What Does Language Do in History?

By Ruslana Westerlund

aboriginal generation stolen

History is often studied as facts, events or lives of historical figures.  We study history to understand the past or even predict the future.   If we want to build democratic classrooms, history needs to be problematized.  This is not a new idea.  We ask students to answer questions such as whose history are we studying?  Who wrote the history?  Which perspectives are presented and whose are misrepresented?  Whose voices are included and whose voices are excluded?  In addition, is the historical portrayal of events objective or subjective?  Can historians be free of bias?

To answer those questions, we must look at the language used in history.  Hence, the question is not what is the language of history but instead, what does language DO in history?  Even more importantly, what do authors do when they write history?

Hence, the question is not what is the language of history but instead, WHAT DOES LANGUAGE DO IN HISTORY?  

I do not find a traditional view of language to be of particular relevance to investigate historical texts, authors’ biases, and their subjectivity.   What can the work of categorizing nouns and verbs and prepositions yield, afterall?   In your defense, you’ll say we don’t do grammar in history.  You might say that you cover vocabulary or concepts.  But I find that limiting as well.  Lately, I’ve been using Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a view of language as a meaning making resource (not a set of rules to be followed) and a robust set of tools to do the critical discourse analysis of any text, but especially such value-laded texts as historical narratives.  SFL asks questions like What language choices did the author make to portray certain events?  Did the authors depict those events as settlements or invasions?  Who are the perpetrators in the historic events?  How do we know?  What textual features did the author choose to make us believe that?  How are the indigenous people portrayed?   As trespassers or as natives?  What do adjectives do in history?  How do they depict certain people or events?  

I will draw on Caroline Coffin‘s work who studies history discourses through SFL.  I find her work to be particularly useful here.  She is at the Open University, UK.  If you are interested in the critical discourse analysis of historical genres from the SFL perspective in the United States, Mary Schleppegrell has done great work with history texts and history teachers and their students.  Coffin astutely observed that while there are many engaged in enacting critical reading of the genres of historical writing, most have not given much attention to the linguistic strategies and resources that constitute the “voice of history” and “which linguistic resources are used by the authors to persuade the readers of the validity of their claims” (Coffin, 1998, p.2).   In other words, we talk about perspectives in history, but not many of us actually know how to teach the students how those perspectives are constructed so they can be reconstructed.  History teachers are not language teachers after all, so it is understandable why they have not investigated those linguistic resources.  It is the job of the English Language Arts teacher to teach passive voice, afterall, or is it?

Let’s look at this text together.  If you follow my Facebook group Reclaiming the Language of Social Justice, you might have seen this text before.

The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of Assimilation. Assimilation was based on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority, which proposed that Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, or, where possible, should be assimilated into the white community.

Source: Australians Together. The Stolen Generations

From the perspective of what is the language of history, we are used to looking at language and say that words like assimilation, elimination, black inferiority, Indigenous people – those are important words to comprehend this text, according to that view.  If I ask the question What does language DO in history, then the comprehension questions get us to problematize this text.  Let’s look at the noun phrase the forcible removal.   The word remove was turned into a noun removal – a very common feature of academic writing called nominalization – to create a certain level of abstraction.  So, what does the process of nominalizing the verb into a noun did in this sentence?  The answer to that question can be answered by asking one more question:  WHO REMOVED THE INDIGENOUS CHILDREN FROM THEIR FAMILIES?

You can’t answer that question, can you?  So, what does language do in history?  In this one sentence, the language choices made by this author hide the perpetrator.  How can students re-write history, the same fact, indeed to expose the perpetrator?  White people or Christians or …..  removed the indigenous children by force from their families.  All of a sudden, we get a different perspective, right?

For a more detailed analysis of language resources in history, I would recommend learning about James Martin and Peter White’s (2005) Appraisal System which uses discourse semantics, an approach that foregrounds meaning before looking at structures which construe those meanings.

One of my favorite SFL scholars Ruqaiya Hasan writes on three types of literacy (2011): functional, reproductive and reflective.  We need all three, but we particularly need Reflective literacy when we read or write historical genres which enables our students to think like this:

“… it becomes important to ask whose point of view does the writing represent, whose point of view is implied in which reading? It is from this kind of deeper understanding of what ‘the’ text means that we can move to explanation questions. For example, pupils would not simply note the way a text is structured, but they would also ask why it is structured in the way it is; if the structure were to be changed, what would change, for whom, and at what price?  They would not simply observe whose voice(s) underlie messages of what category, they would also ask why these voices and these messages go together, what (potentially relevant) voices are absent and why. This is indeed to question the very norms of discourse.  


Just as a teacher will need a good deal of expertise and understanding of language as a meaning potential in order to be able to help develop this kind of discursive perspective in her pupils, so also she will need to be deeply familiar with the nature of the disciplines she is to discuss with her class: what issues does it problematize. What methods for the resolution of such problems were employed in the past and what today? What counts as a fact and why? What sort of evidence upholds the status of a fact as fact?”

Hasan, R. (2011). Language and Education. p. 199

I will leave you with a classroom resource to see how the teacher engages her students in analyzing historic perspectives using SFL.   SFL uses simple terms like participants, processes, and circumstances to refer to meaning making resources in texts.  In this example, the teacher is focusing on how we talk about participants in texts as the students construe perspectives across the text.

