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Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners

Module 6 – Equitable Policy and Practice for English Learners: What Should Teachers and School Leaders Know and Do?

By George C. Bunch

OVERVIEW    |    INTRODUCTION    |    PART 1    |     PART 2    |    PART 3    |    REFERENCES

Part 2: Countering deficit thinking


At the beginning of Part 1 of this module, you listened to Magaly Lavadenz, in conversation with Aída Walqui, discuss “deficit thinking” and “compensatory education.” In Part 2, we are going to turn to these concepts in more detail. 

Activity 2.1: There is nothing remedial about learning additional languages


When monolingual English speakers gain proficiency in new languages, it is often seen as an intellectual accomplishment and cultural and professional asset that is valued in business, international affairs, and higher education. High school classes in world languages other than English are required for admissions to most colleges in the United States, and many colleges (large and small, public and private, competitive and less competitive) have world language requirements for graduation. Colleges’ descriptions of their rationales for requiring a world language class demonstrate the value universities place on studying additional languages. The box below provides a few such descriptions.

Colleges and universities view learning additional languages
as a valuable intellectual accomplishment

Excerpts from College Websites:


UCLA: Foreign language courses improve creativity, problem-solving, listening, and memory skills. Knowledge of a second language can increase one’s ability to deal with abstract concepts, expand one’s view of and increase participation in a multicultural world, and enhance job competitiveness.


Texas A & M University: To understand the major cultures of the world as expressed in art, philosophy, politics or economy, it is necessary to know and appreciate languages other than one’s native language. Therefore, some proficiency in a foreign language is also required to graduate from Texas A&M University.


Harvard University: The College affirms that the learning of a language other than English is an essential component of a liberal art and sciences education and that this learning should allow a student to develop first-hand understanding of linguistic and cultural variety. The language requirement demands rigorous study.


Stanford University: Language study extends your range of knowledge and expression significantly, providing access to materials and cultures that otherwise would be out of reach.


University of Puget Sound: In preparation for a life of global citizenship, all students are required to engage with oral and written skills in a language other than English. Courses satisfying this requirement will also: (1) Introduce students to different ways of speaking, writing, and interpreting the world; (2) foster understanding of alternative perspectives, values, behaviors, and tradition through linguistic, historical, and cultural study; (3) explore commonality and difference between one’s own language(s) and culture(s) and another’s; and (4) encourage deeper appreciation of one’s own language(s) and culture(s).


Mississippi State University’s faculty senate: As a fundamental mode of communication, language is intimately tied to the social, political and artistic fabric of societies. Thus, comprehension of language can provide vital understanding of societies, and increase the potential of real communication . . . Foreign language study enhances our capability of doing business and advancing policy in the international arena by promoting cultural sensitivity, and an understanding of external perspectives, needs and values. . . Additional benefits of foreign language study are gaining additional insights and perspectives into one's own language (breadth). In itself, the struggle to comprehend a foreign language and to accept a different system of codifying knowledge engages the learner irreversibly in reassessments of self and of place.

Unfortunately, when it comes to speakers of languages other than English in K–12 schools who are learning English as the additional language, many educators do not view these students’ language learning accomplishments with the same admiration and respect paid to English speakers learning languages other than English.


  • Think and write for a few minutes about the following:

    • What are your own beliefs about the accomplishments of learning additional languages?

    • What are the attitudes commonly expressed by adults in your school regarding the language-learning accomplishments of English Learners?


  • Read the one-page statement on the Benefits of Language Learning from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the professional association for K–12 teachers of world languages other than English.

  • After reading, discuss with other participants completing this module:

    • Which of these benefits stand out to you? Which of them have you thought about before?

    • In your school or district, is the learning of English as an additional language (by English Learners) seen as the kind of cognitive, social, intellectual, and economic benefit implied by ACTLF’s statement?


  • Turning more specifically to what students who speak more than one language can , view this 4-minute video describing ACTFL’s vision of how learning additional languages leads to “world-readiness,” and review the chart summarizing the ACTFL standards. [Note: the purpose here is not to dwell on the standards as standards per se, but rather to think about the content of the standards and the vision they present of what it means to learn additional languages.]

