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The Real Barrier Wasn’t Language

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

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.

Barrier #2: Pedagogy

As a part of the four-hour language block, I was required to teach reading, writing, grammar, and oral language for exactly an hour each. I had to document that time. As a teacher who preferred project and inquiry-based learning, I found myself trying to fit an authentic approach into a rigid and traditional system.

I contrast this to the honors group, where students could blend math and science into a hands-on STEM lab. They had speech and debate, mock trials, and maker spaces while we were diagramming sentences with verb tenses. Ultimately, I learned how to hack the system. We used grammar as a basis for choice-driven blogging, and we created our own Shark Tank projects as a way to improve oral language. However, I constantly had to push back against the policies in place.

In terms of pedagogy, the English Language Learners had to fight against the perception that their lack of language acquisition meant they couldn’t handle creativity or critical thinking. As an ELL teacher, I often heard other educators warn me that my class wouldn’t be capable of the same projects because of the types of students I had.

Barrier #3: Socialization

My students existed on an island, and not just in my classroom. They went to the same elective classes together. In most cases, they hung out before and after school together. During lunch, I would watch my students forming groups away from the rest of the school. It was a sort of de facto segregation. The other students were not always trying to be exclusive. It’s just that my students had no structured opportunities to interact with other students in the school.

This meant that my students never had a chance to work with students with disabilities. They never had the chance to work with students who were part of the gifted program, either. Their social perspective was limited to fellow English Language Learners who had failed to pass the state exit exam.

Over time, this limited socialization caused my students to be less likely to get involved in extracurricular activities. Because they didn’t play sports at the same time as other kids at lunch, they never tried out for the teams. Because of the stigma attached to learning a language, they never volunteered for the morning announcements or media projects. Because they felt like outcasts, they never joined the student government.

It’s About the Policy

The greatest barrier came from a problematic policy. The students’ negative self-perceptions came from years of being forced by policy into a segregated ELL group. This, in turn, led to a barrier in socialization. The pedagogical barrier came from the rigid four-hour block of the hyper-structured ELL classrooms and the expectations of teaching in a way that ignored student voice or choice.

The result is an educational experience for English Language Learners that contrasts sharply with that of all other students. They have a different self-concept and a different set of perceptions in front of them to overcome. They experience a more rigid, traditional pedagogy that ignores their need for creativity and critical thinking. They exist on a social island and are less inclined to participate in school activities. Ultimately, they exist in a separate school within the school, over fifty years after deciding that separate cannot mean equal.


John Spencer has been teaching for eleven years in Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently a middle school photojournalism and computer teacher with a passion for helping each student find a unique voice in digital spaces. Find more about John at


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