Critical  Conversations About Texts 


Coffin, C. (1998).  Reconstruals of the Past: Settlement or Invasion?  The Role of Judgement Analysis.  Paper presented for the American Association for Applied Linguistics.  Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED421860.pdf

Hasan, R. (2011). Language and Education.  Learning and Teaching in Society.  Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan.  Vol. 3. J. Webster (Ed.).  Equinox Publishers

Martin, J. & White, P. (2005).  The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. Palgrave Macmillan

Rossbridge, J. & Rushton, K. (n.d.) The critical conversation about text: Joint construction. PETAA Paper 196. Available here.

Schleppegrell, M.  (2008).  Literacy in History.  Language and Meaning.  Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 31(2). pp. 174–187 Retrieved from https://www.alea.edu.au/documents/item/70


SFL: A Living Theory of the Living Language

By Ruslana Westerlund, a self-taught SFL Learner.

Language is for the living of lifeFor the past 3 years, I’ve been learning about Systemic Functional Linguistics.  I was drawn to this theory because it offered a refreshing description of language as a dynamic resource for making meaning as opposed to a set of rules prescribed by a committee.  I resonated with this theory because of how close the theory was to the actual language people used on a daily basis.  Also, being a bicultural citizen of this world, I have begun to observe how language changes in different cultural contexts and how the rules that I learned in my grammar studies over the course of 5 years, were constantly “broken” by the native speakers, who, supposedly, created them.  As will be defined further in my post,  the SFL’s idea of “tenor” (role relationships, awareness of audience, your own voice and identity you are construing with your language resources) became increasingly important to me in my professional email exchanges, before I knew it was called “tenor”, one of the three variables of SFL’s register.  I have discovered tenor through my use of the strong modality when I would overuse should, need to, have to and even a must – those are reserved for very rare communication exchanges that upset supervisors (who didn’t mind coming off as upset) were allowed to use.  The tenor also became clear to me when I learned that using the word please at the beginning of each command was not sufficient in the Midwestern, indirect culture where requests are construed as suggestions and not as direct commands (unless you are a parent who lost patience with their children).  From my most recent memory, I was presenting to a room of 175 teachers, and I wanted them to have different people at the table, representing diverse perspectives.  I wrote on the slide, “Before you sit down, please make sure you have the following people at your table: someone with language knowledge, someone in an administrative role, ect.”  My good friend corrected me and said, “We can’t be that pushy, Ru.  You can’t say Please make sure here, to these teachers.  You should say, “Try to have the following people at the table” which only suggests and not commands.

Through multiple revisions to my requests and suggestions, I learned that bicultural people don’t construe the identity they want.  They construe the identity that is acceptable within the culture where they live and want to be successful within.

Systemic Functional Linguistics answered many of those questions for me (though I still have some unanswered), because SFL does not describe the grammar of the ideal.  It describes the real.  It is a theory (a description) of the living language, as a dynamic system of choices in various configurations of register, as will be described below.

As mentioned above, Halliday’s theory of language is not purely theoretical.  It is a description of how language works.  He observed and documented (versus theorized only) the real language.  He observed his son Nigel and learned that Nigel developed his language in interactions with others, to get things done with language, as he was learning how to mean.

In addition, Halliday was also invested in describing how language and society are connected.  His theory of language was framed by the issues of social justice: why are certain people discriminated against because of variations in their language use, how language and society are connected, and how power and language are closely intertwined.   Some applications of his theory contributed to combating linguistic prejudices in education and beyond (e.g., Martin, Rose, Humphrey, Schleppegrell & de Oliveira, Gebhard, Harman, Brisk, and others).  Below I will describe the theory the way I understand it.  Putting my own learning into my own words, clarifies my knowledge and understanding of this roomy theory.  Also, please notice that I am not citing sources because my goal is not to come off as expert, but as a synthesis of my thoughts, a reflection of learning.  Again, if I were to be writing for a peer reviewed journal, the choice of language would have had to match the field of SFL, the tenor construed by language of a person who has taken on an expert role, and a mode of a scholarly academic journal writing expectations.  Also, please note that I am a completely self-taught learner of SFL, without any formal training during a course of a systematic study.  I do, however, have an opportunity to be continuously coached by Sally Humphrey (and others), an SFL knowledge builder from the Australian Catholic University.  The journey of learning has consisted of inquiry-based, driven by self-directed questions.  Having Sally to answer them has been of tremendous help.  I owe you Sally.  Thank you for answering my question on meta-redundancy of the SFL model with a cup of hot chocolate on Leichhardt Street.


Systemic Functional Linguistics describes language at three strata: genre – the context of culture, register – the context of situation, and the level of lexicogrammar.  The smallest level of language resources is the level of sounds.  Genre sets up the context of culture, e.g. Midwestern culture of communication.  Language choices at the smaller levels will be situated in that larger context of culture.  Register is the next strata.  It’s the context of the immediate situation.

SFL model of language (Hood)

Register is comprised of 3 variables: field, tenor, and mode.  These three dimensions of register are closely related and they are always present in each instance of language use.  Those three variables define the context of the immediate situation but always situated in the larger context of culture which is the genre.  In every exchange, we talk about something (field such as weather), with someone (tenor such as your coworkers to ease a tension before a meeting) and use language either in speaking or writing (mode such as casual chat or small talk).  The big idea of the register in SFL is that we make choices at those three dimensions and those choices are dynamic, but systematic, not random.  Below each register variable will be described.


