ELL Myths From The Trenches

by Ruslana Westerlund

There are many sets of myths that have been written on the hot topic of second language acquisition.  McLaughlin’s list is still read by many, even though it was written in 1992.  Even Edutopia recently came up with its own list.  I have decided to compile a list of myths that I call Myths From the Trenches.  They have been submitted to me by teachers and most of these I have experienced in my educational career.  Please use comments below to add to this list.  When you post a myth, please also provide a response.  We can use this approach to clarify many misconceptions.  The reason these myths are important to identify and talk about is because they persist, and for many ELLs these myths have harmful consequences.

Myth 1: ELLs need a list of vocabulary words to master academic language.

Response:  This myth is a stubborn one.  Old myths die hard, right?  This one just seems to have been around for awhile. Whenever most teachers hear the term “academic language of science”, they often think of a list of vocabulary words such as osmosis, mitosis, diffusion, endocytosis, etc.  However, the practice of engaging in science has nothing to do with defining words.  Students can learn those words when they are engaged in a meaningful science experiment.  The teacher may draw student’s attention to specific words, but what students DO with science determines what language they may need.  Think about the language required for complex thinking, the language to hypothesize, to argue, to state a claim in science and provide evidence for your reasoning!  That type of language is much more complex than just defining a word.  Different researchers call academic language different things.  Some call it the language of schooling (Schleppegrell, Bailey), others academic language.  Zwiers (2014) calls it the language of complex thinking.  What’s common among all of these terms is that this language is much more complex than just a list of vocabulary words or the Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 words (such as in the Common Core State Standards for ELA).  Yes, vocabulary is part of the complex language, so is a well-constructed sentence.  However, language is much more than a well-constructed sentence.  Bourdieu (1977) defines language as “capital” and Kanno & Kangas (2014) expand on that as follows:

… “language is a form of ‘‘praxis’’ (p. 646); it is meant for actual use. Therefore, what is of interest is not abstract linguistic competence—the ability to produce an infinite number of grammatical sentences in a Chomskyan sense—but rather linguistic capital, the amount of power one can claim in the social world on the basis of one’s linguistic ability and use. For Bourdieu, communication is not merely an exchange of information but ‘‘an act of power’’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 145). 

Aida Walqui talks about language as ACTION.  Listen to her describe it here:

This takes me to the discussion about the language objectives.  If we put on the lens Doing things with Language in Science, then the science practices should be driving our language objectives and not some grammar book or a list of vocab words.  I would highly recommend reading an article by my colleague Rita McDonald and a fantastic science teacher Emily Miller (co-author of NGSS) Rethinking Language Goals in Science with Three-Dimensional Learning published in AdLit. Here is what they say:

Traditionally, language goals […] have been separated from science learning goals, and have tended to reflect the view that science is about acquiring and retelling facts and procedures. But that traditional approach separates the language from its context and from its real and powerful purpose: the collaborative construction of meaning. In contrast, three-dimensional, integrated science + language goals harness the power of the sense-making science practices as the purpose for language use. They harness the power of language for doing science. Here are some examples:

Language goals of the past: three-dimensional learning goals:
Elementary: Students will use descriptive language to compare land forms. Elementary: Students will collaboratively develop a model that explains and predicts patterns in the changes to the land caused by wind and rain.
Middle school: Students will use the past tense “_ed” form to describe the molecular change that from solid to liquid form when thermal energy is added. Middle school: Students will collaboratively construct an explanation of the effect that thermal energy has on how molecules move about relative to each other.

Some people throw around general statements like “The language of math is different from the language of science!” What type of science?  What type of math?  What’s the task? What’s the purpose of communicating within each of those tasks?  Genre theorists contend that within each of those disciplines, there are a myriad of variations of registers and genres that have their own linguistic structures that encode their meaning.  For example, think of the language you would use to explain your solution of an algebraic equation versus the language of conjecturing or the language to communicate how to create three-dimensional shapes in geometry.  Then add the layer of who you are saying it to, what mode of communication is that communicative act happening (spoken or written), what is the power relations between the speakers, etc.  There are as many variations of language structures as there are mathematical tasks coupled with student roles, audiences, and identities.

