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.