Field is what’s going on, the topic in the exchange such as linguistics or coffee or puzzle construction or magnetic field or constructing a robotic arm in a science classroom, anything that serves as the central content in which language is situated.  Field expresses the “happenings and doings” of the exchange (Derewianka, 2014).  The resources that are used in the field are participants (the whos or the whats expressed through noun phrases), processes (actions, expressed through verb groups), and circumstances (the wheres and the hows, expressed through adverbials).


Tenor is concerned with the role relationships of those involved in language use, with the audience and voice.  Tenor is present regardless whether the exchange is a monolog or a dialog.  Tenor points to the fact that all of language is dialogic and even heteroglossic, similar to how Bakhtin spoke of all language use.   We use a particular tenor to construe our identity or position ourselves as self-confident and direct or timid and suggestive. We often talk to an audience full of people, even if the audience has the n of one.  In classroom contexts, students use tenor to take on expert roles when presenting their knowledge or engaging in debates.


The mode is concerned with what role language plays.  It’s more nuanced than just is it spoken or written?  Is it spoken-like (but written) or is written-like (but spoken)?  Are we texting, posting a facebook update or lecturing?  Halliday called attention to – and he was the first one to do it – the difference between written and spoken language.  He said (paraphrased) that written language is not spoken language written down.  It is a distinctly different activity that humans engage in.  Spoken languages existed long before written systems were created to encode the culture’s knowledge.  Written language is a more recent invention.  We don’t just use different language when we speak or when we write.  We do different things when we engage in those different modes.   But the mode of language is not dichotomous: spoken or written.  This brings me to the mode continuum (Martin, 1985).   The mode continuum places language use from language as action to language as reflection.  The mode continuum is defined by the distance between language and the social process occurring.  It also can be described as the “experiential distance”.  In the action end, language is part of the social process, while at the reflection end, language constitutes the social process.  Language as reflection, constructs the experiences.  In the language as action end of the continuum, the context helps the language such as pointing or the presence of people or things in the action.  In the language as reflection end, the language has to do the heavy lifting because there is not much in the context to help.  The language resources, therefore, have to be strategically selected for the experience to be construed so that the reader or listener can understand what’s going on.

The language as action can also be described using the words of Mary Macken-Horarik (1996) as the language of “here and now, you and me”.

The language accompanying action may not require complete sentences, precise words, and even objects might not need to be named.  We can use words like they and this thing, does this stuff and people can understand us because the context helps to fill in those gaps.  The language as reflection is constructed through language of abstraction and precision, because the context is not there to help.

language as action v language as reflection.PNG

Source: Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton PETAA Paper 196 The critical conversation about text: Joint construction. Available here.

Not all of language is the language as action.  Not all of language is the language as reflection.  Different language situations call for different modes.  Using Halliday’s words, language development is the expansion of meaning making potential.  We should not privilege language as reflection (e.g. language of textbooks) over the language as action (e.g. language of doing science), but should build on resources used in language as action to develop language used in reflecting on and constructing experiences.  For more information on how teachers can use the language as action to language as reflection continuum, please consult this resource.

Not all of language is the language as action.  Not all of language is the language as reflection.  Different language situations call for different modes.

To summarize, I’ll use Ruqaiya Hasan’s words: language is for the living of life, not for the production of structures.  We use language to do things with.  And yes, we can end sentences with prepositions, depending on our audience and our identity.  Some of us take on the rebel identity because we want to contest the artificial rules which do not reflect the living language, like Halliday and Hasan did.  They didn’t explicitly contest them (although Hasan did in her book Language and Society which I quoted widely on my Reclaiming the Language for Social Justice page), but by describing the language in its real actual use, they gave permission for us to say, “Wait a minute, but in this situation, with this audience, to construe this identity, we can even split infinitives.” Wink, if you hear me.

Bad Hombres, Baskets of Deplorables and the Everyday Language of White Racism

The Educational Linguist

During this week’s presidential debate my social media exploded with commentary about Donald Trump’s use of the term “bad hombres.” Many linguistics immediately saw this as an example of Mock Spanish, most notably developed in Jane Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism. In the CNN panel discussion that followed the debate Trump supporters insisted that “bad hombres” is not racist and criticized Hillary Clinton supporters for being so easily offended.

This is precisely the power of Mock Spanish. White people can use Mock Spanish to position themselves as cool and funny while being able to hide behind the shield of plausible deniability against charges of racism. In the case of Trump, he was able to use “bad hombres” within a discussion of immigration policy to strategically conjured up images of violent Latinxs who are destroying nice white communities by supposedly giving heroin to white teenagers while being…

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Will English learner relicensure policy actually improve professional development in Minnesota districts?

