English-Language Learners

Does the Term ‘English-Language Learner’ Carry a Negative Connotation?

By Corey Mitchell — February 01, 2016 2 min read
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Students at a charter school in Worcester, Mass., want to change the label given to students learning English as a second language, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports.

Students at Seven Hills Charter Public School filed a petition last week at whitehouse.gov seeking to drop the phrase “English-language learner” and replace it with “multilingual students.” About 23 percent of students at the school are English-learners.

“The term English Language Learner carries negative connotations and does not value the other languages and cultures that students come from. This can negatively impact students’ self-esteem and academic performance,” the petition reads, in part.

“The strengths-based label highlights the fact that being bilingual is a highly desired and valuable skill. It more accurately represents their intelligence and abilities and enables students to see themselves in a more positive light than the deficit based ELL label.”

The students’ teacher, Christine Olsen, who teachers 7th and 8th-grade ELL students at Seven Hills, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that she first started thinking whether the ELL label stigmatizes students a year ago.

English-language learner is the not the only term used for students learning English as a second language. Dual-language learner is a term gaining popularity and some districts and states simply refer to the students as English-learners.

Though it’s not used as commonly as in the past, some federal Department of Education documents and guides still refer to the students as “limited English proficient.” Seven Hills and all other Massachusetts schools have to use the term when filing their annual reports to the state Department of Education.

Olsen asked her students to develop another term, and the class settled on multilingual students. The school has changed its own handbook and other materials to reflect the new terminology, the newspaper reported.

As of Monday afternoon, the petition from Seven Hills Charter had 213 signatures.

The students need another 99,800 by Feb. 27 for the petition to be reviewed by White House staff and merit an official response.

The petition does raise questions about what it means to be multilingual. Does a student learning a second language fit into that category?

A framework of English-language proficiency standards developed by TESOL International Association, the organization for teachers who specialize in working with English-learners, lists five levels of language proficiency, ranging from starting and emerging students who “can understand phrases and short sentences” to those who “can express themselves fluently and spontaneously on a wide range of personal, general, academic, or social topics in a variety of contexts.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.