ELLs 101: Debunking 5 Myths About ELLs, and Simple Practices to Reach Them

By Phil Kitchel posted 04-25-2023 06:00 AM


By Lisa Brizendine

It is December in Tara’s first grade classroom, and 6 out of 18 students are English learners (ELLs). Tara reads aloud the story “Too Many Tamales.” Tara would stop at certain times in the story and ask leveled questions. However, one EL, Luis, has not yet spoken during any lessons, although he speaks Spanish and a little English with his peers during recess and lunch. She’s concerned that he may have a learning disability. She thinks Luis may need to be referred to the special education teacher for an evaluation. Is Tara’s hunch correct?

This scenario is commonplace for classrooms across the nation. It is estimated that 10.1 percent (5 million) of public school students in the United States are ELLs (Hussar, B., Zhang, J., Hein, S., Wang, K., Roberts, A., Cui, J., Smith, M., Bullock Mann, F., Barmer, A., and Dilig, R., 2020). Although the student demographics should prompt educators to pursue professional development on teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students (CLDs), many teachers have had little or no training for teaching ELLs (Lucas, Strom, Bratkovich, & Wnuk, 2018; Villegas, SaizdeLaMora, Martin, & Mills, 2018). If student population trends are ignored, teachers will be ill-equipped to serve the largest growing student population.

We can close the gap of knowledge in effectively teaching ELLs by first having an open mind and questioning any previously held notions about CLD students. Furthermore, five prominent falsehoods about educating ELLs will be dispelled and effective strategies gained to address their cultural, linguistic, and academic needs.

Myth #1: Using the first language interferes with an EL’s ability to acquire English.

Fact: ELLs who are literate in their first language (L1) acquire English more quickly than those who are not. ELLs transfer their L1 grammar rules to English. Although some of the transfers may not apply, most of what they know about their L1 has a positive impact on acquiring English. Not only will ELLs acquire English more quickly, they can also retain their cultural identity and home language.


  • Advocate bilingualism by incorporating the EL’s L1 into lessons.

  • Label items and areas in the classroom in both English and the EL’s L1.

  • Provide audio or physical books in both the EL’s L1 and English to read with their families.

Want to know more? Click “Language Acquisition: An Overview.”

Myth #2: Teaching English through explicit grammar lessons is the most effective method.

Fact: Teaching English effectively requires a natural approach and an authentic purpose to acquire it. Have you ever taken a foreign language class? Are you fluent in it? Most of us will say no, which has a lot to do with the method in which it was taught. Rote memorization and repetition are not effective methods for fluency in a second language.


  • Provide the most authentic, real world purposes to use language.

  • Teach in a context-embedded way for comprehensible input.

Myth #3: Since it takes approximately two years for ELLs to acquire social language, ELLs can fully participate in lessons right away.

Fact: Although it takes ELLs two to four years to become proficient in social language, it takes five to seven years to become proficient in academic language. Thus, there is a natural gap between their ability to use social and academic languages.


  • Include both academic and language objectives in lessons.

  • Contextualize and scaffold your lessons.

  • Extend “think time” for ELLs to respond to questions. For ELLs, comprehending and responding to questions is a complex cognitive process.

Want to know more? Click “What Is the Difference Between Social and Academic English?”

Myth #4: An EL will assimilate to the new culture quickly so I don’t have to incorporate his/her culture into the curriculum.

Fact: We don’t want ELLs to assimilate to the new culture. Rather, we want them to acculturate. The terms assimilate and acculturate are not interchangeable. Assimilation means to lose a part of your cultural identity while blending in with the mainstream society. Acculturation allows you to retain your cultural identity and adjust to a new way of life. Many ELLs and their family members go through culture shock. In fact, the “silent stage” is a natural occurrence in which an EL does not produce oral language for up to 6 months. This was happening with Luis in the scenario above.


  • Value the EL’s culture by incorporating it in lessons.

  • Normalize errors as part of the learning process. ELLs must know they can take a risk with language in your classroom.

  • Model the correct form when an EL makes an oral language error. For example, an EL stated, “I goed to the store.” Correct the error by stating, “You went to the store?”

  • Use non-verbal cues to check for comprehension while an EL is going through the silent stage.

Myth #5: When an EL’s parents don’t participate in school functions, they don’t care.

Fact: The truth is that EL parents care very much about their child’s academic success. There are some legitimate reasons parents are not fully participating in school activities: they lack childcare; their job conflicts with the time of the event; or they lack transportation.


  • Be more accessible by planning events at unconventional times and various formats.

  • Ask English-speaking parents to partner with an EL’s parents to be a helpful resource to them.

Concluding Thoughts

Having ELLs in your classroom doesn’t have to be an overwhelming experience. You have the inclusive mindset to incorporate culturally responsive teaching in your classroom. Now that you have learned the difference between myth and fact, as well as gained some best practices, you can help dispel the misinformation and false notions about ELLs. Utilizing these practical, research-based language acquisition tips will make teaching CLD students achievable.

Dr. Brizendine is an Associate Professor at Athens State University in Athens, AL. She teaches undergraduate courses on second-language acquisition, English-learner assessment, English support courses for international students, and a variety of elementary education courses in the College of Education. She has served a collective 24 years in education, both the public school system and higher education. Her passion in educational topics include English learners, university–school partnerships, and social justice.


Hussar, B., Zhang, J., Hein, S., Wang, K., Roberts, A., Cui, J., Smith, M., Bullock Mann, F., Barmer, A., and Dilig, R. (2020, May 19). The condition of education 2020 (NCES Report No. 2020144). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics at IES. 

Lucas, T., Strom, K., Bratkovich, M., & Wnuk, J. (2018). Inservice preparation for mainstream teachers of English language learners: A review of the empirical literature. The Educational Forum, 82(2), 156–73. doi:10.1080/00131725.2018.1420852

Villegas, A. M., SaizdeLaMora, K., Martin, A. D., & Mills, T. (2018). Preparing future mainstream teachers to teach English language learners: A review of the empirical literature. The Educational Forum, 82(2), 138–55. doi:10.1080/00131725.2018.1420850

1 comment



04-26-2023 09:19 AM

What a highly relevant topic. One of my classmates is researching this for her DiP.  What came to mind is this: I think I know why Luis didn't or won't speak up: rear of criticism, judgement and being "different."  That was me in rural Oklahoma -- I was born in California -- where the dialect and grammar weren't the best taught subjects.  I could think of the words and ideas, but when I spoke, they just didn't come out right, and I was made to believe I was stupid and needed special education.  Even though I've progressed through two ivy league advanced programs and now in a doctoral program, I have to have a computer to write what's in my mind as what comes out of my mouth isn't' a one-for-one translation from my brain. I believe virtual learning will change all of this as our population continues growing from migrants and immigrants.  What an amazing discussion.