By Miranda Schornack, a doctoral student in Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

The bright side

In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature enacted requirements for educator relicensure that focus on professional growth around working with English learners (ELs) (MN§122A.18, Subd. 4(b)) (also, see Appendix A). These new requirements are monumental for two distinct reasons. First, teachers like many of us—who care deeply about providing equitable education for ELs, have been longing for this our entire careers. We know first-hand the number of ELs has steadily risen across the nation (García & Kleifgen, 2010) and recent reports indicate Minnesota schools have seen a 300% increase in the past two decades (Zittlow, 2012). But, while our student demographics have diversified, our educator demographics have remained largely monolithic (Hill-Jackson & Lewis, 2007; Laine et al., 2010). The demographic divide between teachers and students matters in education because, as Banks, Cochran-Smith, Moll, Richert, Zeichner, LePage, Darling-Hammond, & Duffy (2005) articulated:

More important than simple differences in racial or language backgrounds, there are also marked differences in the biographies and experiences of most teachers and their students. Most U.S. teachers are European Americans from middle-class backgrounds who speak only English. Many of their students are racial and ethnic minorities, live in poverty, and speak a first language other than English. (p. 237)

This demographic divide between students and teachers can manifest in schools in heartbreaking ways. ELs have been ignored, passed on to the next grade or class, pitied, banned from using their home language(s), and subjected to myriad other acts of oppression. Some of us have seen our own colleagues engage in discriminatory practices and we have felt confined by a system and power structures that seemed to allow it, if not condone it. Frequently, when we have challenged those oppressive practices we, ourselves, have been ostracized by colleagues. This petty, collegial bullying feels like being exiled to a tiny island surrounded by ravenous sharks. Here is important to clarify two things that may or may not have caught your attention but that I feel compelled to speak to. One, it could be argued that school administrators have always had ethical responsibility to provide this type of professional development and they should not have needed a state statute to take up that work. I agree, but this post is focusing on how Minnesota policy is finally supporting this work.

Second, I do not believe the fear of being bullied or ostracized by colleagues (and even loved ones) should prevent us from advocating for a more just educative system. As Johnson (2006) described in detail, following the paths of least resistance, or, not advocating for more equitable approaches to education of ELs “perpetuates all the forms that privilege and oppression can take” (p. 84). In other words,

choosing to remain silent, or to engage in oppressive practices, is choosing to discriminate against those marginalized by the current structure. There is no neutrality.

I welcome responses and extensions of thought to either and both of these points.

Returning to the second reason these requirements are noteworthy involves their express focus on ‘growth.’ For once, we are not referring to student growth but, rather, an educator’s growth in their work with and for ELs. In other words, educators are being expected to engage in reflection around how they have grown in their approaches to working with ELs. In general, teacher development is organized around three core constructs: knowledge, skills, and dispositions (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). I propose that the focus on growth in the Minnesota statute elevates the importance of dispositions in our profession (for example, see Murrell Jr., Diez, Feiman-Nemser, & Schussler, 2010). ‘Growth’ does not inherently sound disposition-y; it sounds more like a measure of content knowledge or instructional skill. But, I would argue that inherent and simultaneous in shifting one’s pedagogical approaches is a shift in the internal processes that drive one. In other words, knowledge, skills, and dispositions are intertwined (Diez, 2007; Murrell Jr. et al., 2010) and this becomes increasingly apparent when focusing on topics that have been hyper politicized, such as policies on immigration and bilingual instruction. Therefore, the reason dispositions are core to ‘growing’ in one’s practice with ELs is that in order to engage in teaching and learning activities that are appropriate for ELs, teachers must also embody dispositions that facilitate teaching and learning. We should celebrate that the new Minnesota policy supports professional development and coaching around dispositions for teaching.

The grey area

Though the legislation is hopeful, there are two aspects that concern me. First, some of the language is too broad. In other words, how this legislation will be enacted any differently than other ineffective, professional development initiatives is much less clear (or bright). For example, to meet requirements of line item (a), an educator applying for relicensure must describe how they demonstrate “support for student learning”. ‘Support’ can be a nebulous construct—isn’t everything we do to support student learning? So, what will this support look like? How does the particular classroom, school, and district context inform the type of support that a teacher provides? Is the role of context even acknowledged?

School leaders are charged with coordinating professional development that allows for meaningful reflection on and changes to practice. So, on the one hand, the broad language allows districts to interpret it at the local level which, generally speaking, can be a good thing in order for a practice to take hold in ways that are authentic to the local context. But, on the other hand, having criteria that are too broad can be problematic because there can be considerable misinterpretation, particularly if the folks responsible for them are not experts in research, theory, and practices for working with ELs, their families, and the broader community. This broad policy language does not provide educators with coherent approaches to meeting the requirements. If the policy itself is not the text that will provide concrete guidance or accountability of implementation, then there must be some other mechanism in place to assess or gauge how and if teachers applying for relicensure are meeting this requirement.

This brings us to the second concern about the legislation, we are also missing the clear criteria against which these professional statements of growth will be evaluated. Further, and more concerning, it is not evident that the professional statements of growth will be evaluated in the first place. Is someone at the local school district supposed to ‘check them off’? Will someone at the Minnesota Department of Education be ‘grading’ them against rubrics that have been validated? Without this information, the reflection statement is superficial, a mere act of compliance, or, a hoop one jumps through every five years to keep their teaching license.

What can we do?

Despite of the two concerns described immediately above, hope is not lost. Remember, the focus of this post is on the ways the new policy supports teaching and learning practices for ELs. In other words, we should not wait for conditions to be perfect before we act, because, quite frankly, conditions will never be perfect. We can be thoughtful, though, about how we respond to this policy in our own role in education.

