Facts & Myths

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What do you think you know about the English language learners in your school? What do you know about teaching English as a second language? Sylvia Vardell, our reVIEWS+ collections editor, debunks four common myths about learning English as a new language.

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ESL students learning English as a second language are the fastest growing group in U.S. schools today. These learners come from a multitude of countries and backgrounds with many born right here. They speak many languages, and their reading levels range from preschool to high school. These students can experience great cognitive and emotional demands as they are asked to quickly learn both language and content in order to participate fully in the school curriculum and in classroom life.

As we as librarians and educators think about our students who are learning English as a new language, as we select appropriate books for our libraries and plan meaningful programs and instruction, it can be helpful to consider some of our questions and preconceptions about language learning. What do you know about what it’s like to learn a new language? What can you do in the library to support students learning English as a new language?

MYTH #1: Most students learning English as a new language are born outside of the United States.

Although many students are new immigrants to the U.S. and are acquiring English as a new language in a new country, many young people are members of American communities where other languages (besides English) are spoken daily. In fact, one study in New York state found that 61.5% of their English language learners were born in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) is committed to promoting opportunities for biliteracy or multiliteracy skills for all students. Their data indicates that approximately fifty languages appear in one or more states’ top five lists with Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Haitian/Haitian Creole at the top of the list.

What this can mean for the library: Find time to research which cultures and languages are part of your school and community and learn as much as you can about their traditions, beliefs, history, and language. Look for books, magazines, websites, and resources that reflect those backgrounds and plan for programs or celebrations that honor and include their traditions.

MYTH #2: Once students who are learning English as a new language can converse socially in English, then they are capable of succeeding academically.

No, that’s not exactly true. Learning conversational English to function socially comes first and is usually acquired within three years, but that’s not the same as learning the specialized language of the curriculum in science, math, social studies, etc. It can take as long as seven years to acquire real proficiency, with students who come with some literacy in their native languages usually able to move more quickly to learn their new language (English).

What this can mean for the library: Look for opportunities to speak casually with students who are learning English and consider learning a few key words and phrases in their native languages to make them feel welcome. Recognize that they may need support in tackling curricular subjects and offer books at a range of reading levels that can provide background. Don’t judge a book (or a student) by a reading level, but cast a wide net for books on relevant topics at a range of reading levels.

Myth #3: Students should NOT use their first language in the classroom because it will hinder their progress in learning English.

It may seem practical to push students to use only English in school, but this can actually be quite damaging and slow language learning down. If students can use their native language naturally when engaging with peers who speak the same language, they are more likely to try English in social settings with others. In fact, using their native language as much as possible can facilitate their academic growth, since they are actively engaged. In addition, we want to foster their ongoing engagement with parents and family (in their home language) as an important support system. Being comfortable and accepted is one reward for taking risks in learning something new, especially a new language. And if students can focus on the task, rather than the language of instruction, they can jump in and participate actively and learn while doing. We need to communicate what a special gift it is to communicate in more than one language.

What this can mean for the library: Be open to students speaking languages other than English with one another as they gather informally. Don’t take it personally if you feel excluded, but imagine how you would feel if you were transplanted into another country or culture. Wouldn’t you want to chat with other English speakers? Consider offering informal opportunities for students to gather and talk (in whichever languages are most comfortable)—at lunch, before or after school, as a book club, etc. Keep it open to all who are interested—native English speakers might want to join in too. Be open to all kinds of questions and be a welcoming presence for all students.

Myth #4: Previous generations of non-native speakers learned English without all the special language programs that we offer students today and they did just fine.

That may be true in some instances, but there were also many adults who adjusted to a new life and language but never mastered it or achieved what they were capable of. In fact, back in 1911, the U.S. Immigration Service found that 77% of Italian, 60% of Russian, and 51% of German immigrant children were one or more grade levels behind in school compared to 28% of American-born children at that time. It might also have been easier to find work without full English fluency in a time when there were more jobs that didn’t require a college education. Today’s students face a very different world full of technological challenges that didn’t exist previously.

What this can mean for the library: Outreach to parents and families is still meaningful in many communities today. Offering evening library hours, community programs, and links between the school and the public library can help support the ongoing literacy development of the extended families of our students learning English. In addition, focusing on technology tools can help learners of all ages. We can provide instruction on web searching, guidance in selecting effective apps, access to e-books and audiobooks, and other tech teaching that can be meaningful and helpful to students AND their families.

Further Reading:
Berg, Nichole. “Busting ELL Myths.” Teaching Tolerance. (November 18, 2013). http://www.tolerance.org/blog/busting-ell-myths
“Debunking the Myths of English Language Learners.” Edutopia. (January 14, 2015). https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/debunking-myths-english-language-learners
“Debunking the Myths of English Language Learners: Fact Sheet No. 15-16.” New York State United Teachers. (August, 2015). http://www.nysut.org/~/media/files/nysut/resources/2010/december/factsheet_debunkingellmyths.pdf?la=en
Espinosa, Linda M. “Challenging Common Myths about Young English Language Learners.” Foundation for Child Development (June 3, 2010). https://www.fcd-us.org/challenging-common-myths-about-young-english-language-learners/
Hamayan, Else V., Barbara Marler, Cristina Sanchez-Lopez, and Jack S. Damico. “Some Myths Regarding ELLs and Special Educatio.” Colorin Colorado. http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/some-myths-regarding-ells-and-special-education
Haynes, Judie. “Myths of Second Language Acquisition. Everything ESL. 2002. http://www.everythingesl.net/downloads/myths_SLA02.pdf
“Myths and Realities: Best Practices for ESL Students.” Newfoundland Labrador Education. 2009. http://www.ed.gov.nl.ca/edu/k12/curriculum/guides/esl/myths_reality.pdf

NCELA: The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs http://ncela.ed.gov
Office of English Language Acquisition http://ed.gov/oela
Colorin Colorado: Serving Families of English Language Learners http://www.colorincolorado.org/
Reach Out and Read: Literacy Support from the Doctors’ Office http://www.reachoutandread.org/
Reading Rockets http://www.readingrockets.org/
National Center for Family Literacy http://www.famlit.org/

vardellSylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA’s Book Links magazine.

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