In summary, I believe each discipline should shape the approach to language teaching, not a pre-packaged decontextualized list pre-determined by some publishing company.

Myth 2:  Language is learned by osmosis.  If we just immerse ELLs in English all day, they will learn.

Response: This myth persists for many reasons.  One reason that comes to mind is because we compare the language learning our ELLs are engaged in with how we learned a foreign language.  We often recall our own experiences of learning a foreign language and find being immersed in the languages more effective than conjugating verbs or memorizing lists of words.  While it is true that it’s best to learn the language by traveling to another country and being immersed in it, let’s reflect on the purposes of learning a foreign language in those cases.  Are they to get around town, get some shopping done, and order a meal?  Or are they to study calculus, integrate multiple sides of an argument on an issue, and analyze causes and consequences of wars?   Our ELLs’ purposes for language use are along the lines of the latter: to construct written and oral arguments, state hypotheses, conduct experiments, and share findings orally and in writing.  As pointed out in the myth 1 response, the language of schooling requires deliberate attention.  However, deliberate instruction in the language of schooling does not mean decontextualized teaching of language such as memorizing lists of science vocabulary, but creating meaningful experiences and providing our students with multiple opportunities to practice the language unique to various disciplines and genres by viewing, discussing, writing, listening to each other and reading multiple types of written and multimedia texts.

Myth 3:  Allowing bilingual students use their first language confuses them and delays acquisition of English. 

Response:  This myth may stem from teachers not understanding the nature of bilingual language development and use.   Using both languages is not a sign of confusion.  It’s a sign of mental flexibility and students’ ability to draw on their various linguistic resources for various communicative purposes.  No, it’s not a stage either.  Bi- or multilingual adults mix languages all the time.  When we need to, we are fully capable of separating our languages.  However, our bilingualism functions not as two separate monolinguals living in one brain (Grosjean, 1989), but as a one communicative system with multiple resources. Bi- or multilingual learners are often the most meta-linguistically aware students because they constantly move among various linguistic resources. De Jong and Harper (2005)[1] in their article Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough? describe this misunderstanding and call for better preparation of all teachers to understand bilingual language acquisition.

Teachers may incorrectly assume that the use of the L1 reflects the students’ inability to perform in English and perceive the L1 merely as a crutch in academic learning (or worse, a hindrance to learning in English). They may misinterpret a lag in second-language production skills as a “language delay” or borrowing from the native language as “language confusion.”  As a result, they may inappropriately refer the student for special education services, enforce an English-only policy in their classroom, or tell students and parents to speak only English. In judging ELLs’ oral skills, teachers may also focus on their students’ pronunciation as a primary indicator of language proficiency.  This may distract them from considering other, more important language dimensions for academic success, such as grammar, vocabulary, and discourse competence. Teachers therefore need to develop an understanding of what is developmentally “normal” for bilingual children. They need to be able to interpret bilingual phenomena appropriately and use students’ L1 as a resource for learning (p. 105).

ELLs should be able to use their first language as a resource for learning.  Reading in the students’ first language is beneficial to literacy development in English.  Reading and writing in two languages is a highly-sought after skill in work places.  But more importantly, it strengthens and validates student identities.  They will feel valued for all that they bring, not just how much English they speak.

In addition to allowing children speak and read and write in their first languages at school, teachers should encourage parents to speak, read, and write in the first languages at home.   Sometimes parents believe the same myth that more English is better.  Reminding them that bilingualism and biliteracy skills are wonderful to have would encourage them to support bilingualism and biliteracy at home.

Myth 4:  Reading assessment strategies are valid measures of ELLs’ reading skills. 

Response:  Some teachers assume that the same reading assessment approaches they use with non-ELLs also will produce valid data when used with ELLs.  For example, one common strategy is retelling the story to assess student reading comprehension.  If students’ language development in English is at the beginning stages, they may not be able to say much, even though their understanding of the story may be higher.  In fact, children comprehend more than they can produce throughout their language learning process, but it is more prominent during the initial stages of language development.  Therefore, relying on retelling a story to assess comprehension is not a valid assessment for beginning level ELLs.   Depending on the level of English language proficiency and the grade level as well as student interests, teachers need to use other ways to assess reading comprehension.   For students at level 1 (out of 5) of language development, teachers can have give students choices to demonstrate their understanding of the story through various digital and analog tools (e.g., drawings, graphs, oral interviews, posters, and portfolios).  On the other hand, do not assume that all ELLs need to draw pictures to show comprehension.  It all depends on what the student can do at that particular stage of language development.  If it’s an assessment of reading in science, students can conduct an experiment to show what they have learned.  Giving them a worksheet to answer questions would turn your reading comprehension test into a test of writing.  Think about this: what construct are you measuring?  What things are irrelevant to that construct?

