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Colleen Elep

From English Language Learner to Multilingual Learner

Changing the Narrative of Language Support in Ontario Schools
Colleen Elep

As a longtime educator of students in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Literacy Development (ELD) programs, I’ve learned that it’s surprisingly common to hear negative comments about newcomer students.

“The student has no English and doesn’t do anything all day.”

“He doesn’t get any English practice at home.”

“The home language is interfering with English.”

“They can’t do the same work as the rest of the class.”

Deficit-based perceptions of English language learners (ELLs) are largely rooted in an education system grounded in colonialism and monolingualism. Even the label “ELL” identifies the student by a perceived limitation. It is often assumed English is the only language students can be assessed in and English is the only medium through which instruction can happen. As a result, many educators see newcomer students with a deficit-lens that does not recognize the knowledge and linguistic assets they bring from previous educational and life experiences.

The traditional, deficit perspective that has informed ESL/ELD programming in Ontario has a significant impact on Ontario students. As a 2017 report from People for Education states, 63 percent of students in Ontario elementary schools are considered English language learners. This number can be expected to increase as Canada looks to welcome over 450,000 new immigrants each year, the highest number in Canadian history (Canada 2022).

In an era of education where anti-oppressive, culturally responsive pedagogical practices should be the norm, why does such a deficit-minded approach to teaching multilingual language learners persist?

Deeply Entrenched Assumptions About Newcomers

The assumption that home languages and cultures are obstacles to learning is deeply entrenched, even within linguistically diverse communities. I can recall plenty of instances where I saw my own cultural background as something to hide. As a child, I remember assuring my teachers that English was the only language we spoke at home, though my parents and grandmother spoke Tagalog all the time. When I talked with relatives with accents, I’d be secretly pleased that I didn’t sound the same as they did. At school, I’d join others in making fun of kids who were “fresh off the boat.” It was as though I was trying to distance myself from my linguistic heritage in an attempt to blend in and become more of what I thought a ‘Canadian’ should be. Recovering the loss of my home language is a journey I will be on for years.

As an educator, I took a lot of my negative biases and assumptions about newcomers with me. I’d fret over finding “something to do” for newcomer students from abroad, resorting to overly simplistic worksheets and activities while the rest of the class completed “regular” work. I missed valuable opportunities to accommodate the English language learners who were more than capable of taking on new challenges. At the same time, I lacked a framework from which I could see that so much more was pedagogically possible.

Outdated Provincial Policy

Deficit-oriented perceptions of ELLs likely continue to prevail as a result of the ESL/ELD policies still followed by Ontario educators. Current ESL/ELD policy in Ontario (2007) is woefully outdated and saturated with colonial and monolingual perspectives that uphold a hierarchical norm of “English as the standard.”

In Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching, Dr. Suhanthie Motha argues that the concept of “standard English” is an invention that “contributes unwittingly to inequitable relations of power among former empires and colonized nations and that continues to play an important role in the persistence of a particular international racial status quo.” Language hierarchies, argues Motha, are neither constructed deliberately nor are they random, but develop within “particular racial and colonial patterns.” Echoing Motha’s assertions, Ontario policy maintains a core assumption that a “standard” of mainstream English exists that students must acquire to be successful.

As the policy states:

“English is an international language, and many varieties of English – sometimes referred to as dialects – are spoken around the world. Standard English is the variety of English that is used as the language of education, law, and government in English-speaking countries. Some varieties of English are very different – not only in pronunciation or accent but also in vocabulary and sentence structure – from the English required for success in Ontario schools.”

The wording in the policy centres a constructed idea of Standard English differentiating it from other varieties spoken around the world, as the language of “education, law, and government in English-speaking countries.” Aside from evoking ideas of empire, the policy reminds us that success and intellect are aligned with a specific, institutionalized form of English.

Underfunded and Falling Short

Ontario educators also face a dearth of resources and funding to support Ontario’s increasing linguistic diversity, particularly in boards that have seen their English language learner community grow significantly in recent years. Rather than allocating second language grants toward supporting educators in developing and implementing progressive, culturally responsive programs for ELLs, boards direct funds to wherever they see fit. As ETFO’s Building Better Schools (2019) points out, school boards have no direct accountability to spend their second language grants on programs for multilingual learners. “All too often,” states the document, “the overall shortfalls in the funding formula have led to school boards using their second language grants for other purposes and shortchanging ELL students.”

In my own frequent conversations with fellow ETFO members in rural and urban boards, common themes emerge that echo the Building Better Schools analysis.

  • A lack of professional learning opportunities to equip educators with the skills and tools to support ELLs, particularly those that have experienced trauma and interruptions to formal schooling, such as students from Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine
  • Classroom teachers, itinerant and support ESL/ELD teachers, and other education workers worried and anxious they are not doing enough to support the English learners they teach, particularly in the aftermath of widespread virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • English as a Second Language and English Literacy Development itinerant and support educators working with increasingly high numbers of ELLs in the early steps of English language acquisition, with some itinerants driving over an hour to work with students in rural regions.

