Did You Know You're an English Learner?
Dr. Maneka Brooks, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, distinctly remembers the day when she was teaching high school and one of her students threw his English proficiency evaluation on the floor in frustration, asserting that he knew English. Although he self-identified as an English speaker, he was one of many students who were classified by their schools as English Learners (ELs) and required to take an annual English proficiency exam. This moment made Brooks recall another student she had taught as a longterm substitute who, despite speaking English, was placed in an English as a Second Language classroom. Brooks was troubled by the phenomenon of students who clearly spoke English being classified as ELs, and this sense of injustice sparked her interest in pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Linguistics.
Since that time, Brooks’ body of research has focused on English proficiency and understanding the EL classification in schools. Through her research, she has noticed that most of the perspectives being examined are those of the adults making decisions around English proficiency exams rather than of the students who are being tested. This thought led to her latest research project “Always an ‘English Learner’: Learning from the Veterans of EL Educational Systems,” which earned her the prestigious two-year, $70,000 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Brooks is now one year into the project and already expanding on her research question. In total, she has interviewed 40 high school students in two districts who have been in the English Learner classification for at least six years (though most of them have carried the label since kindergarten or first grade). This population of students is commonly referred to as long-term English Learners. While she initially embarked on the project hoping to understand what students know about the proficiency criteria and what’s expected of them, she has now learned that many of the students in her sample were not even aware that they were classified as English Learners.
How is this possible? Primarily, it is a matter of identity. Like the students Brooks encountered as a high school teacher, many teenagers who have spoken English all their lives may see themselves as English speakers or bilingual individuals, but not English Learners or emerging bilinguals. Several of the students in the study assumed that the label had been removed when they transitioned from a bilingual elementary classroom to an English-only middle-school classroom.
Also, Brooks says, there is no explicit mandate that schools talk to students about the fact that they are identified as “English Learners”. There is only a requirement to notify their guardians about their classification, and there is no guarantee that that information will be shared with students. Additionally, high school students are already so inundated with mandatory testing that Brooks says it is easy to conflate an English proficiency exam with an English Language Arts content area exam. For this reason, many of the students she interviewed did not realize that their English proficiency was being assessed annually.
The English Learner classification seems to be distinct in its mystery. Brooks says a handful of students she interviewed also had Special Education classifications that they understood much more clearly than the language classification. In those situations, students were able to articulate their diagnoses, as well as the plans the school had put in place for them and what accommodations their teachers were supposed to provide to them. However, they could not express the accommodations that come with the English Learner label in the same way.
These preliminary results, Brooks says, demonstrate the beauty of qualitative research. Now that she knows her initial research question was one step ahead of the question she needs to be asking, she wants to redirect her study’s focus to investigate how to talk to adolescents who have been classified as English Learners since early elementary school about their official English language acquisition status. These types of conversations are important for educational equity because students’ ongoing classification as ELs can be at odds with their individual linguistic identities as speakers of English. Moreover, this population needs access to information about the impact of their enduring classification on the courses in which they are placed and how educators and other school-affiliated adults may understand their linguistic abilities.
In order to better understand how these conversations about EL status should take place, Brooks’ next steps include three new populations: 1) adults who were classified as ELs and felt frustrated with that classification, 2) parents who see their children as English-speaking despite their EL classification, and 3) seventh-grade EL students who in a few years will transition into a high school environment. In the end, Brooks says that her research is about “creating spaces for teenagers to have an active role in educational decision-making. They have unique knowledge of their own experiences that should be recognized and valued.” She is grateful for the partnerships she has forged with local school districts and hopes that her research will be used to continue to support efforts in creating equitable educational opportunities for high school ELs. •