Courtney Langton

Courtney is an aspiring high school teacher. Her teachables are History and English, but she's happy to teach anything that doesn't involve numbers or formulas. Her particular interest is in promoting gender equity and anti-oppression both in and outside the classroom. She writes a detailed To-Do list every morning, and enjoys nothing more than a good book and a plate of bacon on a rainy Saturday.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan's primary interest is moral education. His teachable subjects are English and Music. He encourages critical thinking and hopes to teach his students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way. He likes making analogies and his favourite is one that compares life to jumping on a trampoline.

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The ESL (ELL) Question
Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'm not sure exactly when ESL got its abbreviation changed to ELL (English Language Learners for those of you who, like me, were late to receive this memo). I remember being told something about ESL being politically incorrect because it presupposes that ESL students only have one primary language before English... even though "English as a Secondary Language" actually doesn't presuppose anything of the sort. As far as I know, you can have a whole plethora of languages that are secondary as long as they're not primary. Or maybe it was actually "English as a Second Language" and that presupposition really was there. In which case, we could have just added the "dary" and it would have worked out without changing the abbreviation. Cue obligatory How I Met Your Mother reference.


No, what I really wanted to talk about was the question of ESL (as I shall continue to refer to it, having proved that it's not really politically incorrect). Or at least, some of the thoughts I've been having about it.

You see, I've been reading one of the books for prof 191. "A Letter to Teachers," not to be confused with "Letters to a Young Teacher" (I think they deliberately did this to test our literacy). The author, Vito Peronne, sounds like he'd get along with Alfie Kohn. They're both ultra-progressive educators who are proponents of grand ideals regarding how education should be. But he mentioned something about other cultures that ties into the whole ESL question.

"There is an enormous shortage of bilingual teachers able to meet constructively the growing numbers of non-English-speaking children in the schools. 'English only' is not an acceptable answer. Support for diverse languages is absolutely essential. Otherwise, we place severe limits on more generations of young men and women."

I haven't yet actually had the experience of being an ESL teacher. And when I do, I don't know how I will feel about the whole issue. On the way hand, it's not like I want to stifle diversity. And I do have a great deal of respect for people who are fluent in more than one language. I often wish I myself were fluent in more than one language (no, I am not deluded enough to consider my Mandarin "fluent"). So to that effect, I do understand where Peronne is going with it.

At the same time, I remember sitting in on an ESL class back in high school during my spare. And I could not help thinking to myself how terrible it must be to be Ms. Brooke, who was also my own grade 12 English teacher (and a great one at that). I don't know if I'd still feel that way now, but that is definitely how I felt back then. Because I realized what was happening was that most of the students were making extremely slow progress; and the REASON for this was because ESL class (and other classes taught in English) was the ONLY time they would ever use English. They wouldn't use it at home, they don't watch English television, all their friends speak the same first language as them. There were 1 or 2 exceptions who had friends that spoke English; their proficiency with the language got so much better simply based on that fact alone. And to me, that has always demonstrated that in order to learn any language, you have to use it, not just in the context of a classroom, but in your daily life as well.

Here's the thing. As an ESL teacher in Canada, your job is to help your students become proficient in English. You can talk all you want about diversity but in the end, this is an English speaking country. And there are students who are simply not proficient enough at English to pass a basic, grade 10 literacy test. When I say "English Only," even if I were teaching a History class or a Civics class, it won't be because I want to stifle their culture, it'll be because they don't need practice with their native language. But they need to practice their English if they are going to live in an English-speaking country. And yes Peronne, the ministry of education sometimes has some crazy, militant policies about what students should or should not know, but basic literacy in English is not unreasonable.

Celebrating diversity is good. But I think there is a risk of forgetting that there's a reason why students are not celebrating their own culture in the country from which their culture originates. If they're here in Canada, part of the education system requires them to be proficient in English (and French to an extent!). It is, as they say, part of the deal when you choose to study here. And as an English teacher, I have already accepted the fact that many of my ESL students will make no effort to improve their English outside the classroom. The least they can do is make the effort within it.

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Jonathan posted at 8:27 PM - Comments (3)


The secondary school I attended has a very high population of ESL (or I guess ELL) students. For the most part I would say that a good chunk of those students took longer to get through secondary school than your average student. From what I observed, many ESL teachers focused on preparing the students for the Literacy test and TOEFL. It probably would be more beneficial to encourage the students to focus on using English in their every day life (perhaps come up with some creative projects that get them using English in social situations). I know some students who have managed to make it through university preparation courses (with lower marks than they would have had if they understood English) simply because they can understand numbers. I agree, these students should be encouraged to use English in their every day life. How else will they gain success in this country?

My host school this year actually has a very high percentage of ESL students, so learning how to encourage them and communicate with them might be very useful.

By Blogger Ashley, at August 13, 2009 at 11:58 PM  

I hope so. Because if Vito Peronne walks into my ESL class and says "We need to support diverse languages!" while waving his arms, I am going to be highly annoyed.

I might be hyper-paranoid about left winged "-isms" fragmenting education but that's a post for another day. I haven't quite figured out if that's just me being crazy or something to actually worry about.

By Blogger Jonathan, at August 14, 2009 at 12:16 AM  

I enjoy the fact that in your world, annoying people wave their arms around.

By Blogger Courtney, at August 14, 2009 at 8:31 AM  

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