  • As you watch the video, reflect on the following questions. After reflecting, discuss these questions with other participants of the module:

    • Which of these kinds of things you can do in multiple languages? Which have you struggled with or are still working on?

    • To what extent have others valued your development of more than one language?

    • Which of the language accomplishments highlighted in the video are English Learners in your school recognized for? Which of these accomplishments are undervalued or ignored?

    • How do the policies and practices that you explored at one school in Activity 1.6. foster or inhibit the development of the kinds of language learning exemplified by the “5 Cs”? (You can download this poster version of ACTFL’s “Five C’s” introduced in the video, if you want to refer to it in print.)

Activity 2.2: What is deficit thinking?


Unfortunately, the intellectual, social, and professional accomplishments that are associated with those learning languages other than English are not often ascribed to students classified by their schools as English Learners. Instead, such students, who are not only adding a language to their repertoire but also navigating the entire school curriculum in that new language, are often treated as though they are in need of remediation. They are frequently assigned lower-level content courses, offered a language curriculum that does not foster the opportunity for them to use and develop English to engage in meaningful and intellectually vibrant activities, and subjected to stigmas associated with their classification as English Learners.


Given the high status associated with learning additional languages in some contexts, why is it that learning English as an additional language is seen as a remedial endeavor? Why is it that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lau vs. Nichols (see Part 1 of this module)—that schools take “affirmative steps” to educate English Learners—often results in students with this designation having less access to a high-quality education than their mainstream peers?


There are undoubtedly a number of reasons, including different conceptions of what language is, how it is developed, and how its development can best be promoted (see Modules 2, 3, & 4 of the Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners series). And it is true that there are significant academic challenges facing English Learners, especially those who may have arrived in the U.S. with limited or interrupted formal education. None of these fully explain, however, why many teachers and schools fail to recognize the linguistic accomplishments, experiential resources, and intellectual potential of English Learners.


In this activity, we focus on the purchase of what scholars in education and other social sciences have called “deficit thinking” toward students and families from low-income and racially minoritized backgrounds, as many (but not all) English Learners are. The next activity (2.3) offers some suggestions for countering these deficit ideologies.


Richard Valencia, in his book Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice, shares several everyday vignettes from outside of education in order to describe the concept of “blaming the victim”—a trope that helps explain how educators often view the “failures” of racially minoritized students. Valencia relates his experience of returning a pair of eyeglasses whose lenses consistently popped out under normal handling of the glasses. He was told hostilely by the optometry employee that the problem could only be his fault for mishandling the glasses. The second example Valencia relates is from a TV news story he viewed about the 16,000 injuries caused by escalators annually in the United States. The escalator manufacturers went on record to blame ordinary users of the escalators for their carelessness: standing too close to the edge or for wearing loose clothing that could get caught between the moving stairs and the stationary wall of the escalator. What they did not blame, of course, was their own product, even in light of the fact that the space between the stairs and the side wall of escalators gradually increases over time, causing dangerous gaps that lead to a higher likelihood of accidents, even under normal use.


Valencia argues that these examples illuminate the same principles at work in deficit thinking in U.S. schools:


The more powerful party locates the blame for the problem or injury in the individual person, the victim, rather than in the structural problems of the unit[; that is,] the blame shifts from structural deficits . . . to the alleged disregard, faults, and carelessness of the wronged party (emphasis in original).


. . . scholars, educators, and policymakers have advanced the deficit thinking model to explain school failure, particularly among low-socioeconomic status (SES) students of color (such as African American; Mexican American; Puerto Rican). These students have suffered, and continue to suffer, substantial overrepresentation among those who experience academic problems and school failure (e.g., reading below grade level; dropping out of high school), and such students are prime and easy targets of the deficit thinking intellectual discourse that blames them, their cultures, and their families for diminished academic success. . . [At the same time,] deficit thinkers hold blameless systemic factors (e.g. school segregation; inequalities in school financing; curriculum differentiation) in explaining why some students fail in school.


Valencia hastens to add that acknowledging the “systemic and structural” aspects that influence school failure among low-income students of color does not remove students’ individual responsibility for their education. In contrast, “students who are failing in school must—along with their parents—muster every effort they can in achieving school success (e.g. the development of good study habits; parental participation in education; political involvement and action.)