Another example of a common reading assessment tool is running records and miscue analysis.  Think about this:  you are learning French.  Your teacher asks you to read out loud while she is holding a clipboard with text and a pen in her hand, and she marks things at the end of each line as you read.  You are likely to be nervous, right?  You are likely to mispronounce things, right?  You are so focused on reading fluently and to articulate words well, that your brain forgets to focus on comprehension.  Then your teacher writes up a nice summary of your “errors”, including pronunciation.  In addition, the story you are reading is describing characters you have never heard of before, you didn’t grow up with them.  You don’t have the background knowledge on the topic you are reading about.  Your cultural background is very different from the cultural background of the story characters and the place where you are learning French.  Now transfer that experience to your ELLs.  ELLs who are put on the spot to read out loud in front of a teacher and are asked to read in their second language are under enormous pressure and make mistakes due to affective filter (Krashen, 1985) as well as unfamiliarity with the knowledge or topic described in the text, the characters, the sentence structure, and others.   There are many “errors” when we learn language and many of them are developmental not purely reading errors.

Do not assume that many commonly used authentic assessments used with non-ELLs yield valid data when used with ELLs. Instead, question the validity of many of those tools and considers the child’s language proficiency in all four modalities (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and cultural backgrounds of students as well as the construct you are trying to measure (often pronunciation is not one of them).

Myth 5:  ELLs Don’t Know How to Behave.

Many ELLs come from cultures where commonly used practices in Western schooling such as questioning teachers’ authority, critiquing a position statement or being vocal about their opinions have not been encouraged.  Many children come from cultures where individual competition and achievement were considered self-serving and, as a result, individual achievement was treated as selfish.  Instead, community-oriented goals are more valued.  Teachers may be misinterpreting student behaviors and lack of participation due to teachers’ own Western world view and value system.

Many students may find American school routines very different from their own, even if they are not new immigrants.  Students are socialized in their homes into various behavioral patterns.  For example, children may be used to sharing a box of crayons with their siblings.  When they enter a classroom, they find that each child has his or her own box of crayons.  They may think that asking a child to share crayons would be disturbing to that boy or a girl, and instead, they would reach across the table to use the pencils.  They may not know that there is an expectation to ask permission to use somebody else’s crayons.  There are some community-oriented practices where things are shared without needing to ask permission.

Culturally-responsive teachers do not ascribe stereotypical values to all Asian or African students as if they are a homogeneous group with one set of values.   They learn about their student cultural backgrounds and they can recognize behaviors representative of other cultures and interpret them in that light versus judging students as rude or poorly-behaved.  Culturally-responsive teachers value different ways of doing things and teach cross-cultural skills how to be successful in the home and the mainstream culture.

Myth 6:  It is the responsibility of the ESL Teacher to teach ELLs.  That’s why we hired him or her. 

Response:  This myth may be stem from teachers not recognizing that language mediates all learning.  Another reason for this myth could stem from not knowing how to teach ELLs because the teachers were not trained scaffolding strategies to meet the needs of ELLs.   With proper training and ongoing support, content teachers can learn how to support ELLs in mainstream classrooms.  Looking at the education through the equity lens, we have a calling to serve every child and administrators need to train themselves first and then their teachers to become effective teachers for ALL students, not just those who they were trained to teach in their pre-service teacher training programs.