School and District Administrators

  • Integrate best practices in working with ELs into your school’s and/or district’s staff development plan. Make sure all staff are engaged in this work in meaningful contexts and that they receive support from experts in this area.
  • Remember the basics of effective professional development principles: on-going, ELLs a guide for administratorsjob-embedded, and resist cutting any corners.
  • Engage your bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers in planning this professional development alongside mainstream teachers with recognizable skills, knowledge, and dispositions for working with ELs.
  • Collaborate with other districts, of similar context, to identify how this policy can encourage a meaningful shift in the ways we work with ELs.
  • Explore university and college partnerships for resources on the theory, research, and practices that could be taken up. Often, faculty and staff at teacher preparation programs also need this professional development so it could be an innovative area to partner around.
  • Read this book: Hamayan, E. & Freeman, R. (Eds.). (2006). English language learners at school: A guide for administrators. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon Publishing.  

Mainstream Teachers

  • Educate yourself on technical aspects of teaching privilege power and differenceELs as well as the dispositional expectations.
  • Advocate for a more comprehensive approach to professional development in this area. Connect with your building administrator. Contact your district’s staff development team (join, if you feel compelled!)
  • Collaborate with bilingual and ESL teachers in your school and district.
  • Engage in peer coaching with an ESL teacher.
  • Read this book: Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


ESL & Bilingual Teachers


What do you think?

  • How does your school district engage educators with professional development around working effectively with English learners?

  • Is ‘growth’ in professional practice part of your district’s approach?

  • What key resources do you consistently revisit as you work in this area?


Banks, J., Cochran-Smith, M., Moll, L., Richert, A., Zeichner, K., LePage, P., Darling-Hammond, L., & Duffy, H. (2005). Teaching diverse learners. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do, (232-274). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Board to Issue Licenses, MN§122A.18, Expiration and Renewal, Subd. 4(b) (2015). Retrieved from https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=122a.18

Darling-Hammond, L. & Bransford, J. (Eds.). (2005).  Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Diez, M. E. (2007a). Looking back and moving forward: Three tensions in the teacher dispositions discourse. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 388-396.

García, O. & Kleifgen, J. A. (2010). Educating emergent bilinguals. Policies, programs, and practices for English language learners. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hill-Jackson, V., & Lewis, C. W. (2010). Dispositions matter: Advancing habits of the mind for social justice. In V. Hill-Jackson & C. W. Lewis (Eds.), Transforming teacher education: What went wrong with teacher training, and how we can fix it, 61-92. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, Inc.

Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, power, and difference (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Laine, C., Bauer, A. M., Johnson, H., Kroeger, S. D., Troup, K. S., & Meyer, H. (2010). Moving from reaction to reflection. In P. C. Murrell Jr., M. E. Diez, S. Feiman-Nemser & D. L. Schussler (Eds.), Teaching as a moral practice: Defining, developing, and assessing professional dispositions in teacher education, 73-93. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Murrell Jr., P. C., Diez, M. E., Feiman-Nemser, S., & Schussler, D. L. (Eds.). (2010). Teaching as a moral practice: Defining, developing, and assessing professional dispositions in teacher education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Zittlow, M. (2012). Ranks of English learners swelling in Minnesota schools. Minnesota Public Radio News, Retrieved from http://www.mprnews.org/story/2012/12/13/teaching-minnesota-elloverview



Miranda Schornack (2)Miranda Schornack is a doctoral student in Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. For three years she instructed the English as a Second Language (ESL) methods course for content area pre-service teachers. She has also supervised teacher candidates in clinical placements and coordinated and facilitated professional development for clinical supervisors. Currently, she is involved in the research and development of a dispositions coaching system for educators. Prior to her work as a doctoral student, Miranda taught ESL for seven years in Minnesota public schools where she developed a passion for engaging mainstream teachers in professional development around working with English learners (ELs). She also has experience teaching adult ELs at St. Cloud State University and at the Wall Street Institute in Concepción, Chile.

Appendix A

MN§122A.18, Subd. 4(b)

(b) Relicensure applicants who have been employed as a teacher during the renewal period of their expiring license, as a condition of relicensure, must present to their local continuing education and relicensure committee or other local relicensure committee evidence of work that demonstrates professional reflection and growth in best teaching practices, including among other things, practices in meeting the varied needs of English learners, from young children to adults under section 124D.59, subdivisions 2 and 2a. The applicant must include a reflective statement of professional accomplishment and the applicant’s own assessment of professional growth showing evidence of:

(1) support for student learning;

(2) use of best practices techniques and their applications to student learning;

(3) collaborative work with colleagues that includes examples of collegiality such as attested-to committee work, collaborative staff development programs, and professional learning community work; or

(4) continual professional development that may include (i) job-embedded or other ongoing formal professional learning or (ii) for teachers employed for only part of the renewal period of their expiring license, other similar professional development efforts made during the relicensure period.

Much more than a reclassification issue: ELLs in K-12

by Ruslana Westerlund, Ed. D., WIDA at Wisconsin Center for Education Research and Luciana C. de Oliveira, Ph.D., University of Miami

Much more than a reclassification issue: ELLs in K-12: A Response to Keeping long-term English learners from getting stuck

Schleppegrell in Gibbons
Schleppegrell, M (2004) The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistic Perspective as quoted in Gibbons, P. (2009). English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking

This blog post is in response to the original blog Keeping the Long-Term English Learners from Getting Stuck written by the principal at Baker Elementary Kathleen Gallagher on January 20th, 2016. The blog was published in the SmartBlog on Education in which “experts explore trends in learning research and highlight teaching strategies that can help improve student performance”.  One of the concerns we raise in our response to this blog is that Gallagher’s position was not research-based and contained many common misconceptions about second language development for school purposes.  We aim to clarify those misconceptions in our response.

