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Don’t judge a learner by their label: US teacher expectations of ELLs

Label, not language level, may determine teachers’ perceptions, study finds

Labelling US school pupils as English Language Learners (ELLs) leads to lower teachers’ expectations, except where pupils are taught in a bilingual setting, report Ilana Umansky and Hanna Dumont in a working paper from Brown University.

Classifying children by language level is standard in the US. By US federal law, the level of English must be assessed when children start school, and if it falls below a certain threshold they are identified as ELL students. Almost 10 per cent of pupils are classified as ELL, 80 per cent being Spanish speakers. A minority of schools run bilingual classes, but transitional Sheltered English Language or content-based language programmes, where ELL children are educated separately, are common.

Not all English-speaking countries do the same. In England, for example, 20 per cent of children from 300 language groups start school with English as an additional language (EAL). The most common first language, Punjabi, is spoken by less than two per cent of students, so bilingual teaching is not an option. Schools make some provision for EAL students but, unlike ELL in the US, it is not a general classification. EAL-only programmes have been banned as discriminatory since 1985.

So, is the US system of classification detrimental and if so, why? Prior research in the US has already shown that just being labelled as an ELL student can lead to lower exam scores across all subjects. Exactly how and why this happens is less clear.

Umansky and Dumont questioned whether teachers’ lower expectations of ELL students might be eroding their potential. They set out to compare teachers’ expectations of ELL students with those of non-ELLs by following the progress of 2,166 kindergarten children (just starting school at age 5 or 6) and their teachers for three years.

The crucial comparison was between expectations of students classified as ELL and expectations of students with the same background and level of English who were not labelled ELL. It was not possible to change the ELL classification of individual children but a quirk in the system allowed such a comparison to be made.

Although all schools must classify students based on home language and English proficiency, the way that proficiency is measured and the threshold for being classified as ELL varies, with as many as 25 separate proficiency assessments being used across the US.

This means that students classed as ELL in one school might not be so identified in another. By giving all the children in the study their own proficiency tests, Umansky and Dumont were able to compare like with like, i.e. children with the same proficiency scores but different labels.

Each year, they collected data on the teachers’ perceptions of the students’ skills and knowledge in language, maths, social studies and science. They also recorded whether Spanish was being used ‘about half the time,’ indicating a bilingual rather than English immersion approach to teaching.

They found that teachers did indeed have significantly lower expectations of their ELL students than students with the same level of proficiency but not classed as ELL. These lower expectations were across all subjects.

In the bilingual classes, however, expectations of ELL students were no different to those of non-ELL students.

Why might this happen? Teachers are generally pretty accurate in assessing students’ skills and knowledge – but this accuracy decreases when they do not share their students’ background. This is not a special fault of teachers, people in general are highly prone to judging people from their own group more accurately (or even more favourably) than people felt to be from a different group.

It is not clear why teachers’ expectations of ELL students are higher in a bilingual setting. It might reflect a difference in the kind of teachers choosing to teach bilingual classes or it might be something else associated with bilingual classes.

In the longer term, this finding will fuel the ongoing debate on use of the ELL label and the role of bilingual teaching in the US. In the shorter term, knowing that teachers’ expectations are affected by the ELL label enables teacher training to address this unconscious bias directly. As America’s popular media personality Oprah Winfrey says: “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge”.


  • Umansky, Ilana, and Hanna Dumont. (2019). English Learner Labeling: How English Learner Status Shapes Teacher Perceptions of Student Skills & the Moderating Role of Bilingual Instructional Settings. (EdWorkingPaper: 19-94). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: ai19-94
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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