Considering the contexts in which you work or have observed or studied, including those you explored in Activity 1.6, reflect on the following questions and write a few responses in the graphic organizer below. Then discuss with others completing this module.


  • What are some examples of deficit thinking (i.e., attributing patterns of language development or academic achievement to students’ own individual attributes rather than to school, systemic, or societal inequities leading to those outcomes) that you have encountered about English Learners or other students from low-income and racially minoritized backgrounds?


  • What are some examples of educators’ acknowledgment that patterns of success are impacted by inequitable opportunities provided by schools and other societal structures (rather than residing in individual students or their families)?


  • What are examples of educators understanding that working toward equity means addressing practices at the classroom, school, and district levels (such as pedagogy and curriculum), taking individual (adult) responsibility for what can be done, and recognizing what English Learners can do when given the opportunity?

Educators’ discourses about...

Examples of educators attributing patterns of success or failure (in language development and academic achievement) to attributes of individual students, families, and communities

Examples of educators attributing success or failure to school, systemic, or societal inequities

Examples of educators understanding that improving inequitable outcomes requires their own local action

Comments, questions, and dilemmas

Reasons for English Learners’ academic struggles

Course placement

Teaching English Learners in college-prep courses

Types of texts English Learners
are asked to read and produce in ESL/
ELD and content area classrooms

Support from English Learners’ families and communities

Other topics related to the education of English Learners:

Other topic:

Other topic:

Other topic:

Activity 2.3: Countering Deficit Thinking


One way to counter deficit thinking when it comes to the education of students classified as English Learners is to shift the lens away from what they cannot yet do toward what they can do when given the opportunity. Focus on what they can do using their developing English proficiency and other communicative resources at their disposal (their home languages, non-dominant varieties of English, gestures, modeling) to engage deeply with challenging and meaningful academic content.


Scholars of language, literacy, and education have taken different angles to highlight and document the strengths that students—and their families—from linguistically and racially minoritized backgrounds bring with them to U.S. schools. For example, Professor Ramón Martinez (YEAR) has argued the following with regard to one particular population:


...what if we didn’t view Latina/o/x students first and foremost as English Learners? And what if we didn’t begin with the premise that they’re categorically at risk? What if we began, instead, with the assumption that they come to school with various linguistic strengths? In other words, what if we presumed competence?... In contrast to deficit-oriented perspectives that presume a gap between these students’ everyday language and the language of the classroom, the alternative hypothesis we wish to advance is that Latino/a/x students boast expansive linguistic repertoires and engage in complex and dynamic forms of everyday language... (p. 54).


Other modules in this series explore conceptions of language relevant to how we view what minoritized students can do academically. But judgments surrounding students’ language are often closely associated with assumptions about what they can or cannot do intellectually. In this jigsaw activity, you will have an opportunity to explore four different proposals for countering the deficit orientations that, unfortunately, are often used when thinking about, discussing, and working with English Learners and other racially minoritized students.



Participants should be divided into groups of four. Each group will be assigned summaries of and excerpts from one of four different articles. After reading and discussing the articles, groups will be re-assembled such that each new group has at least one member who studied each article in their original groups.


  1. Divide into “Expert” groups of four participants. Each group will be assigned one of the article summaries: (a) “Deeper Learning” by Patricia Gándara; (b) “What’s the Problem?” by Marjorie Faulstich Orellana and Kris Gutiérrez; (c) “Community Cultural Wealth” by Tara Yosso and Rebeca Burciaga; or (d) “Funds of Knowledge and Discourses” by Elizabeth Moje and colleagues.

  2. Members of each of these groups read their assigned summary; take notes on key takeaways, questions, and comments; and share their thoughts with their current group members who have read the same summary.

  3. Representative from each Expert group reconfigures as Home groups, which are made up of four members, each of whom have read and discussed a different article summary.

  4. In the Home groups, members report what they learned about their article to the rest of the Home group. Other members of the Home group fill out the matrix as each person presents, so that all participants come away from the activity with key information about all four articles.


Use the graphic organizer below to jot down key takeaways, questions, and comments to share with participants first in Expert Groups and then in Home groups.

A: Deeper Learning (Gándara)

C: Community Cultural Wealth (Yosso & Burciaga)

B: What’s the Problem? (Orellana & Gutiérrez)

D: Funds of Knowledge and Discourses (Moje et al.)

