Power of Words: Deficit Discourse and ELLs

As an educator and a linguist, I’m no stranger to the power of words and the hidden social and political dynamics encoded in language use.  In my recent work with both preservice teachers (at the university level) and in-service teachers (working in public schools), I’ve been doing a lot of listening as they talk to me about their experiences with ELLs, and what can be done to grow more effective in their practices.

While the overwhelming majority of teachers have their multilingual students’ best interests at heart, I still notice many instances of deficit discourse—expressions or terms that focus on the resources or skills that ELLs lack, rather than bring, to school. Phrases such as “language barrier” or “achievement gap” imply physical obstacles between students and teachers or students and their peers that exist because of language. Other phrases, such as “limited proficiency,” “no skills,” or “no prior knowledge” allude to the idea that if a student doesn’t have proficiency in English, then he or she doesn’t have proficiency in anything else.  Finally, the term “mainstream” can mask the process of assimilation, wherein ELLs are channeled into the dominant culture as soon as possible via public schools at the expense of their own cultural funds of knowledge.

Why does our choice of words matter?

First, labels and policies that orient ELLs as “problems” to be handled or dealt with can promote academic and social segregation among diverse learners (Shapiro, 2014).  When ELLs spend most of their time in classes that focus on remediation rather than rich academic content, “linguistic isolation” occurs (Valdés, 2001).  Two recent studies—one on elementary students and one on secondary students—found that,  in addition to hurting ELLs’ academic progress, the stress caused by discrimination had serious effects on on ELLs’ mental health and personal development.

Second, when teachers talk about students who have “no skills” or “no language” or “no phonemic awareness,” they are presenting a rather absolute situation that seems insurmountable—very few educators are qualified to work with students who come to school with “no language” or “no skills,” and may be reluctant to do so.  Luckily, there are even fewer, if any, children, who actually fit that description, but negative teacher discourse can promote the (inaccurate) idea that ELLs come to classrooms bereft of literacy, parent involvement, life skills, or background knowledge.

What can TESOL educators  do to reduce deficit discourse?

One step in becoming an advocate for ELLs is to be mindful of the discourse that we use when talking to and about our students.  Below is a list of deficit terms that I have heard, followed by a suggested substitute that promotes a more additive, or positive, perspective toward ELLs.

Instead of this… Try this…
“No language” “emerging English” or “emerging bilingual”
“language barrier” “language difference”
“illiterate” “preliterate”
“limited English” “learning English” or “developing English”
“no skills” “new skills”
“assimilation” “acculturation”
“achievement gap” “test score difference”
“no phonemic awareness” “different phonemic awareness”
“no prior knowledge” “funds of knowledge”
“low proficiency” “developing proficiency”
“mainstream classroom” “grade-level classroom” or “content-area classroom”

TESOL educators are often the greatest advocates for ELLs, and we can promote positive attitudes toward our students with the words that we ourselves use.  Just as deficit terms have power, so do positive terms!

Are there other deficit terms that you have heard?  Please share your suggestions for positive variations on those in the comments.


Shapiro, S. (2014). Words that you said got bigger: English language learners’ lived experiences of deficit discourse. Research in the Teaching of English48(4), 386–406.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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4 Responses to Power of Words: Deficit Discourse and ELLs

  1. And many students have emerging MULTIlingual skills. Children come to school with all kinds of wonderful linguistic (and other) knowledge that we can draw upon. I’m always surprised by how much deficit discourse still exists in school documents, policies, and conversations. Thanks for a great post!

  2. BC says:

    Thanks for the resources and information! I’m a rather encouraging person and love to motivate all my students. Labels certainly are risky and cause problems for teachers and students. Some melancholy personalities focus on the negatives of a situation and need encouragement to change. We can empower students to keep learning. Having high expectations makes a difference!

  3. Kevin Knight Kevin Knight says:

    Hi Kristen,

    Thanks for focusing on discourse!

    From an ESP perspective, I wanted to add “Discourses of Deficit” (2010) (Editors: C. Candlin, & J. Crichton) to your references. http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/?sf1=id_product&st1=388354

    All the best,


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