Original message:  The entire blog sends the message that the challenges in language learning are inherent to students themselves.  It says, “… long-term English learners who are struggling to learn the language [emphasis added].”  In that same paragraph the term LTEL (long-term English learners) is described “as a problem that has become common among English learners”; and, lastly, “a student who does not make adequate yearly progress.”

Our response: Language learning for school purposes is different from learning a world (or “foreign”) language.  Have you ever heard someone say, “Those students in that French class are really struggling with the language.  They are not making the adequate annual progress.  They are struggling to learn the language.”?  In foreign language learning, the stakes are not as high.  Foreign language classes serve other purposes. Learning another language helps become aware of one’s own language as well as the cultural and linguistic diversity of our world.  However, the purpose for learning English at school is to be academically successful, to do well in the content areas (e.g. math, science) and to meaningfully engage in school.  The language ELLs are learning is derived from the content areas they are studying. It should not be derived from separate ELL materials because those materials often simplify the language of content areas to the point where the children never have a chance to learn complex and authentic language used in various disciplines. We remember hearing our students complain about the materials we used with them calling them too easy. That was the primary reason for their disengagement.  They felt stupid reading simplified texts.  Meaningful learning comes from supported environments where students are engaged in meaning making through accessible language.  We learn science through language (and other multisemiotic means), and language plays a critical role in engaging in science practices.  The stakes are much higher.  Their educational career depends on English.  It’s not “a nice to have”, but “a must have”.  Because schooling is hard enough and learning in a second language that’s new to you is doubly challenging, ELLs without proper supports, first sit on the sidelines of learning and eventually disengage and it starts to look like the students are not passive and not motivated.   See more on this in Myth 1 (Learning academic language means learning vocabulary words) and 2 (Language is learned by osmosis): in ELL Myths From the Trenches.

Bottom line:  The struggles of learning English are not inherent to students.  The struggles of learning English for academic purposes lie in the language demands themselves.  Just read the science textbook and you’ll see the complexities of the English language for academic purposes.  And no, teaching language does not belong to the “English” teacher or the ESL teacher.  Teaching language belongs to all teachers.  All teachers need to be properly equipped to provide meaningful learning to ELLs. Administrators need to get onboard and create school-wide responsibility for equitable education of culturally and linguistically diverse students.  Adopt a school-wide motto “All students are language learners.  All teachers are language teachers.”

Original message:  “Under normal circumstances, students typically transition from a beginning English learner to a reclassified English learner within 5 years.  This means, if a kindergartener begins school as a beginning English learner, by the time they reach fifth grade, they should be reclassified as a fluent English speaker. Unfortunately, many English learners who were beginners in kindergarten leave elementary school unprepared for reclassification.  This puts them at a disadvantage as they prepare for college readiness in middle school.”

Our response:  Established in the ESL literature for quite some time now, while oral language proficiency takes 3-5 years to develop, it takes 5-7 years or more to develop academic language proficiency (Collier, 1987, 1995; Cummins, 1981).  The rate of second language development depends on many factors such as age when children started schooling in English (earlier is not better unless schooling is available in first language), amount of formal schooling, availability of quality bilingual education to continue cognitive development in the home language and other factors.  The language of K-5 classrooms is challenging to ELLs, but the demands of language encountered in various disciplines during the adolescent years increase dramatically.  Students who may have been reclassified from ESL services in grade 5 may continue to struggle in middle school because of the challenges that various disciplines present in middle school and beyond.  In fact, beginning in fourth grade we can already see the language demands of the content areas that are so pervasive at the secondary level (de Oliveira & Lan, 2014). Children move from writing personal narratives and short information reports in K-5 classrooms to producing arguments with claims, supporting evidence, counterclaims in language arts to planning and carrying out investigations and sharing results of science experiments with the larger scientific community (the latter is from the Next Generation Science Standards and is a practice that should begin in K-5 classrooms). All of these tasks place heavy linguistic demands on all students and are especially difficult for ELLs. Christie (1999, 2012) argues that academic language is a “hidden curriculum” of school, and many ELLs are not taught language for academic purposes, or teachers attend to it at a surface level by teaching bolded words on a page or asking students to provide definitions to key science terms.  She suggests that “[t]hose who fail in schools are those who fail to master the genres of schooling: the ways of structuring and of dealing with experience which schools value in varying ways” (Christie 1985, p. 24). ELLs may need more support in middle school as they encounter more complex discipline-specific genres ridden with complex language.  Giving students a window into how school genres are organized will give them a stronger footing to access content and deeper content learning, create their own genres and contribute from their unique identities. But the complex language that is encountered in school is functional for meaning making in various disciplines, as much work in this area has shown (see, for example, de Oliveira & Schleppegrell and Schleppegrell, 2004). The issues we highlight here go beyond ELLs “who were beginners in kindergarten” leaving “elementary school unprepared for reclassification”. These issues go beyond a “reclassification” problem that seems to be conceptualized as a problem of ELLs instead of so many circumstances surrounding the education of ELLs.

Bottom line:  Students who may have been reclassified from ESL services in grade 5 may continue to struggle in middle school because of the challenges that various disciplines present at the secondary level and beyond. Reclassification of students is not the ultimate goal. Meaningful and targeted support may be needed throughout the adolescent years.

The demands of schooling do not end with reclassification for language learners even when they move out of the “ELL” label.