Reading A: Summary of “Deeper Learning” (Gándara, 2017)


Patricia Gándara, in a chapter of an edited book called Rethinking Readiness, comments on the growing emphasis on “deeper learning” in U.S. education:

While there is no single, fixed definition of “deeper learning,” the term tends to be used to describe a mix of academic, personal, and relational capacities, including elements such as collaborative learning, critical thinking, conceptual understanding, and learning how to learn. Typically, deeper learning is said to have an affective dimension as well, touching on characteristics such as persistence and self-motivation, and advocates often argue that students should be taught to take responsibility for their own learning through active engagement in their education. (p. 123)


Gándara argues that not only can immigrant students, including those classified as English Learners, benefit from the “focused, critical, and engaging classroom instruction” designed to foster deeper learning, but that “one could argue that these children tend to be better equipped for such teaching and learning than monolingual, nonimmigrant students” (p. 123). Immigrant English Learners’ “affinity for deeper learning,” however, is often unrecognized, because these students are often framed primarily as “deficient and in need of remediation” (p. 123). However, Gándara argues that, “[i]n spite of the many challenges they face (and perhaps because of them),” students classified as English Learners “can also be viewed as advantaged in certain ways—possessing some important skills and dispositions that monolingual and monocultural students may lack” (p. 133). Reviewing relevant research and theory, Gándara articulates a number of specific advantages that immigrant students and English Learners have relevant to engaging in deeper learning:

Multilingualism: Researchers have demonstrated that youngsters from immigrant backgrounds who serve, often informally, as bilingual interpreters for their families in their schools and communities exhibit many of the cognitive, linguistic, and interactional attributes of giftedness found in national guidelines. In addition to the cognitive and linguistic skills necessary to translate from one language into another, they navigate across cultures, picking up on and negotiating subtle situational and relational cues, shades of meaning, and power dynamics. Other research has found that students who develop and maintain high levels of bilingualism have cognitive advantages compared with monolinguals, such as an enhanced ability to invoke multiple perspectives in problem-solving and more focused attention on a specific task. There is also some evidence that those who maintain high levels of their home languages are more likely to go to four-year colleges than those who have lost those primary languages, most likely due to the social networks that their bilingualism has afforded.  


Multiculturalism: Young people who are navigating life in more than one culture may help students to be more “cognitively flexible,” allowing them to view problems from different perspectives and come up with novel solutions; exhibit creativity; and represent ideas and experiences in a wide variety of ways (pp. 134–135). These advantages not only benefit individuals; research has shown that diverse groups are more effective at problem-solving than homogenous groups. Furthermore, immigrant students’ experiences transitioning to new cultural environments often lead them to be “welcoming of differences, skilled at intercultural communication, and comfortable working on diverse teams—characteristics that employers often describe as highly valuable” (p. 135).   


Optimism and motivation: As a group, children of immigrants often have greater academic achievement than subsequent generations. While structural barriers such as longer time in poor-quality American schools may account for a downward trajectory across generations, some researchers have argued that that “immigrant optimism” may also play a role in the success of children of immigrants: that is, young immigrant students’ appreciation of the sacrifices their parents have made to migrate to the United States, the wider educational opportunities that may be available compared to the home country, and the desire to achieve the “American Dream” despite “daunting obstacles” (p. 136). Researchers have also studied affective variables related to differential academic success (such as stress management, adaptability, interpersonal skills, and persistence), which are all also associated with adapting to new and often hostile environments.

Resilience: “In spite of often traumatic uprootings from their homes, harrowing immigration passages, and hostile receptions in the new land, immigrant children often arrive in the United States full of hope for the future, with a drive to succeed in school” (p. 137). In fact, some studies have shown that immigrants actually demonstrate better mental and physical health than the native-U.S. born population. One researcher has argued that at least four specific aspects of resilience are common in immigrant children: social competence, problem solving, autonomy, and sense of purpose. 

Familial and cultural practices that value cooperation and collaboration: Psychologists have extensively studied how the backgrounds of many Latina/o/x students lead to peer interactions that are more cooperative than competitive. These are best seen not as inherent traits, but rather as enactments of cultural and historical practices (Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003), including families’ privileging cooperative and respectful family interactions over individualism and independence. “While an emphasis on individual behavior serves students well in settings where they are expected to study alone and compete with their peers for the right answer, preference for cooperative behavior would seem to lend itself to the kinds of shared inquiry and teamwork that are cornerstones of deeper learning” (p. 137). 


