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The Scarlet Letters, Part II

By Tim Sheu
The Scarlet Letters, Part II

How teachers can tackle the stigma of ESL
Many English language learners (ELLs) and their parents in international school communities resist receiving ESL support because of the stigma associated with it. This issue can be addressed at the administrative level, as discussed in the previous article. Additionally, core subject teachers and language specialists can also play an essential role in tackling the problem by dispelling misconceptions about language acquisition, maintaining effective communication, managing parental expectations, and enabling ELLs to feel highly valued in the learning community.
What’s in a Name?
If the label “ESL” carries a stigma, why not change or remove it? In my experience, changing a name does not offer a quick and easy solution, but doing so can help clarify the purpose of and clear misconceptions about the program. For instance, at Taipei American School (TAS), we realized several years ago that the term “ESL” had become a misnomer for a diverse student body with very disparate educational, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. It was particularly troubling for Third Culture Kids because most of them were quite fluent in social English, and the idea of learning English as a “second language” seemed to directly conflict with their self-identities.
Thus, after reevaluating the focus and function of our program, we renamed it from ESL to English as an Academic Language (EAL), and the title of the courses from ESL Core to Sheltered English and Sheltered History. This helped us to more clearly and specifically convey our role in providing students with the academic language instruction and scaffolding they need to access equal mainstream curriculum and content. Overall, the new program and course names were well-received by the parents, but our work did not simply end there. We dedicated a lot of time and energy to communicating our program philosophy, including the distinction between social and academic English, and how fluency in the first does not imply mastery in the latter.
Foster Parent Communication and Trust
Parent perception also has a direct impact on children’s attitude and self-esteem. Many parents often make negative and false assumptions about language support, and the most effective way to dispel their misconceptions is to initiate and maintain an open, transparent, and constructive dialogue through a combination of face-to-face meetings, formal presentations, parent workshops, written comments, and progress reports.
At TAS, this process begins from the second week of school and lasts throughout the school year. Parents are updated on their children’s progress at least twice each quarter to help them maintain a realistic set of expectations. Once we have gained their trust and understanding, parents began to view us as advocates for their children, not gatekeepers. Consequently, not only have the parent survey ratings dramatically improved in recent years, but also some of the parents who initially displayed the most doubt and resistance toward our program later expressed the most gratitude and became our staunchest supporters.
Assess Your Assessments
The social stigma associated with ELLs sometimes stems from the false notion that they are not as intelligent or as capable as their mainstream counterparts because they underperform on assessments. In many cases, however, the real reason many ELLs struggle on tests is that they lack the academic language proficiency to decode the questions and to clearly articulate complex and abstract ideas in written form.
To address this, teachers must first examine whether the assessments that they give truly measure what they intend to measure. In other words, is this test evaluating content knowledge or language skills, or both? If academic language functions and skills are required to successfully answer content-specific questions on a test, then classroom and EAL teachers must collaborate to ensure that both are taught.
Dr. Virgina Rojas, leading expert and consultant on ELL instruction, offers a balanced solution: “When mainstream and EAL teachers collaborate on preparing English learners for tests or for performance assessment tasks, it seems more than reasonable that the EAL teacher would focus on developing the academic language necessary to comprehend and complete the task while the classroom teacher focuses on supporting learners’ concept attainment. In the past, the practice has often been to simplify the language of the tests and tasks for English learners, but I think we need to ‘teach up’ by scaffolding the academic language needed.”
Celebrate Multiculturalism and Multilingualism
It is common to see brilliant ELLs marginalized because of their linguistic and cultural differences. Stigma is about having lower status and the feeling of inferiority; therefore, if teachers can provide opportunities for ELLs to demonstrate their strengths, then the stigma will gradually fade. Whether it is a multicultural selection of novels or a classroom activity that requires different skillsets, there are myriad ways that teachers can acknowledge and celebrate the linguistic and cultural richness that students bring to the classroom. The key is in finding channels and opportunities for each student to shine and building a learning environment that is integrative and inclusive for all students.
Be Positive and Encouraging
Finally, teachers must always remember to encourage their students and serve as their champion. This is absolutely critical. By validating who they are and enabling them to envision their potential, teachers can help English learners to recognize their self-worth and to understand that being multicultural and multilingual is an asset valued in the school community. The only shame is to have shame.

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