What Teachers Need to Know About Language

Lilly Wong Fillmore lists the five roles a teacher must play when instructing the English language learners in her classroom. Of the five roles (communicator, educator, evaluator, educated human being, and social agent) a teacher plays in a student’s academic life, the two that struck a chord in me are the teacher as an educator and as an evaluator.

This statement grabbed my attention: “A serious worry about global tracking decisions is the questionable validity of the original assessments on which these placement decisions were made.” The assessment my daughter was given in K-3 did not ask her the generic questions listed in the section of the book.

By the time my daughter was 18 months, she could count to 25 because there were 25 steps from the bottom landing to the top landing in front of the door to our apartment. She could identify most colors because I labeled the items in our house by name and by color. She could recite the alphabets, all 26. By the time she was three years old, she was more than ready for regular kindergarten (K-5 or simply kindergarten).

She knew her first name and her last name, could follow simple instructions, asked so many questions that I had to take a breath sometimes to prevent chastising her, answered the questions I asked her, knew the colors in the crayon boxes since she was eighteen months old, could tell me stories at three years old, knew my name, and could count to twenty-five.

I am a teacher, and I made “such abilities and skills” universal for her because I understood that they are “indicative of learning ability”. I reveled in the knowledge that my daughter was ahead of her K-3 classmates by two years at least. No one can imagine my shock when the private school she was attending sent home a note declaring that my daughter was a “slow learner” (Oakes, 1985) and that the school would like for me to sign a document agreeing that she would be held back in K-3.

This aspect of my analysis amplifies that the teacher failed as an educator and as evaluator.

The Teacher as an Educator: Fillmore observes that “Too few teachers share or know about their students’ cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, or understand the challenges inherent in learning to speak and read Standard English. We argue in this paper that teachers lack this knowledge because most have not had well-designed professional preparation for their current challenges.” I second this argument. I also add that English was the first language in my house. This is not a thing of pride (because it became a cause for regret when my daughter grew into an adult), but it is to clarify that my daughter did not have any linguistic handicap, nor was she placed into an ELL/ESL course.

AS an educator, it is the teacher’s duty to select “educational materials and activities at the right level and of the right type for all of the children in their classes. This requires a reasonable basis for assessment of student accomplishments and the capacity to distinguish between imperfect knowledge of English and cognitive obstacles to learning. In order to teach effectively, teachers need to know which language problems will resolve themselves with time and which need attention and intervention. In other words, they need to know a great deal about language development.”

The Teacher as an Evaluator: “It is imperative to recognize that young children may differ considerably in their inventory of skills and abilities, and these differences should not be treated as reflecting deficiencies in ability,” (Adger, Snow, & Christian, 2018). My child differed in the inventory of skills and abilities the school administered to her. I wrote the school a lengthy letter about the subjective nature and the socio-economic bias inherent in their assessment.

I have been an avid tea drinker since childhood because it is part of the morning cultural ritual in Nigeria. I upped it when I became an adult and could afford the trappings to call myself a tea aficionado. My collection of teacups and saucers attested to this near obsession. We drank tea every day, so the tradition continued in my home in the United States.

We used to go to Disney World in Orlando every Christmas because I owned a time-share. It never crossed my mind that a school would want to hold my daughter back because she could not say “saucer” and could not name one of Disney’s numerous princesses.

Of what benefit is a saucer to a three-year old’s education or life? Is this the comprehensive assessment and the best determinant of her intellectual growth and success in life or even in the next rung of education? How does Disney World factor into a school’s curriculum? Did Disney World design the curriculum because the school is located inside Disney World? Was this Christian school (located in Smyrna, Georgia) somehow associated with Disney World (located in Orlando, Florida) as part of a financial payment/repayment to/from the school? Is this not an example of socio-economic bias? Of harrowing injustice on a three-year old? Was this the sum of the assessment on which the school based its decision to retain her for another year in K-3?

I glared at the woman, prayed for her and for the Christian school that would do such a grievous intellectual injustice to a child, withdrew my daughter, and collected myself with the dignity of the wronged.



Fillmore, W. L. & Snow, C. E. (2000). What teachers need to know about language. ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Special Report. 5 Week 2 – 09/01: L1 and  L2 Reading (Online Meeting)