SOURCE: Gándara, P. (2017). Deeper learning for English Learners. In R. Heller, R. E. Wolfe, & A. Steinberg (Eds). Rethinking readiness: Deeper learning for college, work, and life. Harvard Education Press.


[See also The Implications of Deeper Learning for Adolescent Immigrants and English Language Learners, Students at the Center Website.]


Reading B: Summary of “What’s the Problem?” (Orellana & Gutiérrez, 2006)


In a commentary, Professors Marjorie Faulstich Orellana and Kris Gutiérrez argue that the language educators and researchers use to talk about English Learners may unintentionally reinforce deficit perspectives on this population, limiting our ability to understand and confront the ways that structural and institutional forces negatively impact their educational opportunities. As captured in the following excerpts, they also address what it would take to re-orient how this student population is talked about and viewed:


Reconsidering the questions that drive [us] is essential if we are to resist the language ideologies that are at work in constructing English Learners as problems. These ideologies are evident in the very categories and labels that are used. After all ... why do we categorize some students as English Learners and not others if we are all learning English every day? More perniciously, why did the field for so many years use the term “LEP” (“Limited English Proficient”)? Who, from a linguistic and social perspective, is more limited: those who are monolingual English Learners or speakers of other languages who are also English Learners? Rethinking such conceptual labels may lead us to ask fundamentally different questions about who or what is limited, or at risk, and why. Might we not see monolingual English speakers as unprepared for futures in a rapidly changing, globalized world? What can we learn from English Learners that can help all youth to negotiate a multilingual and transcultural future?


...we argue that we should decouple people from the problems to which we orient. By avoiding frameworks that identify people as problems, we may be better able to shine the spotlight on institutional practices, social processes, material resources, and situational contexts, and see other problems that are currently obscured. The point here is that people, in this case students, must be understood in relation to the practices of which they are a part, the available resources, and the specific demands of the context. This is a different approach than focusing on the student as the unit of analysis, which inevitably makes the student the problem. …


One strategy for adopting a substantive self-reflective stance is to pay keen attention when we find ourselves naming something that students can’t do or don’t know. In these cases, we should make explicit for ourselves and others from what value framework we are operating ...Are these skills that our students themselves value, ones we believe they should acquire, or ones that are imposed from the outside? We can then counter deficit framings by asking, “What do our students know?” “What can they do?” “What are their skills, contributions, or experiences that can be useful for them or for the world?” This can lead to more generative questions such as how schools can be transformed to open up more equitable spaces for robust learning for all students. (pp. 119–120)


SOURCE: Orellana, M. F., & Kris D. Gutiérrez, K. D. (2006). What’s the problem? Constructing different genres for the study of English Learners. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(1).

Reading C: Community cultural wealth (from “Reclaiming Our Histories” by Yosso & Burciaga, 2016)


Professors Tara Yosso and Rebeca Burciaga describe “community cultural wealth” as “an array of knowledges, skills, abilities, and networks possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist racism and other forms of oppression” (p. 1). This framework, derived from critical race theory, provides an alternative to traditional ways of thinking about “social capital” and “cultural capital,” which both imply that the main problem with inequitable education is that members of Communities of Color (often bilingual) lack what dominant White (and monolingual) people have, and that the main solution is for people from non-dominant backgrounds to acquire what people from dominant backgrounds have. While equalizing available capital and other resources is obviously essential, Yosso and Burciaga point out that “examining the lived experiences of Communities of Color” allows us to see various kinds of “dynamic and overlapping forms of capital” that minoritized students and their families already possess, and that can be leveraged as strengths and assets for learning.


Yosso and Burciaga (2016, p. 2) define six different kinds “community cultural wealth” that Communities of Color bring with them by virtue of their experiences living in a racially stratified and unequal society:


  • Linguistic capital includes the intellectual and social skills attained through communication in multiple languages and/or language styles (including communication through art, music, poetry, theatre, and dance).


  • Social capital can be understood as networks of people and community resources.


