troublesolving intolerance, part II: ELL under attack?

I am disappointed to note that the Vancouver Sun has published another column by Shelley Fralic on ELL/ESL… and this one is as bad as the last.

I’ve spent a good part of the week drafting a commentary as response to the 9/15 article, with revisions from colleagues in my department who were as equally disturbed. Here’s what we submitted… let’s hope the Sun publishes it, especially in light of the most recent column:

The undersigned faculty members of UBC’s Department of Language & Literacy Education are writing in response to Shelley Fralic’s column “ESL, the trouble with our schools: Looking past altruism, and political correctness” (9/15/2014). Fralic’s article contains many inaccuracies and distortions about English language learners (ELLs) and ELL public school education that merit comment.

  • Class size and composition is not just about ELLs
    By asserting that the “trouble” with schools is “ESL,” the article places undue blame on ELLs while doing little to illuminate the realities of a very complex issue.
  • Learning an additional language is not a handicap
    Throughout the article, ELL is described as a “disability” and a “learning problem,” terms that pathologize additional language learning and cast ELLs in distinctly deficit terms. Characterizing ELLs as “handicapped” smacks of English-only chauvinism and able-ism.
  • ELLs are not a monolithic population
    The label “ELL” obscures an exceptionally diverse group for whom variables such as age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, country of birth, citizenship, first language development, educational background, academic experience, and much more intersect in a myriad of ways that are themselves fluid and changing. The general characterization of ELLs in this article is simply inaccurate.
  • ELL education is not remedial
    Learning an additional language, just as learning to read, write, and speak one’s first language, is a developmental process, not one in need of remediation. Remedial education for ELLs will do nothing but institutionalize inequality based on who is/is not a “native speaker,” with ELLs consigned to vocational tracks while non-ELLs enjoy the opportunities afforded in the “mainstream.” ELL segregation is mean-spirited – “harsh” and “cruel,” as Fralic herself writes – and would violate the rights of ELLs.
  • ELL education is not “outside the capabilities of the average instructor,” nor does it “lower the common educational denominator”
    High-quality, language and content-integrated instruction that benefits ELLs is not only attainable for the “average instructor,” but also provides major educational benefits to ELLs’ English-speaking peers. This understanding informs coursework in ELL teaching that is required across UBC’s B.Ed. teacher education program, and it is a primary motivator of its popular B.Ed. cohort “Teaching English Language Learners through Problem-Based Learning.”
  • Parents of ELLs are not freeloaders, nor are they negligent caregivers
    Fralic asserts that ELL parents do not “prepare their children for school” because they do not teach English or “basic social skills” in the home; instead, they expect BC “taxpayers will do that job for them.” To begin with, and this cannot be overemphasized: parents of ELLs are BC taxpayers, too. Second, and perhaps contrary to expectation, “effective” additional language learning occurs when children’s first languages and literacy abilities are developed and maintained, not replaced (here, by English). Despite this, research has found that parents regularly DO try to encourage English use in the home, in the well-intentioned belief that to do so will help at school.
  • ELL education in Canada is not about “altruism,” it is about equity and human rights
    ELLs have a fundamental right to education, to their first languages, to English (in English-speaking Canada), and to a supportive, inclusive public school system that is committed to equality and the safety of all children.
  • They” are in fact “Us”
    The article consistently refers to ELLs and their parents in derisive terms, while “we” – non-ELL Canadians, presumably – are cast as “kind” and “open-hearted,” misguided by our collective generosity toward these uncomprehending foreigners. But this Us/Them distinction is a glaring deceit: the majority of ELLs and their parents are Canadian nationals (many by birth) or permanent residents. More significantly, such acrimonious Us/Them language has been used for generations to justify disenfranchisement, persecution, and oppression.

Fralic’s article spreads inaccuracies and misinformation that are a genuine disservice to ELLs, their parents, their teachers, and the readership of the Vancouver Sun. It is also a disservice to ELLs’ English-speaking peers, who have so much to gain in a globalized knowledge economy from the linguistic and cultural resources that ELLs bring to BC classrooms. The “trouble with our schools” is most assuredly not “ESL,” but ill-informed columns like Fralic’s.

Steven Talmy, Associate Professor
Jim Anderson, Professor
Wendy Carr, Senior Instructor
Ryan Deschambault, Lecturer
Patsy Duff, Professor
Margaret Early, Associate Professor
Margot Filipenko, Professor of Teaching
Lee Gunderson, Professor
Jan Hare, Associate Professor
Annette Henry, Professor
Kedrick James, Instructor
Ryuko Kubota, Professor
Carl Leggo, Professor
Marianne McTavish, Instructor
Bonny Norton, Professor
Anthony Paré, Professor
Ken Reeder, Professor
Ling Shi, Professor
Sandra Zappa-Hollman, Assistant Professor


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