Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections

You Can’t Tackle Culturally Responsive Teaching Without Addressing Teacher Language Ideologies

Social justice work in the classroom begins by examining our beliefs about language.

I am a teacher educator for bilingual education at a university, and Tasha is a student in my course on multicultural education. She continues to disrupt class discussions by judging bilingual learners’ unwillingness to assimilate to US culture, exclaiming, “why they don’t just learn English?!” She constantly rebuffs my attempts to address language-focused pedagogies, believing she already has a firm handle on the English language. In a program that seeks to affirm student backgrounds and make language theories comprehensible, Tasha forsakes all the affirming dispositions teachers should have to work directly with multilingual learners. I grow concerned for the families and children Tasha will serve in her 1st-grade dual language classroom and feel uneasy giving her a passing score that will legitimize her role as a bilingual educator in New York City. 

We all know teachers like Tasha, and until clearer dispositional guidelines are in place to weed out teacher candidates like her, there will continue to be more Tashas in the teaching force. Recent policies in cities like New York that seek to enforce culturally responsive pedagogies (Paris & Alim, 2017) reveal that progressive forces are at play within institutional spaces. But I will curb my enthusiasm because I know the dangers that lie ahead when teacher language ideologies aren’t thoughtfully considered alongside the dissemination of progressive policies. In short, we can’t properly tackle Culturally Responsive Teaching without a hard look at teacher language ideologies. 

Language ideologies are defined as a “set of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use” (Silverstein, 1979, p. 183). This definition also refers to “the collective representation of linguistic attitudes of the community” that highlights pragmatic issues such as the status, function, and norms associated with named languages (Wei, 2016). You know that English is the prestige language in our country, but did you realize that linguistic discrimination is harder to pin down than (say) racial or gender discrimination? Just ask Trayvon Martin’s girlfriend, Jeantel, who was attacked for her competence and legitimacy on the basis of her natural language practices. In all fairness, it’s difficult to parse what’s linguistic versus racial discrimination, as Flores and Rosa suggest: they are two sides of the same nefarious coin. The more we (white, middle-class teachers who make up over 85% of the American teaching corps) continue to educate Black and Brown students without interrogating our linguistic privilege, the more likely it becomes that “half-truths [about language and race] can lead to questionable teaching practices” (Van Lier, 2004).

So, what is Tasha’s language ideology, and what might a colleague or administrator do to gently redirect her attitudes towards a place of affirmation and acceptance? Tasha operates out of an assimilationist perspective, a belief that there is one (right) way to adapt as an immigrant: by taking up the dominant language practices, even if it’s at the expense of developing literacy in the home language. This view is codified in her expression, “why don’t they just learn English?” which of course, any child in a bilingual program is doing. She believes in subtractive bilingual education (Lambert, 1974), where opportunities to develop literacy in the child’s home language are unavailable. 

If you are an administrator, ESL provider, or colleague to a teacher like Tasha, there are pathways to support dismantling her deficit perspectives. First and foremost, you must apply a gentle touch; no one replies positively to being shamed or attacked on the basis of their beliefs. Consider sharing articles and videos on language ideologies like this one. Invite Tasha to observe teachers who express affirming language attitudes, but don’t forget to debrief the observations or Tasha’s capacity to retain and integrate new ideas won’t take root. There is work to be done in this area (work that school leadership, unfortunately, may view as disconnected from literacy outcomes). But I assure you: until we tackle teacher beliefs about language, any bids for social justice work in a school will be performative, and any resources invested in that professional development will be for naught. 

Tips on how to nudge teachers with firmly held beliefs: 

  • Apply a gentle touch: meet them where they are (#donotattack #donotshame).
  • Offer “just right” anecdotes (like the one above) to inspire discussion and reflection.
  • Share articles, videos and Ted Talks like this one.
  • Suggest a book study around a text like April Baker Bell’s Linguistic Justice
  • Invite to observe other teachers with affirming language ideologies and associated practices; be sure to debrief! 

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About the Author: Lillian is first and foremost bilingual (English and Spanish). A recent graduate from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, she received both a Masters and a PhD in Bilingual Education. Language Matters LLC combines her 15+ years of bilingual classroom experience with her passion for language teaching research and teacher education. She wants teachers and students to fall in love with languages (and the study of languages) like she did. Listening and learning: that is what Lillian brings to her staff development work. She will listen to teachers’ reflections on practice. She will learn about their concerns, aspirations and goals. The other pieces will fall into place. Pronouns: she/her. You can access her website at