  • Familial capital refers to those cultural knowledges nurtured among familia (kin) that carry a sense of community history, memory, and cultural intuition.


  • Aspirational capital refers to the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers


  • Navigational capital refers to skills in maneuvering through social institutions. Historically, this implies the ability to maneuver through institutions not created with Communities of Color in mind.


  • Resistant capital refers to those knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenge inequality.


Source: Tara J. Yosso & Rebeca Burciaga (2016). Reclaiming our histories. Center for Critical Race Studies (5), 1–4.




Reading D: A summary of “Funds of Knowledge” (Moje et al., 2004)


In an article exploring “everyday funds of knowledge,” Moje and colleagues documented the “funds of knowledge” that middle school students from working class Latina/o/x families raised when speaking with researchers after a middle school science unit on air and water quality—knowledge and experience that was only rarely tapped into in the classroom itself. Drawing from classroom observations, interviews with students, and home visits, the authors identify and analyze knowledge and discourses that students have access to deriving from a number of sources: family, community, peers, and popular culture. Below are examples from two of those sources.


Family funds of knowledge and discourse

As researchers asked students in focal groups about environmental issues relevant to the air and water quality unit they had just completed, students referenced their parents’ work outside of the home. For example, students talked about issues of water quality in relation to their fathers’ work in landscaping and farming, both in Mexico and the United States, and their concerns about their family members losing jobs in factories were they to close in response to air quality concerns. Researchers also conducted home visits, learning about other ways in which students’ experiences were connected to the unit but not discussed in class. For example, one mother explained the process of “sweating” chili peppers (placing them in plastic bags until their skins detach)—an example of the concepts of condensation and evaporation that were part of the classroom water-quality unit. The authors argue that encouraging some of these connections in the classroom could have served as “bridges from everyday to academic knowledges and as scaffolds for students’ readings of classroom texts” and could serve “to challenge academic or scientific knowledges by illustrating that much of what is valued as scientific grows out of and is informed by everyday practice” (p. 54).


Popular cultural funds of knowledge and discourse

Youth participating in the study invoked popular culture as much as, if not more than, their own experiences when discussing issues related to science curricula. For example, they discussed genres of music that they listened to, played music excerpts and had each other guess who the artist was, and shared excerpts from music articles they were reading. Music, therefore, “served as an activity, an identifier, a source of conversation, and as a dominant source of literacy practice.” (p. 61). With relevance to science instruction, Moje and colleagues argue that “each of the practices described above requires literate and discursive skills that could be mobilized as bridges to conventional content literacy learning, as navigational tools for examining different discourse communities and learning different skills, and as tools for challenging and reshaping representations of the world in science and in popular culture:


How, teachers might ask students, do you know the differences among categories of music? Why can a listener detect that one piece of music is Mexican and another rap? Why, students might be encouraged to ask, are claims about music made differently from claims about scientific data; are such claims always made differently; and are there times when the same standards apply? When and how, if at all, might the practices of discerning types of popular culture inform or reshape the practices of science? (p. 61)


Students in the study also discussed the ways in which they engaged with a wide range of news and entertainment media outlets, demonstrating literacy skills that could be capitalized upon in school:


...although content literacy strategies often have been suggested as ways to help youth access information from texts, these young women appeared to have little difficulty extracting the information they needed from texts that they cared about. This suggests that the strategies may need to be refocused to better help youth employ the skills and strategies they already possess, rather than assuming that youth need help learning skills such as setting a purpose, skimming or scanning, and notetaking. Of course, these data and previously presented data on Internet text searches beg the question of the role of a reader’s engagement with texts as part of the mobilization of comprehension strategies... These young women appeared to be engaged with the texts they were searching, and their conversation around the texts indicated that they saw a clear purpose for reading them. Such factors need to be accounted for when thinking about how to encourage youth to draw upon everyday literacy skills to engage in, negotiate, and challenge scientific Discourses and knowledges represented in classroom texts. (p. 63)


SOURCE: Moje, E. B., et al. (2004). Working toward third space in content area literacy: An examination of funds of knowledge and Discourse. Reading Research Quarterly 39(1), 38–70.

