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Unfortunate Acronyms?

A Spotsylvania teacher recommends an inclusive way to think about students with different cultural backgrounds.

By Bruce Newcomer 

Several years ago, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL). Today, I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Nothing really changed: Not my department or school system, and very little in the curriculum. So why the name change? Our school system, like many others, decided to use a more politically correct term. ESOL is considered to be more accurate since many of my students learned English as their first language. However, because their parents were not fluent English speakers, these children grew up without true speaking models and came to school with limited English skills. So, because English was actually their first language, they didn’t qualify for  services as an English as a Second Language student.

Thus ESL became ESOL. Now, if a bilingual student needs support, it’s available without debate, whether English was the first or second language learned. It doesn’t matter if a school calls its program ESL or ESOL; both acronyms are used when referring to the program, the teacher, the class or the materials. However, a different acronym is used for individual students: LEP (limited English proficient). I don’t care too much for this acronym, due to the first word, limited. Limited language skills do not mean limited thinking skills or limited ability, yet these perceptions often follow a student who is labeled LEP.

Several years ago, some educators began using ELL (English Language Learners) in place of ESOL and, by some, in place of LEP. (While both the federal and state government use ELL in some of their more recent postings, LEP can be found still in many of their published and posted works.) This sounds simple enough, right? One term is used and not two.  ELL replaces ESL and ESOL, which were so similar that many people never understood the difference between the two. (“Why was an O added to English as a Second Language?”) Also, it’s used in place of LEP, eliminating the troublesome word “limited.” Simple, straightforward, and everyone should be happy.  Unfortunately, I’m not.

Here’s the issue: All these acronyms (ESL, ESOL, ELL and LEP) are about the English language. Sure, it makes sense that fostering students’ English language skills will lead to better academic success and, as an ESOL teacher, it’s my job to help students become more proficient speakers, listeners, readers and writers of English. However, many of my ELL students come to school with not only issues of language development, but much more: some are sick or homeless, others have started puberty, some worry over a parent losing a job or a family member in the hospital, and others did not have breakfast before leaving the house for school. They’re just regular kids.

Not to dismiss their language issues, but knowing what some of these students are experiencing, I can attribute a student’s test performance more to the fact that his family is now moving for the fifth time this year than to the fact that the parents only speak Spanish at home and cannot offer homework assistance. 

Just as the limited part of LEP can have negative effects on how teachers perceive students, I believe the same is true with the English part of the various acronyms mentioned earlier. A lot of teachers automatically assume that any academic problems experienced by a bilingual student are related to language. Almost every teacher has students who experience hunger, divorce, bullying, poverty, loss or anxiety. Teachers understand the impact of these issues; many, though, forget that LEP students experience them as well. When a bilingual student begins to experience academic issues, these teachers often ask if I will consider increasing ESOL services or moving a student back from being monitored to actively receiving such services. I am regularly asked to reassess a student who was initially assessed and found not to be in need of ESOL services. As an ESOL teacher, I will consider all of these options. Classroom teachers, though, should explore other options as well, especially when a student experiences trauma, anxiety or stress.

All this leads, I believe, to the need for one last acronym. There is a term, one I’ve not heard many times since I completed my graduate studies 10 years ago. It’s CLD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse). With this alternate term, language is still a vital component but, importantly, culture has been added. As we know, culture is a very large category, involving language and so much more—family size, socioeconomic status, religion, fashion, manners and etiquette, to name but a few of its components. 

If you’re like me, when you’re introduced to a new abbreviation, your brain reminds you what it stands for, and you may even use the full term instead of the acronym in the beginning (i.e., you’ll say Culturally and Linguistically Diverse and not CLD) while you get used to it. Saying and hearing the word culture will stir up different ideas for everyone. A picture may come to mind of a family with six children; four are completing homework at the kitchen table while the eldest is taking care of the baby. Maybe you picture an 11-year old who is not eating lunch because he’s fasting for Ramadan. Perhaps you consider the digital divide, wherein several of your students do not have Internet access at home and cannot practice the math activities posted on the school’s website. All of these scenarios can easily involve students and parents with varying degrees of English proficiency. Looking at the whole picture, though, it is easier to see that the English language is one part of who the family is—and just one facet which may affect a student’s performance in school.

The abbreviation CLD is now being used by the NEA, the federal government and various states (although they still use LEP and ELL as well). I believe it’s time for the Virginia Department of Education, and all state education departments, to use CLD solely. There will be fewer abbreviations, cutting back on confusion, and the use of this one acronym will bring about needed changes in educators’ mindsets. 

It doesn’t matter to me if you call the program ESOL or ELL. I would prefer however, that you not use the acronym LEP for students. Referring to them as ELL is OK; referring to them as CLD is a lot better, though.

After all, what’s in a name? Everything. While No Child Left Behind dictates that students be the same in many ways, we know that’s just not realistic. Using and thinking about the word culture in our faculty meetings, professional development sessions, parent or faculty newsletters and so on, we’ll become more aware of the cultures of our students. Reflecting on how their cultural environment affects our students is a big step in helping them succeed.

Newcomer, a member of the Spotsylvania Education Association, is a 22-year classroom veteran currently teaching at Harrison Road Elementary School.


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