There is a clear need for boards to provide more specialized staff, materials and professional learning focused on assets-based instruction that addresses the unique needs and characteristics of newcomer students who qualify for ESL and ELD program support.

Changing the Narrative: Towards an Assets-Based Perspective of Multilingual Learners

Shifting from a deficit perspective of ELLs toward one that recognizes and uses all the communication skills of learners is more than a change of mindset. It opens up so many possibilities for accommodating diverse learners and transforming teaching and assessment practices. It centres student voice and supports cultural responsiveness in the classroom. An assets-based view honours the knowledge, cultures and lived experiences of students, positioning multilingual English language learners as competent contributors to the learning environment.

What would a shift toward an assets-based mindset actually mean for students? In my own experience, I have found that newcomer students can start demonstrating learning, showing knowledge and contributing to the classroom environment right away. I recall a colleague welcoming Eva (name has been changed to protect student identity), a Grade 6 student who could speak, write and read Spanish, into her classroom. Her classroom teacher was unaccustomed to working with emergent English language speakers.

I had the role of ESL/ELD support teacher when she asked me, “what can I do with Eva? She looks so bored, doesn’t communicate and I can’t tell what she is getting from my lessons.”

To get Eva feeling more connected to her learning environment and to use her existing literacy and communication skills, we started by providing Eva with opportunities to use a digital translator and supplemented lessons with Spanish language content as much as possible so she could learn alongside her peers. During assessment time, we encouraged Eva to use Spanish to write out her responses and had a Spanish-speaking staff member translate or asked Eva to use Google translate to translate her own work (providing her with additional time, as needed). I will never forget the look of relief on Eva’s face when she realized she was “allowed” to use Spanish. In addition to providing opportunities for Eva to use Spanish, we added more options for her to show her knowledge through different means of representation, such as art or media.

Because Eva was in the emergent steps of acquiring English language proficiency, I could also offer her additional ESL support periods to accelerate her language acquisition with other peers in similar circumstances. Within a few months, when she was communicating more confidently in English, she began helping other Spanish-speaking newcomer students adjust to the school.

Driving Change Through Teacher Leadership

While many teachers in boards across Ontario have already shifted toward an assets-based approach to teaching multilingual English language learners, ministry policy should be updated to drive large-scale, systemic transformation.

The ESL/ELD Resource Group of Ontario (ERGO), a collective of ESL/ELD educator leaders – including many ETFO members – is calling on the Ministry of Education to critically examine and enhance the ESL/ELD policy framework. Drafted by a passionate working group committed to decolonizing language and literacy programming in Ontario, the 2022 ERGO Position Statement on Multilingual Language Learners in Ontario Education, K–12 describes the changing perspectives of language educators across the province. As the document states:

“Based on regional variances, community demographics, and socio-cultural contexts, there is a continuum of thought and practice across school districts in Ontario. More than 15 boards in Ontario have shifted or are in the process of shifting language from “ELL” to “MLL” to honour students’ multilingual repertoires as carriers of ancestry, identity, pride and cultural values that enrich learning in schools.” (ERGO 2022).

While the change in acronym may seem like a minor detail, the implications for programming and policy are manifold. Shifting from English language learner to Multilingual language learner decentres English as the sole language of learning and is a first step toward recognizing the rich cultural and linguistic resources of students and how these contribute to thinking, learning and communication at school, home and beyond. ERGO’s position statement highlights some of the programming implications that can arise by shifting toward an anti-oppressive, decolonizing framework that honours student multilingualism:

  • creation of a starting point for educators to critically reflect on biases and interrogate notions of neutrality;
  • more opportunities for MLLs to access grade level learning opportunities across all subjects; addressing multilingualism in assessment for, as and of learning;
  • creation of accessible pathways responsive to all learners’ aspirations and lived experiences;
  • strategic use of translanguaging and other bi/multilingual endeavours;
  • capacity building for co-teaching among classroom teachers and language support teachers.

To read the ERGO’s full position statement, visit

The Long Road Ahead

Getting to the point where the context of traditional ESL/ELD programming is transformed into an assets-based, anti-oppressive framework will take time and purposeful, intentional efforts aimed at changing the policies and processes that undergird English language learning in Ontario. There is also a need to dismantle the stigmas that surround English as a Second Language programs among educators and the broader community and the tendency to see such programs as deficit-correcting supports that are best administered in isolation from the classroom. Following ETFO’s Building Better Schools agenda, allocating language opportunity funding appropriately, is essential to building capacity among all educators, along with providing more specialized staff to support language programming for MLLs.

Colleen Elep is a member of the the Peel Teacher Local.