We appreciate the perspectives presented by Gallagher in the blog post and wanted to offer additional support for some misconceptions about teaching ELLs. We especially appreciate the fact that Gallagher and her school are “…are working to transform the way we engage and involve students in learning.” Being proficient in academic language and the various genres of schooling is one way we have found particular important in our work. Reclassification is not a “silver bullet” that will solve all “problems”. There is much more at stake for ELLs in school. The demands of schooling do not end with reclassification for language learners even when they move out of the “ELL” label.



  1. Christie, F. (1999). The pedagogic device and the teaching of English. Pedagogy and the Shaping of Consciousness: Linguistic and Social Processes. F. Christie. London, Continuum: 156-184.
  2. Christie, F. (2012). Language Education: A Functional Perspective. Language Learning Monograph Series. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
  3. Collier, V. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 2 1:6 17-64 1.
  4. Collier, V. (1988). The effect of age on acquisition of a second language for school. New Focus: Occasional Papers in Bilingual Education. No. 2. Washington, DC: The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. Collier, V. (1995). Acquiring a second language for school. Directions in Language and Education, 1:4. Washington, DC: The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
  5. de Oliveira, L. C., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2015). Focus on grammar and meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Schleppegrell, Mary J. (2004). The Language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


ru 2018

Ruslana A. Westerlund is an Associate Researcher in Research and Development, Standards Department at WIDA.  Her research interests include advocacy for more rigorous language instruction in ESL programs, exploration of genres in various disciplines and uses of genre pedagogy with English language learners.  She has experience as an ESL teacher in K-12 settings, pre-service and in-service teacher educator as well as the ELL program evaluator and a refugee grant coordinator at the state level. She also currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Hamline University and Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.  

luciana de olivieraLuciana C. de Oliveira is Associate Professor in the Language and Literacy Learning in Multilingual Settings program area in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. Her research focuses on issues related to teaching English language learners (ELLs) at the K-12 level, including the role of language in learning the content areas; teacher education, advocacy and social justice; and nonnative English-speaking teachers in TESOL. Currently, Luciana’s research examines the linguistic challenges of the Common Core State Standards for ELLs and their implications for teachers of ELLs.

“Aren’t some students too young to talk about critical issues?”

by Jenna Cushing-Leubner & Alexa LaPatka

“Aren’t some students too young to talk about critical issues?”

This is a question that is often asked – by colleagues, by teacher-students in my graduate classes, by my family and friends back home who are not educational researchers, but are very interested in the creation of school settings that awaken and keep alive the vibrance, inquisitiveness, and commitment to equity expressed by nearly any young child.

The question came up repeatedly, in fact, in my recent language teaching methods class for developing speaking and listening skills. As we discussed thinking beyond communicative language classrooms to thinking about critical pedagogy as the way towards increasing investment and interaction in language classes, I gave several examples of high school students in a local Spanish for Native Speakers program where youth develop a breadth and depth of linguistic repertoires (oral and written) while engaging in critical civic inquiry, youth-led participatory action research, and interrogations of the lack of representation of Latina/os in their school learning and of problematic media representations of Latina/os.


In the midst of the conversation, I noticed a number of high school world language and English language teachers nodding, piping in with questions and ideas, and thoughtfully taking notes.  But many of the elementary teachers were noticeably quiet.  Finally, one of them asked point-blank:  “Yeah, but what are the critical topics for young kids?  I just don’t see how this would work.”  Pausing, I thought about my own limited experience teaching elementary-aged students – mostly fifth graders.  They had been keenly in tune with questions of equity and distribution, for example, what could we do with that?  Another teacher raised her hand: “But I work with first and second graders. This is expecting a lot of political knowledge for a child.”  In the moment, I was stumped.  What about bullying? I suggested.  Or what’s in the school lunch, who chooses the menu, where does the food come from?

This question came up again and again across the semester.  And again I would repeat the same increasingly stale examples: Bullying? Lunch?

“Critical pedagogy in ESL maintains that both language learning and language teaching are political processes, and it sees language as not simply a means of expression or communication but as a practice that constructs, and is constructed by, the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future.” (Okazaki, 2005)

Critical pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008) and culturally responsive/sustaining teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris, 2012) are fundamental to interrupting and reversing the oppressive and restrictive effects of schooling experiences that disrupt the full recognition of a child’s multidimensional humanity and ongoing growth.  Both of these require teachers and students to engage in political awareness and consciousness building.  If we are to believe that there is an age threshold for political consciousness, then we are also saying that the reversal of oppressive and restrictive realities that critical pedagogy and culturally responsive/sustaining teaching represent is, in fact, not for everybody, and not something we should expect and demand of all of our schools, our teachers, and ourselves.  Still, I was troubled.  What was reasonable to expect from young children?

Then, one evening, towards the end of the semester, I got an email from one of my teacher-students, Alexa. “My third graders started talking about accents today. It was so spontaneous and interesting, I thought I’d record it. Listen to what they had to say! What do you think?”  [The partial transcript of their conversation is below]

The conversation is uploaded here.

