We know that appearances can be deceiving and this certainly applies to English Language Learners. We all have those ELLs in our class that can socially converse, but are underperforming academically. Many classroom teachers erroneously label them as lazy or uninterested, when in fact they simply have not the developed the academic vocabulary needed to perform at grade level. If you are an ESL teacher, you know that it takes 1-2 years to become fluent in social and instructional language. However, it takes 5-7 years to develop academic language. Unfortunately, many educators judge the students’ language abilities based on their social language and expect them to perform academically alongside their native English speaking peers when in fact they are well below them. Conversely, we have other students that develop their listening, reading and sometimes even their writing skills, but are paralyzed with fear of speaking and stuck in the silent period. Silent period in language acquisition is a period of time during which learners are unable or unwilling to communicate orally in the new language. For most it may be weeks or months, but for some (especially if their native language is widely spoken) it could take much longer.
Let me tell you about a new student I had this year named Rosa (it's not her real name-actually it is my mother’s name). She has intermediate/advanced listening, reading and writing skills, but is deathly afraid to speak in English. Her native language is Spanish and when she arrived in the U.S., she lived in Texas where Hispanics abound. Even though she had excellent ESL instruction, she was able to converse in Spanish most of the day. In January, she moved to North Carolina and enrolled in my beginner class. At first glance, she appeared to be a beginner all the way around, but the work she produced is of a much more proficient English learner. Teachers have been pleasantly surprised at her academic performance. As an ESL teacher, I know that she suffers from an extended silent period. Because I speak Spanish, I had to lay the ground rule early on that during the class period, we would be speaking English and would only use Spanish when translation is absolutely necessary. She is in a diverse ESL class and Spanish is not the predominant language. Therefore, not only is it a matter of courtesy, it is imperative that she develop her English speaking skills. She made a great deal of progress this year and I believe next year she will be a shining star.
So whether you are teaching long term ELLs who are lagging behind their native English speaking peers or are teaching a student who is stuck in silent mode, let's make no assumptions. Just like we don’t judge a book by its cover, we must not judge a student’s English speaking skills by their ability (or inability) to fluently converse socially. Everything is not what it seems and our perception is not always reality.