the issue of one student not mastering their primary language before taking on English, and I understand that there is an achievement gap with our indigenous populations, but I worry that we contribute to that gap more than we try to close it.

We shouldn’t treat ELL/ENL students as if they are somehow less than their English speaking peers. We put them at a disadvantage by doing that. There are many schools that do a good job at this but other schools treat it as though they are in crisis mode rather than looking at it is an opportunity.

Connect with Peter DeWitt on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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