Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

"Words That You Said Got Bigger": English Language Learners' Lived Experiences of Deficit Discourse

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

"Words That You Said Got Bigger": English Language Learners' Lived Experiences of Deficit Discourse

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the past few decades, educational outcomes for English Language Learners (ELLs) have been the focus of a great deal of educational research and public debate. These students currently comprise more than 20% of the US K-12 student population, and this number is expected to continue to grow in com- ing decades (Kanno & Harklau, 2012). Research has found disparate outcomes for ELLs on a number of measures, including performance on state reading and math tests, participation in honors and college-preparatory classes, and enrollment in postsecondary education (Callahan, 2005; Kanno & Varghese, 2010). Conversations about the academic "achievement gap" for ELLs have been taken up not only in educational scholarship, but also in public media ven- ues such as ABC News (Costantini, 2012) and Time Magazine (Webley, 2011). Many articles in Research in the Teaching of English have noted that discussions of academic outcomes for ELLs tend to be underwritten by deficit-oriented discourse (e.g., Crumpler et al., 2011; Gutiérrez & Orellana, 2006). Differences in language, culture, race, and nation of origin are often conceived of as educational obstacles, rather than resources (Crumpler et al., 2011; Grainger & Jones, 2013). This ideol- ogy is reflected in educational practices that tend to reify White, monolingual, US- born students as the norm and present ELL students as the "other." One example of this "othering" effect is the label Limited English Proficient, still used widely in government discourse, which simultaneously essentializes ELLs as linguistically deficient and disregards their proficiencies in languages other than English. This deficit ideology is perpetuated as well through educational policies that focus on "fixing" students' linguistic limitations, rather than on building their linguistic repertoires (Menken & Kleyn, 2010). Gutiérrez and Orellana (2006) have claimed that the construction of ELLs as a "problem" is so pervasive that it is an expected genre feature for ELL-focused literacy research.

Deficit discourse is particularly common in educational literature focusing on ELLs at the secondary level (Harklau, 1999; Reeves, 2004). Not only are these students' non-English linguistic resources ignored, but low English language proficiency is often seen as the sole cause of the "achievement gap." As Mitchell (2013) explains, "there is no story about race" (p. 345) in most of this literature, despite the fact that most ELLs are students of color. Socioeconomic background is similarly underemphasized, even though a high proportion of ELLs qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs (Kanno & Varghese, 2010). The typical narrative about academic success for adolescent ELLs is that "English is ALL that matters" (Mitchell, 2013, p. 354; see also Mitchell, 2012).

This overemphasis on language has a major impact on schooling practices, since full proficiency in English is assumed to be a prerequisite for accessing rigorous academic content. At many high schools, therefore, ELLs spend much of their day in separate academic tracks, where the primary focus is linguistic remediation and not the learning of grade-level content-an approach Valdés (2001) calls "linguistic isolation." Because these students are denied access to a more comprehensive and challenging literacy curriculum, they tend to stagnate academically and linguistically (Callahan, 2005). Even "sheltered" courses, which are supposed to teach content and language simultaneously, tend to be lacking in rigor and can be socially stigmatizing (Callahan, 2005; Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2003). As scholars such as Fritzen (2011) have noted, an isolationist approach to ELL instruction is prevalent not only because of misunderstandings about what these students need, but also because this approach "shelters" mainstream teachers from having to accommodate a more linguistically and culturally diverse student population. …

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