Activity 2.4 (Optional): Mapping students’ language background and language use


In this activity, adapted from similar activities used in teacher preparation courses by George Bunch at University of California, Santa Cruz (with input from a related activity done by Ramón Martínez at Stanford University), you will have the opportunity to learn about the linguistic backgrounds of students who are designated as English Learners—from the students themselves!


This activity allows you to speak with one or more students to learn more about their language background and their current language use in a variety of academic and non-academic settings. You will ask one or more students some questions about their language background and language use, then ask them to “map” or otherwise visually represent their “linguistic repertoire” (i.e., the variety of languages and styles of language they use for communicating with different audiences for different purposes).



STEP 1: Choose one or more students who speak languages other than English at home. Ideally, they will be students classified as English Learners, but speaking with other students from linguistically minoritized backgrounds will give you important insights as well (e.g., students from homes where languages other than English are spoken who are either reclassified as “fluent English proficient” or who have never been classified as English Learners).


You could have a one-on-one conversation (with one student or with several students at different times), a conversation with a small group of students at once (like a little “focus group”), or even an entire class (if you have access to one and can spend some class time on this activity).


STEP 2: Have a conversation with your student(s) about their language use (and take good notes!). Here are some tips, topics, and questions to guide your conversations (adapted and expanded from Brooks, 2020):


  • Start by telling the student(s) what you are doing (e.g., I am learning more about the languages that my students and their families speak at home, and how students use language in various ways at home, at work, in the community, with their friends, and at school.)

  • Help students feel comfortable and get them talking: (How are things going today? Do you like school? Why or why not? What is your favorite part of the day right now? [Or other ideas you have to make them feel comfortable and get the ball rolling.])

  • Then, tell them you have a few questions about what languages they speak and how they use language differently with different people for different purposes. After these questions, you are going to ask them to do some drawing (in Step 3)! Try to make the conversation organic, but here are some topics you will want to cover (adapted and expanded from Brooks, 2020):

    • Language development:

      • When and how did you learn your languages?

    • Languages spoken at home:

      • Which languages are spoken in your home?

    • Language use at home:

      • Which languages do the people living in your home speak?

      • Which languages do you use with the various people in your home?

    • Language use outside the home and outside of school:

      • Which languages do you use with people outside of your home and school?

      • How do you communicate with them (in person, text, social media, etc.)?

    • Language use for school:

      • Which languages do you use in school? With whom and for what purposes?

      • What, if anything, do you find difficult about using English in school? [You might probe for reading, writing, listening, speaking.]

      • What helps you with your understanding of English? Your reading? Your writing?

    • Translating and interpreting:

      • Do you ever help people to communicate in languages that they do not understand, either in school or outside of school? Like translating or interpreting? When, and with whom, and in what languages? Do you like doing this? What is difficult about it? What do you enjoy? What do you not like about it?

    • Language variation:

      • Within every language, there are different styles of language used with different people for different purposes. Have you noticed this in the languages you speak?

      • Think about one of the languages you use at home or with friends and relatives. Do you speak to some people in this language differently than you speak with others?

      • Think about one of the languages you use at school. Do you speak to some people in this language differently than you speak with others?

      • Has anyone ever told you that there is a “good” or “bad” way to speak one of your languages? Tell me about that . . .

    • How you and others feel about your use of language:

      • Do you feel certain ways when you use different languages, or different varieties of language (happy, sad, lonely, angry, excited, scared, safe)?

      • How do you feel when others say good or bad things about the way you are speaking? What are some examples of this?

    • Thank you for talking with me. You are so smart to be able to use languages in the ways that you have described to me!


STEP 3: Ask the student(s) to create a “language map” that represents their language background, and/or how they use language at home and elsewhere.


You can also browse the following articles to see some examples of language maps (you can decide whether you want to show students some examples or not):



NOTE: If you cannot ask students to create their own language map, then you can create a language map based on what the student(s) have shared with you orally, in response to the questions you asked them. You could also work with the student(s) to create a language map together.


STEP 4: Reflection

Reflecting on your conversation with the student(s) about their language background and language practices, what stands out to you as interesting or important? Was anything surprising about what you learned? What are the implications of all of the above for your own teaching of English Learners, Emergent Bilinguals, and Multilingual Learners, now and in the future?


Share with others completing this module what you learned from your conversations with students. Share the language maps themselves if available.

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