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What's in a Name? A Lot When it Comes to Reclassifying ELLs

null • Sep 14, 2022 1:12:47 PM • Written by: Nicole Service


If you're an emergent bilingual student—or English Language Learner—you're either in or out when it comes to ELL classification.


The only institutionally recognized measure of “success” for an ELL is whether or not they are reclassified, or test out from the label of ELL to "English-proficient." 


Ilana Umansky of the University of Oregon’s College of Education, argues that often ELLs on the cusp of testing out and those who have only just been deemed English-proficient are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Yet, students who remain in ELL programs score significantly lower in math and language.


This binary classification system, or the idea of who is or is not an ELL, is a double-edged sword.


The label of English Language Learner holds a lot of weight in both its social connotations, and structurally, in how ELLs and their English-proficient counterparts are viewed in terms of resource allocation and pedagogical methods.


The conversation around ELL classification is heated. Some believe that the label of ELL can hold academic benefits for students in both language and mathematics who are on the cusp of English proficiency, such as:


  1. 1. 
  2. Being labeled as an ELL causes students to feel a deficit in their knowledge base, and provides a concrete goal, argues Nami Shin in her study for CRESST. This deficit-based thinking can motivate students to strive to remove the label, and to be deemed English-proficient.
  4. 2. 
    Access to special services.
  5. Once ELLs are reclassified, they no longer have access to the same care and attention that they did previously. They might get lost in the shuffle, since there is no category of support for ELLs who are just on the other side of English proficiency. This shedding of resources can have deleterious effects on their academic performance. 

But the contrary, flip-side of this argument also appears to hold weight, perhaps with more overwhelming evidence. (In fact, some students and educators are pushing to drastically alter or get rid of the label altogether.)  Why?


  1. 1. Students who test out report higher Social-Emotional well-being.
  2. Newly English-proficient students who tested out of ELL programs claimed to feel higher levels of academic self-efficacy, an important facet of Social-Emotional Learning, versus their peers who had not yet shed the label of ELL.
  4. 2. Demotivation.
  5. Though some students might become galvanized to transcend their ELL label, the inverse can be just as true. The label of ELL automatically sets students apart from their peers, and can cause them to feel as if they are somehow lesser, or deficient. This can precipitate a dip in academic performance and a rise in feelings of hopelessness.
  7. 3. Less rigorous coursework.
  8. Often ELLs are tasked with less academically rigorous coursework than their peers, which can further their sense of alienation and separateness, as well as keep them behind in academic achievement.
  10. 4. Siloing.
  11. Many schools struggle to find the funding, resources, and training to implement sheltered, scaffolded support in the Tier 1 classroom, instead removing emergent bilingual and multilingual students from their core classes and non-ELL peers into education “silos,” an ugly term for an alienating and, ultimately, less-effective learning environment. Taking an asset-based approach to linguistic and cultural diversity in the primary classroom benefits all students by making sure their unique skills and contributions remain part of the core classroom culture.
  13. 5. Lowered expectations.
  14. Just as the ELL label can lower student self-esteem, it has also been shown to unconsciously lower educator and peer expectations in some cases. This can inadvertently cause schools or classrooms to lose focus on their emergent bilingual students, creating a culture that pre-supposes lowered academic performance. 

Though it is important that ELLs receive equitable support, the way that support is implemented and the connotations around the label of ELL have a massive effect on the well-being and academic performance of emergent bilingual students. It’s time to rethink how we talk about and teach our emergent bilinguals! 


Nicole Service