The Real Barrier Wasn’t Language

Updated: Jun 24

By John Spencer

When I first volunteered to teach students who were learning English (known as English Language Learners or ELL) in a self-contained classroom, I assumed the issue would be a language barrier. After spending a few years learning about the best practices for language acquisition, I developed lesson plans to provide the right accommodations. I knew all about sentence stems and structured oral language practice. I had experience with word walls and grammar walls, and relational strategies that would drop the affective filter.

I was ready to handle the language barrier. However, once I began teaching my students, I realized that the language barrier wasn’t the real issue. The larger issue was the lack of inclusion that ultimately led to even bigger barriers, preventing them from receiving the equitable education they deserved.

Here are three barriers my students faced being English Language Learners.

Barrier #1: Perception

I knew something was odd when students scoffed at the ice breaker at the beginning of class.

“We all know each other,” a boy said.

“Well, not everyone,” I answered. “I mean, there are some new students.”

He shook his head. “No, we’ve been together since kindergarten. We’re the dumb class. We stay together and each year we get a new teacher.”

“Why would you think you were the dumb class?” I asked.

“Because we’re the ones who didn’t pass the test,” he answered. Other students said versions of the same thing. A girl mentioned overhearing teachers talk about the “low group” and the “subgroup that doesn’t ever improve.” Another girl talked about the stigma of being called “Little Mexico” by other kids on campus.

This process of segregating students by language ultimately creates a self-concept of being a part of the “low group.” My students knew it when they walked down the hallway and saw a graph showing each classroom’s scores. True, the teacher names had been wiped from the graphs, but they could easily point out our class and compare it to the honors group.

Because of segregation and labeling, students had internalized a self-concept of being academically less capable than the other groups. Students routinely referred to our class as the “Dumb Group.” For years, the stigma attached to being the “ELL class” had created a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure. There was a dark determinism that after six straight years of failing to pass the exit exam, they simply couldn’t improve.