English Language Learner should admit students based on their proficiency level alone

These programs’ enrolment proceedings should not depend on an individual’s ethnicity or immigration status

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Places like Fiji, Singapore, and the Philippines all have English listed as an official language. PHOTO: MChe Lee / Unsplash

By: Bailey Romano, SFU Student

Immigrants are often encouraged to register in English Language Learner (ELL) programs because fluency in English supposedly promotes a smoother transition to life in Canada. However, my experience as a former ELL student exposed me to the program’s shortcomings. Greater transparency and consultation among students, parents, and educators may ensure that potential ELL students are admitted based only on proficiency rather than ethnicity or immigration status. Adjusting ELL program admission policies to protect students from discrimination would preserve students’ rights by ensuring all students receive the quality education they deserve, regardless of proficiency.  

I was born in Canada, and my mother informed my elementary school that English was my first language. I spoke fluent English, but my school registered me into the ELL program. When my mother discovered this, she was adamant that I should not qualify, and my school pulled me out.      

Despite the School Act stating that “A parent of a student of school age attending a school is entitled to be informed [ . . . ] of the student’s attendance, behaviour and progress in school,” my mother was not informed that I would be admitted into the ELL program until after the fact. 

BC’s guidelines for ELL teachers suggest that ELL students who are Canadian citizens may require formal English education to help them adjust to school. Their case study examples express concerns that students with age-appropriate conversational skills may still struggle with reading comprehension.

As a person of colour, I have encountered many people who were shocked that English is the only language I speak fluently. However, ethnicity and immigration status are poor predictors that a student’s first language is English. According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census data, “a higher proportion of children under the age of 15 with an immigrant background spoke only English or French at home than their parents.”

The misconception that one’s ethnicity or immigration status determines their native language also overlooks colonization’s role in many countries adopting European languages. Many former colonies, such as Fiji, the Philippines, and Singapore, have English as one of their official languages. Since ELL students come from various backgrounds, admission to the ELL program should be independent of immigration status and ethnicity. 

ELL programs may use Eurocentric standardized tests, so there also needs to be greater diversity and inclusivity in these programs. By assuming students are familiar with American culture, language proficiency assessments’ answer keys may disregard students from collectivist cultures or low socioeconomic backgrounds who may have different values and experiences. ELL curriculum design and implementation should require consultation with BIPOC educators to provide students with culturally appropriate assessments and curriculum.

Unfortunately, implicit racial bias also disproportionately affects BIPOC ELL teachers. A study in Indonesia indicates that students and co-teachers perceive ELL teachers of colour as less qualified. This reflects that Indonesia’s ELL teaching requirements favour Caucasian teachers from predominantly Western countries: “While you don’t have to be white, being white is a presumption of being a native [English] speaker,” the report says. The lack of representation in education highlights the overdue need for ELL programs to recruit more BIPOC educators to promote a culturally appropriate curriculum and learning environment.

Other jurisdictions, like the United States, outline possible ways that ELL programs can be discriminatory and provide students with legal protection against discrimination. Without educational policies acknowledging ELL students’ unique experiences and ELL assessments appropriate for students of colour, more overqualified students may be admitted into the program and deprived of the quality education they deserve.