All teachers share a responsibility of teaching ELLs especially in the era of accountability, high stakes assessments, rigorous standards, as well as the calling of public schools to provide all students with “free and APPROPRIATE public education”.  While ESL teachers can provide a block of English Language Development, mainstream teachers have ELLs all day in their classrooms and bear a responsibility of giving ELLs opportunities to engage meaningfully in content learning to achieve the high standards.  What it comes down to, it is not what teachers prefer teaching, but it is the needs of ELLs that drive the program design and division of responsibilities among teachers.   The table below describes key elements from a comprehensive approach to ELL education and delineates components of both ELD block delivered by the ESL Teacher as well as the discipline-specific academic language learning delivered by the mainstream teacher, and if possible, co-planned and co-taught with an ESL teacher.

The table is from the Council of the Great City Schools framework called A Framework for Raising Expectations and Instructional Rigor for English Language Learners[1].

Table 1:  Components of a Comprehensive Approach to Education of ELLs (Adapted from the Council of the Great City Schools A Framework for Raising Expectations and Instructional Rigor for ELLs[2] (page 6).
Focused Language Development a.  Focused English Language Development (ELD): A dedicated time for targeted ELD. Instruction focuses on HOW English works — those elements that are already typically known to native English speakers but must be systematically developed by ELLs (Fillmore & Fillmore, 2012).Focus on functional/purposeful use of language — appropriate to varying language proficiency levelsb. In some districts, ESL/ELD serves as the English Language Arts (ELA) course for ELLs. These ESL/ELD courses are aligned to both the Common Core or general ELA curriculum and the ESL standards.c. Instruction is directly linked and applicable to functional aspects of schooling, as well as language needs across the content areas a. Students may be grouped by English proficiency levels (important for students at beginning levels and best when students are mixed within a limited range of levels, not isolated in a single-level group).b. A specified number of minutes (e.g., 30-60) is allotted in elementary grades, or a class period(s) is allotted at the secondary level, either as a stand-alone class or in combination with ELA, depending upon students’ English proficiency levels and other instructional needs.c. Instruction may be provided by:

  • ESL teacher (push-in, pull-out)
  • Classroom teacher (as a small group)
  • Co-teachers (each with a small group at similar language levels)
Discipline-specific language a. Language development takes place in an integrated manner within the appropriate grade levelb. Instruction for language expansion is embedded in and informed by content across the subject areasc. Content area instruction includes attention to the lesson’s language demands, challenges, and opportunitiesd. High-utility, cross-discipline academic language development is an instructional focuse. Discipline-specific language development supports and benefits all students, beyond ELLs a. Instruction is in the context of grade-level content and focuses on deliberate language development through Complex Thought, Texts, Talk, and Tasks (Cucchiara, Fillmore & Fillmore, 2012)b. Teaching of discipline-specific language is never decontextualized; rather, it is integrated to facilitate development of discipline-specific language and concepts within grade-level content-area classesc. Instruction may be provided by

  • Content-area teacher
  • Co-teachers: Content-area teacher and ESL teacher planning and teaching together


In summary, schools need to provide both the language development and the scaffolded grade-level content required for ELLs to be successful.  ESL Teachers cannot be solely responsible for the education of ELLs.  It takes a village!  We are all in this together.

Myth 7:  ELLs need to develop oral language skills in English before engaging in literacy.

Response:  This myth may stem from teaching assuming the same sequential process from oral language to literacy development for ELLs as for native English speakers.  De Jong and Harper (2005) state that literacy skills develop in a much more integrating manner for school-age ELLs (Hudelson, 1984)[1].   They say

While it is important to consider the oral language as a foundation for building L2 literacy skills, classroom practices that delay the introduction of literacy instruction until students have well developed oral skills may underestimate (and therefore limit) what ELLs can do. Teachers must therefore organize their classrooms to provide rich and varied opportunities to develop all four language modes (listening, speaking, reading, writing) in meaningful and integrated ways (Heald-Taylor, 1991[2]) (p. 108).

Myth 8:  High school ELLs should take remedial algebra or science courses because they are ELLs and can’t handle rigorous content courses. 

Response:  This myth may stem from teachers assuming that ELLs cannot handle rigorous and challenging calculus because they are still learning English.  As a result, many ELLs end up in remedial algebra tracks.  This myth also persists because often ELLs are lumped into one “under-achieving” group.

For many ELLs this is not a myth but a practice that forecloses them from obtaining courses that prepare them for college entrance. 

