How Do You See Your Students?

I think that a good starting point for imagining how to plan for English Language Learner integration in a classroom is to consider how the educator sees their students. The philosophies that an educator brings to their teaching will inevitably underpin any planning or implementation of inclusive strategies. One must question then, how do you see your students? In the complex case of ELL students, how do you see them and what roles do you expect them to play in the class?

A cognizant educator should be extremely careful in what language they use to describe their students in terms of their language abilities, and how they challenge them is extremely important. In setting up activities which are ‘low floor, high ceiling’, an educator affords their class the opportunity to engage equitably. I think that educators often get sidetracked by so-called language limitations of ELL students and forget to challenge them. I am sure that most people have experienced this at some level. The tourist who asks for directions in halting English is sometimes treated as though their English abilities are an indication of their overall competence. How would students with lower levels of English feel if they were treated this way every day?

Part of an effective educator’s arsenal must include growth mindset, and their language must reflect this. I believe that the power of ‘not yet’ shouldn’t be underestimated. In the subtlest of ways, a teacher can give ELL students powerful messages of encouragement in a covert way simply by selecting positive language. This is a key theme in Mariana Souto-Manning’s “Honoring and Building on the Rich Literacy Practices of Young Bilingual and Multilingual Learners”. Souto-Manning argues that ELLs have traditionally been thought of in terms of their deficiencies, and not for the cultural and linguistic expertise they bring to a classroom. She stresses the importance of referring to these students as being “emergent bilinguals or multilinguals” instead of low-level English speakers (Souto-Manning, 263).

Another important point in the article is that teachers should try to teach in culturally relevant ways, and use students as cultural resources. I absolutely agree with the idea of making learning culturally relevant; I hope that what is taught in classrooms is as relevant to each group of students as possible. However, I am struggling with the idea of incorporating funds of knowledge into a class from students who may be lacking in confidence. If a student is still learning basic English, it might be a challenge to ask for their expertise on their mother tongue without making them feel singled out and put on the spot. I would like to learn more about how one might go about doing this.


  1. I really appreciate this perspective. The power of the language we choose to use is significant and I have never really considered using the (inadvertent) effects of using language like ‘low-level’. One part of the PYP that might be worth you looking into is how PYP schools are supposed to support mother-tongue for the students. We have often tried to allow new ELL students to use their mother-tongue language during the process of exhibition for example.

    1. Thanks for the comment David, I will follow up on this idea. A comparison between student use of mother tongue versus second language in the context of exhibition would be very interesting.

  2. I think you are really touching on some great things here Matt, and I found a lot of connections to what I am undertaking in my inquiry regarding labeling of students. I agree that as educators we need to be so careful about the language we use around our students, as well as about our students. Whether we are talking about language abilities, or the abilities our students have in other disciplines, we need to work with our students to enhance those abilities and allow them to shine! You’re post has inspired me to take a look at this resource, and I look forward to following your inquiry further.

    1. I absolutely thought of connections to your inquiry topic while reading this article Kaitlyn. The article spends a lot of time discussing historical and political aspects of how ELLs are situated in schools (in the US), but the negative effects of labelling is certainly a key concept. Prior to reading this article, I had never considered referring to language deficiency as being detrimental in this sense. It’s another thing for teachers to consider. Thanks for reading!

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