Confession: I Had Low Expectations For My English Language Learners

by multilingualmania on September 1, 2011

in Language Learning

Art & Writing

There once was a time when I really underestimated the potential of my English language learners. When I first started teaching, I was placed in a fifth grade bilingual classroom, and my students had previously been transitioned into English-only instruction in the fourth grade. Who would have thought that over thirteen years later I’d be looking back on my lack of knowledge of English language learners and second language acquisition.

During my first year of teaching I had extremely low expectations for my students. I vividly recall a student by the name of Alejandra who had immigrated from Mexico City about six months prior to being in my class. Because I spoke in Spanish with the students and allowed newcomer students to complete their assignments in Spanish, I was aware that Alejandra was very well educated and proficient in her primary language. However, I thought that I needed to start from scratch with her in English, and began introducing letter names and sounds and then level one books that were more appropriate for preschool.

Alejandra never complained. Every day she would sit at the kidney table in the back of the classroom and read books with bright pictures and simple words like ball and boy. She dutifully colored her worksheets about the days of the week, or the names of the months, or the names of common colors. It never once occurred to me at the time that Alejandra could have been introduced to much more complex content and materials because she was proficient in her primary language.

Throughout the year, I never failed to mention that my students wouldn’t be able to do something or learn about something because they weren’t fully proficient in English. When my mentor teacher mentioned to me that I should read the book Hatchet to students, I proclaimed, “Oh no, my students aren’t ready for that!” One day I noticed that even my mentor teacher started to say, “Oh that’s right. You can’t teach Science. You have the language learners”.

It wasn’t until a young girl by the name of Elsa showed up in my classroom until I realized the error of my misconceptions. Elsa was newly immigrated from Mexico and came to my classroom in tears after initially being placed in a classroom without a Spanish-speaking teacher upon her third day in the country. I treated Elsa in much the same way that Alejendra and other newcomer students were treated- full of low expectations but done with the best intentions. One day, however, I noticed that after three months of being in the country that Elsa was able to write a comprehensive paragraph in English on the state writing test with only the aid of a common glossary. It was at that moment that I realized that I had been underestimating my English language learners all year.

I wish at the time that I would have had someone to teach me that my students were much more capable than what I thought. I wish someone would have told me that students are able to comprehend much more than what they are sometimes able to produce orally or in writing. I would have saved my students a wasted year of quality education if I would have known that students who are proficient in their primary language are likely to be able to comprehend grade level content and materials with appropriate instructional scaffolding. I certainly hope that I didn’t ruin any of my students’ overall education and that they didn’t have too many teachers with misconceptions and low expectations like me.

Please don’t make the same mistake as me. Have high expectations for your English language learners. Believe that they are capable of learning about grade level content, even when they don’t speak English. Use a variety of English language development strategies that will make the content comprehensible to students. Integrate Science, Social Studies and academic language throughout the day. Teach to their potential.

About the Author: Melanie D. McGrath is the founder and editor of Multilingual Mania. Melanie is currently an administrator of bilingual education programs and a tireless advocate for multilingual and multicultural education. Melanie can also be found writing about bilingualism and second language acquisition on Spanglishbaby and

Have you ever had a similar experience about having low expectations for your students? Or, have you ever had a teacher that has had low expectations for you? Please share your stories!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira September 3, 2011 at 5:47 am

Wonderful post, Melanie! It’s not every day one reads about how people came to learn from their own misjudgements, so kudos to you for choosing to share your experiences.

It is so true that we tend to judge intellectual ability from linguistic ability, and that we seldom realise that what we take for ‘linguistic ability’ is in fact a match to the ways we’ve grown used to assess proficiency in one particular language.

I’m sure you know that you are not alone in the judgements you made, nor are they exclusive to specific educational programmes or policies. The post ‘Schooling in tongues’ at my blog _Being Multilingual_ reports a few comments about schooling of multilingual children, that I’ve gathered from different places around the world:

The issues have to do, I believe, with multilingualism itself, and with our continued misinformation about it.


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