Academic journal article Social Education

Behind the Mask: Social Studies Concepts and English Language Learners

Academic journal article Social Education

Behind the Mask: Social Studies Concepts and English Language Learners

Article excerpt

I climbed onto the airplane a competent and articulate adult. I climbed off the plane with the language skills of a two year old. Despite classes and tutoring, tapes and books, I couldn't understand what people said to me. Whenever I opened my mouth, the looks I got suggested I was from another planet.

As I write, I am an immigrant of sorts. More exactly, I'm a foreigner, nearing the end of a six-month sabbatical in France trying to understand the meaning of the civic concepts that dominate here. In other words, I'm trying to form social studies concepts in a situation where I must rely heavily on a language I have yet to master. I've engaged in a self study, observing myself closely in this situation and am surprised at how I am coping and at what I am learning and not learning) I am surprised at how rarely the evaluations others make of me match my reality. This process has caused me to think more deeply about the challenges faced by English language learners (ELLs) and their teachers when difficult social studies concepts are being addressed.

I write of my own experience being very aware that I'm hardly typical of the many ELLs occupying social studies classrooms across the United States. I also know that the experience of English language learners varies dramatically. I don't mean to suggest that my experience can stand for that of our students. My purpose is to provoke thought by suggesting that ELLs face particular challenges and that our attempts to assist them can benefit the conceptual understanding of English-only students as well.

Social studies educators are constantly teaching concepts. From culturally universal concepts in the early grades to highly contested concepts such as "democracy" in later grades, good social studies instruction often centers on helping students form key concepts. (2) And as anyone who has spent time in twenty-first century social studies classrooms knows, immigrant and English language learners struggle mightily with learning these concepts. If forming key concepts such as civil rights, liberty, and representative government, is critical to social justice and to assisting all Americans in becoming full citizens (and I believe it is), then we must attend to the particular challenges immigrant and English language learners face.

In this article, I begin with the challenges I face as someone foreign to a country and a language when trying to learn particular civics concepts. I then note strategies I found myself using to mask my general lack of comprehension, followed by suggestions for what educators might do in their classrooms.


The language. The most obvious impediment I experience in learning French civic concepts is the language. As I gain skill and expertise in understanding and speaking French, these issues diminish, but they do not go away. If I am rested and calm, the speaker doesn't speak too quickly, and avoids pronouns, idioms, and contractions (French equivalents of "gonna"), I can follow and understand a lot. If the speaker writes key words or uses gestures, my comprehension increases dramatically. While I can speak fluently at times, I don't yet think in French. I quickly translate in my head. If the words fly past too quickly, I am unable to translate the first idea before the second idea appears. I get lost, not because I am not paying attention, but because my language skills do not allow me to keep up. The less I understand, the more anxious I become. The more anxious I am, the more difficulty I have concentrating and the less I understand.

Vocabulary and word order are especially difficult for me. Context clues help me with vocabulary, but if I don't know the word, the context often suggests more than one meaning. One key word that I don't know can change the meaning completely (e.g., "therefore" versus "in contrast"). Word order changes meaning as well. For example, English speakers say, "I'll call you" and that has a very different meaning from "You call me. …

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