Out of the mouths of babes – Alexa’s classroom story:

Last year I was teaching Academic Language Development (what the school called ELL) at an urban charter school. I taught several intervention-style groups throughout the day, and one group I taught was a group of high level (4-5 on the WIDA scale) 3rd graders. Each day, we started this group with a “question of the day.” It started out as me picking a question to ask students to warm-up and get ready for class, such as “What is your favorite color.” Over time it morphed into the students picking their own questions. For example, each day I would pick a stick with a name on it, and that student would get to pick the question for each one of them to answer. The questions were usually along the lines of favorites, such as “What is your favorite movie?” or “Who is your favorite character on _________ (insert Disney program here).” One day toward the end of the school year, they were taking turns answering the question when they started talking about accents. I honestly don’t remember what the question was, but while answering, one student quipped “Well, accents don’t really matter.” I immediately stopped the student and asked them and the others if they would mind if I recorded their conversation, because I had a feeling that whatever they were about to say was going to be great. They said yes, and proceeded to confirm that feeling:

“If you say you’re going to use an African voice or American (voice), it’s still the same thing.”

“It doesn’t really matter what kind of voice you have.”

“If you have an African accent and you want to speak American will you like, still be talking African but you’re talking English at the same time?”

“Some people, they don’t know American language so they speak another one but sometimes you still learn, but any way you say it….it’s still the same voice you have. Nothing changes.”

Needless to say, I was blown away by their insightfulness and wisdom. I knew my students were bright and special, but I had no idea they had this depth of knowledge. These five 9 year-olds self-created a conversation more insightful than most I have had with my colleagues and peers. If they were capable of this unprovoked conversation on something as abstract as language, what else were they capable of?

 After this conversation happened, I remember just sitting there in awe of what I had just heard. We were in the middle of a month-long unit on summary writing, but I could not bring myself to get to the planned material. I just had to explore this topic a little while longer. We talked for the remaining half hour of class about language and their views on it. Then, after class I immediately sent the audio clip to Jenna, hoping she would be as excited about it as I was. Luckily, this all went down on the one day a week I had class with her. I went to class hoping she had heard it and would at least mention it to me and confirm its greatness. I was not disappointed. Not only had she listened to it, but she asked me if she could play it to the class. We ended up listening to the clip multiple times, spending at least an hour of the class dissecting it and discussing it. I do not remember much of what my peers said, I just remember wanting to do more. I was so proud of the ideas my students shared, and I knew they were capable of more.

I had been planning on writing my final research paper (which was due in less than a month) on student interaction, but I kept thinking how this could be something so much more. Thankfully, Jenna agreed, and with less than a month left I switched my project to further exploring students’ views on language. Over the course of the next few weeks, I drafted questions and conducted individual and group interviews among the same group of students. Again, my students blew me away with their insights. When it was all done, I remember thinking “Man, I wish I would have done that in September.” To think of all the student-initiated instruction that could have driven!

Listening for social justice

Alexa’s story suggests what is possible when we set aside the institutional and curricular constraints increasingly placed on language and literacy development classes in schools.  In a two-minute conversation unstructured by academic language and word banks, her 8- and 9-year old students tackled (among other things):

  • the importance of home/heritage language maintenance
  • the role of English in the U.S. as a language of dominance and power
  • processes of assimilation
  • linguistic imperialism and the use of language as a tool for colonization
  • ways identities can be multiple, hybrid, and essentialized
  • linguistic privileging and dynamic multilingualism

These topics are often far more likely to be taken up with high school students and college-aged/adult learners than with elementary-aged youth.  And while this is important – even imperative – for older youth, we argue that waiting until young adulthood is far too late to allow youth to talk about, make sense of, learn from invested adults and friends, and co-construct knowledge and expertise around issues that are critical, political, and both well-known and deeply important to them.  The question “but can/should we be talking about this with young kids?” sometimes comes from a desire to protect an imagined childhood innocence, sometimes from a limit in our expectations of a young child’s organic intellectualism.  However, young children have access to funds of knowledge and funds of sometimes “difficult” knowledge (Becker, 2014; Marshall & Toohey, 2010) that enable them to intellectualize about complex topics.  Sometimes it is the adults / teachers who are uncomfortable with drawing on these topics to integrate into learning and instruction.

We challenge each of us to ask of our teaching and learning:

What does it mean to listen for these complex issues and create responsive, student-driven, language-rich learning that draws on truly high-level thinking and language use?

What is possible in a communicative language classroom that is structured around critical language awareness, political consciousness, community-strengths and expertise, even collective engagement in transformational actions with and in students’ own communities (including their classrooms and schools)?



Becker, A. (2014). Funds of (difficult) knowledge and the affordances of multimodality: The case of Victor. Journal of Language & Literacy Education, 10(2), 18-33.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang.

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.Marshall & Toohey, 2010

Okazaki, T. (2005). Critical consciousness and critical language teaching. Second Language Studies, 23(2), 174-202.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy a needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.



Jenna Cushing-Leubner is a PhD candidate in Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota.  For the last three years, she has been working with teachers and Latin@ high school students to develop Spanish for Native Speakers/Heritage Learners classes that use critical civic inquiry, ethnic studies content, arts-based pedagogies, and youth research to support home language retrieval, maintenance, and acquisition, and to forge multilingual spaces in otherwise predominantly English-speaking schools.


Alexa LaPatka teaches English learners at Whittier International School in Minneapolis. She has taught elementary and middle school students in urban Minnesota for two years. She received her M.Ed. in English as a Second Language from the University of Minnesota after receiving a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Studies from the College of Saint Benedict.

2015 in review

Thank you dear readers for your interest and engagement with the Reclaiming the Language for Social Justice blog in the first year of its existence.

WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for my blog.  Check it.  You might be highlighted below.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 17,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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