English-Language Learners Opinion

Considering Linguistic Privilege and Bias in Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — June 07, 2016 8 min read
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This post is by Amy J. Heineke, Associate Professor of Bilingual and Bicultural Education in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago.

In a thought-provoking blog post from 2014, Jal Mehta asserts that deeper learning has a race problem, as African-American and Latino students lack equitable access to deeper learning in the context of U.S. schools. In addition to race, I would argue that deeper learning also has a language problem. Students who speak a language other than English at home, specifically students labeled as English learners (ELs), are consistently marginalized from opportunities for deeper learning in classrooms and schools. ELs are a large and growing student sub-group across the U.S.--stretching from New Mexico to New Hampshire and spanning urban, suburban, and rural communities. Speaking hundreds of immigrant and indigenous languages, these culturally and linguistically diverse students with varied and rich backgrounds come to schools only to be lumped under the homogenous label of EL. Unfortunately for ELs, this label has frequently resulted in educators’ deficit-based thinking and corresponding low expectations, as well as the use of simplified curricula and one-size-fits-all instructional strategies.

It was two decades ago as a foreign exchange student in South America that I first experienced how language proficiency directly influences educators’ perceptions of students and corresponding access to deeper learning. I spent my senior year in Argentina before heading to Northwestern for my undergraduate studies. I had taken five years of Spanish in middle and high school and was decently proficient, although far from native-like, particularly in an academic setting. After being originally placed in classes with other seniors in quinto año, the school decided to put me with the eighth graders in primer año for a portion of the day because of my lacking Spanish skills. An 18-year-old in a classroom of 13-year-olds, I spent my time doing spelling drills and tests, where the teacher’s red pen would come out to call attention to my deficiencies in the Spanish language, such as the indistinguishable difference between the /b/ and /v/ sounds. I was discouraged, embarrassed, and maddened, to say the least.

I was the sole Spanish learner in Venado Tuerto, Argentina, only there for a short period of time under privileged circumstances. Consider that there are over 5 million students labeled as ELs facing more detrimental qualms every day over multiple academic years in U.S. schools. When educators make assumptions about cognitive capacities and academic abilities based on English language proficiency, the frequent result is inequitable access to opportunities for deeper learning. Rather than challenging all students with rigorous curriculum, we privilege those with native or native-like proficiency with inherent bias against students labeled as ELs. Deficit-based mindsets then manifest in practice: the primary student who does not get appropriately labeled as gifted due to language proficiency, the middle school student sitting in the back of the classroom doing English-language drills while the rest of the class engages in project-based learning, the high school student lacking access to rigorous curriculum due to placement in lower-level ESL and sheltered content courses. In short, due to still developing English language proficiency, ELs do not have equitable access to deeper learning.

This problem pervades education at all levels, pointing to a larger deficit-based paradigm that guides practice across classrooms, schools, and districts. Consider the state of Arizona, for example, which utilizes formal legislation to segregate ELs in classrooms apart from the English-proficient peers across the state. With the policy explicitly stating that students must first achieve language proficiency before learning academic content, teachers must provide prescriptive blocks of instruction focused on discrete skills of the English language, including grammar, vocabulary, conversation, reading, and writing. Even in less restrictive contexts like Illinois, where bilingual education is the preferred approach to educating ELs, educators fall into deficit-based mindsets in an educational institution that revolves around student test scores (which are typically given in English). Drawing from the testing data that now factors into their own employment, teachers and leaders refer to ELs as being “low” or “limited,” not measuring up to their English-proficient peers on standardized tests.

We know from theory, research, and experience that language proficiency is not a pre-requisite to content learning or cognitive processing. Nevertheless, daily educational practices often run counter to this established knowledge base, where we see highly capable and intelligent students assigned rote drills and activities and tracked into lower-lever coursework. This is not for lack of effort or intent by multiple stakeholders, as we see a growing number of teachers, leaders, and teacher educators who prioritize ELs through various initiatives focused on curricula, instructional strategies, and differentiation techniques. Based on my experience working with diverse urban and suburban schools in the Chicagoland area, I have learned that the integral first step is deconstructing the underlying linguistic privilege and inherent biases that guide daily work and decision-making in schools. Even with the best intentions to make positive changes to programs and practices for ELs, educators’ deep-seated mindsets and perceptions of students will guide how those changes get implemented in classrooms.

Therefore, before tackling the more tangible components of daily practice, all educational stakeholders need to critically consider their mindsets and assumptions related to ELs, as well as question curricular and instructional practices that either promote or limit access to deeper learning for particular sub-groups of students. Answer these questions:

  • Who are the ELs in your classroom/school/district?
  • What are your goals and overall approach to educating ELs?
  • How do you see culture and language as influencing learning?
  • What resources do linguistically diverse students bring to school?
  • What opportunities for deeper learning are available to ELs?

After reflecting upon current approaches to EL teaching and learning, both personally and across classrooms and schools, educators can then connect to and consider how to improve ELs’ access to deeper learning. Remember that the overarching goal for deeper learning with a language lens should be equity: We should define and maintain the desired results for deeper learning for all students and then ensure that ELs have equitable access to achieve these results. Note that equity is not equality--we cannot throw ELs into the same learning experiences as all students and simply hope they take something away. The onus falls on educators to scaffold and support students’ language development within the context of deeper learning. This is not an easy task, but one that can be achieved after deconstructing deficit-based mindsets about ELs and considering the role of language in learning.

For classroom teachers, equitable access to deeper learning requires recognition of the language needed to actively engage in learning. Wiggins and McTighe have described the expert blind spot that teachers must uncover to engage students in deeper learning, specifically referring to the various understandings, questions, knowledge, and skills needed to engage with a larger idea. I contend that this includes the linguistic blind spot, requiring that (primarily native English speaking) teachers uncover the language needed to engage in deeper learning through building awareness and understanding of how language is used within and across disciplines. Academic language includes various language functions (e.g., explain, evaluate), language features (e.g., discipline-specific words, sentence structures, text features), and language domains (e.g., speaking, reading), which will vary based on the content area, topic, task, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds of students. Consider the following:

  • How do we use language within particular academic disciplines (e.g., mathematics)?
  • How does this discipline-specific language vary from students’ everyday language use?
  • What specific words, phrases, sentence structures, text structures, and classroom discourse might ELs find challenging?
  • What linguistic knowledge and skills do students need to be able to achieve goals and actively engage in deeper learning?

It is imperative to note that we should not engage in these linguistic analyses to then shelter instruction by removing language demands from classroom curricula, which has been the traditional approach to teaching ELs in U.S. schools. Instead, we want to amplify instruction by explicitly integrating language demands, providing equitable access to deeper learning while simultaneously scaffolding and supporting students’ language development. We also want to explicitly consider how students’ native languages can be utilized as resources for deeper learning, rather than privileging only English in academic settings. Within this approach centered on deeper learning for ELs, there is no list of academic vocabulary terms or silver-bullet strategies to provide one-size-fits-all support to students within the homogenous EL label. Instead, educators must engage in deeper learning of their own to develop expertise and understanding of the complexity of language, language development, and language learners as situated in particular contexts for teaching and learning. Adelante.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply 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.