Why I Refuse to Call My Colleagues “ELL Teachers”

I can hear my grandmother’s voice echoing through her house as she called. “Get your feet off the davenport!” My mother still calls remote controls “clickers.” My siblings and I have found humor in their use of these antiquated terms. In recent years, I’ve found more and more commonality with my grandmother and mother as some of the words in my vocabulary Rolodex are now notably different from the mainstream dialect.

I’m a teacher educator and an applied linguist. Like any progressive linguist, I bristle at those who identify as “grammar snobs,” knowing the colonial and elitist backdrop that such a posture implies. It is because of my deep respect for language evolution and variation, as well as my Midwestern aversion to disruption, that I’ve struggled to voice my dissent on a vernacular change in my field.

My field is the Puff Daddy (Puffy? P. Diddy? Sean Combs?) of education disciplines. We go by many names. In my home state of Minnesota, I earned a teaching license in English as a second language (ESL). In other parts of the country, our field is known by terms such as English as a new language (ENL), English academic language (EAL), English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). While there is potential for healthy debate around the propriety of these terms, one thing is true. They all describe academic disciplines.

The times they are a-changin’, my friends. Immigration to the United States is slowing to a halt and our immigrant communities are growing increasingly cautious. The nation’s public education system is undergoing radical reform initiatives that undermine the rights that English learners in our nation have known since Lau v. Nichols was passed in 1974. It is happening quickly. I see the change in nomenclature in our field as a gateway toward a precarious future. My K–12 applied linguist colleagues no longer refer to themselves as ESL teachers; they now identify as ELL teachers.

ELL stands for English language learner. On one hand, I’m thrilled that the mantra “All teachers are language teachers” appears to have caught on. We’re seeing mainstream teachers taking up the work of integrating academic language objectives into their curriculum and in many schools mainstream teachers are coached by their language expert colleagues (This is what I do with the ELM Project). Three cheers for a community approach to language support! So now to the other hand, and why I cannot bring myself to use the term ELL teacher as a replacement for ESL teacher.

ELL is not a discipline. It identifies a student population. If all teachers are ELL teachers, then what becomes of those who are professionally prepared to teach language through content? I prepare applied linguists. Call them ESL, EAL, ENL, ESOL, or TESOL teachers, but please do not call them ELL teachers. Beyond serving students who are identified as English learners, they are masters at understanding the intricacies of language and translating that understanding in order to make content accessible. Their skillset is the product of an understanding of second language acquisition and linguistics, as well as language teaching methodologies.

While the redundancy of terms like ELL learner and SLIFE student get my goat every time I hear them, neither makes me grit my teeth as much as ELL teacher. This is because district, state, and national policies are being crafted in ways that greatly diminish the role that ESL teachers have in the educational experience of English learners.

I can’t bear to hear another graduate tell me that she has launched into a career that doesn’t value her expertise or that his deep linguistic knowledge was for naught because he is working as a masters-prepared tutor. More importantly, I see the work of ESL teachers as morally imperative as educational opportunity gaps result in stunted socioeconomic mobility for those who have already endured the trauma of displacement.

Those who dedicate their careers to teaching English to our nation’s newcomers know that language and names matter. This is a call to critically analyze how we identify ourselves as professionals in this specialized field. Because of my deep respect for all of you who take up this critical work, I won’t call you ELL teachers. Just keep your feet off the davenport and pass me the clicker.

About Michelle Benegas

Michelle Benegas
Michelle Benegas, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the second language teaching and learning program at Hamline University. Her TEDX Talk titled "Confessions: New Teacher of Newcomers" tells of her early experiences teaching ESL to Minnesota’s newcomer population. She was the 2015 President of Minnesota Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (MinneTESOL). In addition to her work in ESL teacher preparation, she also teaches a course designed to prepare mainstream teachers to meet the needs of English learners. Along with Dr. Ann Mabbott, Benegas is the principal investigator of the ELM (English Learners in the Mainstream) Project, a US Department of Education-funded initiative that seeks to ensure that all teachers are prepared to meet the needs of English learners. Through this work, she promotes a model in which ESL teachers serve as serve as site-based experts and coaches to their mainstream colleagues.
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10 Responses to Why I Refuse to Call My Colleagues “ELL Teachers”

  1. Annabelle says:

    Thank you so much for the sharing! As a pre-service English teacher who’s going back to China after finishing my master’s degree, I’d rather define myself as a ESL or EFl teacher than as an ELL teacher. I always found it weird to call my self a future ELL teacher, and your opinions really helped me find the reason!

  2. Paulina says:

    I have to agree with you!! I often even have a hard time with the use of ENL ( English New Langauge) teacher as to me that terminalogy refers to the program rather than professional.

  3. Adelina Rivera says:

    I’m interested in learning more about the ELM project. This is what our educational systems need.

    • Michelle Benegas Michelle Benegas says:

      Hi Adelina! Thanks for your interest in the English Learners in the Mainstream (ELM) Project. The ELM Project is an initiative to build capacity within schools for ongoing mainstream teacher training by positioning ESL teachers as site-based experts and teacher-coaches. We’re funded through the US Department of Education and all of our materials are free and accessible to the public. Please contact us if you’d like to learn more. We’ll be presenting our work at TESOL if you’ll be there.

  4. Jen Vanek says:

    Food for thought, Michelle. I will definitely reconsider When and how I use ELL. It’s appeal to me has been that it was way better for describing learners than the previous term favored in some ed contexts, Limited English Proficient. I like that it’s less deficit oriented and also leaves room for acknowledging multilingual assists of learners. Point taken about calling out expertise by focusing on what, no who, is being taught. Thanks for writing this.

  5. SPIRIDAKOU RANIA says:

    This position is so insightful supporting the work for all of us who have dedicated our lives teaching ESL /TESOL or any other name you call it but ELL. How we call ourselves and how others call us matters. Thank you.

    • Michelle Benegas Michelle Benegas says:

      I’m glad that it resonated, Spiridakou! Thank you for all that you do for our learners.

  6. Jane Sevald says:

    SLIFE? Please say more. I am in SPPS.

    • Michelle Benegas Michelle Benegas says:

      Hi Jane- SLIFE stands for students with limited or interrupted formal education. Calling learners ‘SLIFE students’ is the equivalent of calling them ‘students with limited or interrupted formal education students’. It is more straightforward to use the term SLIFE as a noun (noun phrase) than to use it as a descriptor.

    • SPIRIDAKOU RANIA says:

      Well, I thought that the argument of ELL defining a student population rather than a discipline is the heart of the problem / issue here. You are so right writing about this, because being called ELL teachers does not reflect the
      expertise or depth of knowledge required to be one. Math or science teachers can be ELL teachers since they teach students who are also language learners, possibly being newcomers to the country. Whereas an ESL /EFL/ TESL/ TEFL/ EAP teacher is responsible to help ELL students learn the language or specific aspects of it, for example academic writing. Collaboration with teachers of different disciplines facilitates language learning regarding methodology and syllabus design, but this should never be a chaotic language experience for learners. I truly believe well qualified, experienced ESL teachers should lead this effort. To be more specific, we are more
      than ELL teachers.