Kanno and Kangas (2014)[3] study added another explanation to this phenomenon of keeping ELLs away from rigorous classes.  They found that counselors and teachers were “protecting” ELLs from the courses that may be too challenging for them, operating solely on their assumptions.  (I like to call it “a pobrecito syndrome”, borrowing from someone who had coined that term). Teachers were afraid that ELLs would not receive the appropriate scaffolding they needed to succeed in those rigorous classes.   Many teachers just plain did not believe ELLs could meaningfully participate in “non-sheltered” classes.  In that same study, Kanno and Kangas (2014) discovered that once ELLs are placed in an ‘ELL’ biology course, they move from the ELL biology to remedial science track for the rest of their high school years disregarding their academic performance.  For example, ELLs taking ELL physical science in 9th grade would take ELL biology in 10th grade, and then in 11th and 12th grade, they would typically choose from a pool of several non-ELL, remedial-level science courses such as earth science, environmental science, or life science (Kanno & Kangas, 2014).  They described that

“[b]oth teachers and guidance counselors usually referred to these sequences in recommending students’ courses for the next year unless they saw compelling reasons to make exceptions. In other words, these sequences represented the default academic trajectories for the majority of students from course to course” (p. 16).

What was even more troubling was that even reclassified ELLs (those who have exited the ESL program services and were reclassified as non-ELLs) stayed in the same track without giving any consideration to their reclassified status because they had started as ELLs in 9th grade.  What was most surprising to the researchers in this study was that ELLs themselves tended to believe that they couldn’t handle challenging coursework and they rarely questioned counselors’ recommendations to take lower track courses.  The study concluded that what was needed to undo these practices was the school habitus and the student habitus.   The teachers and the counselors needed to believe, encourage, and support ELLs in the pursuit of more challenging learning.   That, in turn, would encourage students to believe in themselves and take more challenging courses.   ELLs often suffer from linguistic insecurity as found in this study and confirmed by many immigrants or second language learners, including myself.  I did not believe for many years that my English was good enough for me to start a doctorate program.  It was thanks to my husband and my colleague who became my advisor to believe in me and encourage me to enroll into the program.  If you know my story, you will know that I have successfully defended my dissertation, written in my fourth language, and graduated with 4.0 GPA in November 2014.  It took the school habitus and the support of others for me to accomplish what I thought was outside my reach.



[1] de Jong, E. J., & Harper, C. A. (2005).  Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough? Teacher Education Quarterly

[1] Hudelson, S. (1987). The role of native language literacy in the education of language minority children. Language Arts, 64, 827-841.

[2] Heald-Taylor, G. (1991). Whole language strategies for ESL students. San Diego, CA: Dominie Press.

[3] Kanno, Y., & Kangas, S. E. N. (2014) ”I’m Not Going to Be, Like, for the AP”: English Language Learners’ Limited Access to Advanced College-Preparatory Courses in High School 

Council of the Great City Schools: A Framework for Raising Expectations and Instructional Rigor for English Language Learners 




11 thoughts on “ELL Myths From The Trenches

Add yours

  1. Thank you for this article. Extremely informative and affirming. Another myth is that if there is an aide in the classroom to support English learners, it is his/her job to translate the instruction and do the content teaching. This is a complex issue that requires training for both an aide and a teacher. While an aide may do some translating, and some re-engagement on a topic, they should not become a stand-in for the teacher. Both should work together to make sure that students learning English receive language instruction connected to the content. If you have more resources about training teachers and aides to work together in this way I’d love for you to share them.


  2. May I add a myth that students and parents tend to believe here? At the end of a certain period of learning, it doesn’t matter if the students have worked hard or not, if you pay enough money to a language program or language school, the student should have mastered the language by the end of the program. (Was that too cynical?) 🙂

    Similar to myth #8, low level of English = low IQ. This is why I’ve learned to so appreciate books that take things like Blooms taxonomy seriously!!


  3. This is an excellent blog! I reposted in on Twitter and on the NJTESOL/NJBE Facebook page. Thanks for sharing all of this information.


  4. I have also found that school counselors will also try to either keep an ELL student from taking a class in their 1st language or make sure they are in the advanced level of their 1st level thinking that it would be “of comfort” to the student. I have had this happen to me as a teacher of Spanish and told that because I spoke the same language I could help them best.


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