In every school, students are labeled for a variety of reasons. Consider the students you have or have had in your classroom. What are the various labels that have been given to your students? Are those labels helpful, or are they potentially hindering student progress?

Of course, our intent in schools is always to help students learn and make progress so that they can be happy, healthy, productive members of society. To better serve students, we add labels to help us consider the needs of the students and ultimately better meet their needs.

However, the labels may serve to ostracize, segregate, or otherwise provide a disservice to our students. We should carefully consider the labels we use, and how they actually help or potentially harm the students we work with.

There are multiple terms that have been utilized to label students who speak a language other than English as their native language. When students enroll in school, they are asked a question on the Home Language Survey that indicates if the child speaks a language other than English at home.

If the student responds that they do, they are tested to determine their English proficiency level, and if they might need additional support in learning English and academic content.

Depending on the results of the language proficiency assessment, students may be labeled using a term to indicate their level of English proficiency. The terms have changed over the years for various reasons.

Consider the following terms that have been used over the years, some of which are still used and others that have become outdated:

  • Limited English Proficient (LEP)
  • English Language Learner (ELL)
  • English Learner (EL)
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) Student
  • English as a New Language (ENL) Student
  • Emergent Bilingual
  • Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE)
  • Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE)
  • Long-Term English Learner (LTEL)

Differing states, regions, or schools may use one of these terms or a differing term. By ascribing one of these labels to students, we are essentially identifying them as a student that will need support in learning English while they are learning academic content. The label is designed to help us consider how we will meet the needs of these students in our classrooms.

There are multiple problems and issues with labeling students.

First off, labels can affect teacher expectations. When a student is labeled as an English learner, for example, it may influence their belief in what the student is actually able to do and accomplish in terms of both content and language learning.

Education of English learners has, in many instances, been rife with lower expectations for the students, especially in terms of higher-order thinking skills and learning content concepts and skills. Adding the label of English learner, or another label designed to alert the teacher that the student will need additional supports to learn academic English and content, may inadvertently cause the teacher to lower their standards and expectations for those students, causing them to think that the students are quantitatively different from other students in the class.

These labels may also serve as a tool to separate or segregate students. In some schools, English learners are separated from their English proficient peers for part of the day, or in some cases for most of the day, so that teachers can focus on teaching them English and content.

However, this may, in some cases, prevent these students from progressing in either of these areas at the students are not able to interact with their English proficient peers, and the content instruction may be watered down.

This is not always the case, however, and at times it is appropriate to separate students to provide specialized instruction in English Language Development, for example. The question we must ask, however, is if the label we have given students is helping us to provide the best possible instruction and service to the students, or if it serves the purpose of separating the students.

This separation of students, even for an English language development class or instructional time, can cause social anxiety for students. Other students may not understand the importance of this instruction, or understand the service the students are receiving, and so may tease or comment as such.

In addition, students who are attending English language development courses away from other students may miss out on the content the rest of the class is receiving, causing them anxiety as they are missing what the other students are getting. While these instructional issues are not directly related to the label itself, once students find out that they have been labeled, they may want to opt-out of additional instruction if it means being separated from their peers, even if just for a short time during the instructional day.

In some countries and for some cultural groups, a label such as English learner can also have a very negative connotation, and parents may refuse testing or services based on the perceived stigma associated with an educational label on their child. In some countries in the past, a label meant that students would certainly be separated from peers, or potentially sent to another school or even to a boarding school and separated from their families.

While this may not seem like a danger in schools in the United States, for some parents the fear of this happening is greater than the potential benefit that students will receive with any given services.

Some students may be given more than one of the above labels, such as students who are labeled as both English learners as well as SIFE. Added to that, students may receive additional labels, such as a special education related label, or gifted and talented.

When these other labels are added, it may serve to further isolate or separate the student. While these labels are usually kept private and not announced to other students, the implications as described above still have the potential to impact the adults in the building, potentially causing them to think of and treat the student differently because of them.

While the practice of labeling student serves as a way to help teachers and staff identify the needs and strengths of students, there are also fiscal Implications. When students are labeled as English learners or as having special needs, additional funding may be provided to the school district or school in order to provide additional resources and supports to the student.

Without the explicit identification of the student and adding the appropriate label, this funding would not be provided. Given this, not providing a label for some populations of may not be an option at this point.

The various implications of labeling students should be carefully considered in schools today.

How the labels are ascribed, utilized, and disseminated ultimately impact the students themselves as well as their peers.

Cultural implications should also be considered, as families can be impacted by having a label attached to their children. Financial considerations must also be taken into account, as students who are English learners or who have special needs may bring additional funds to the district or school in order to better help meet the student’s particular needs.

Most importantly, we should carefully consider how attaching a label to a student is helping, and not hindering their education and well-being. It is our mission as educators to support students and help them to maximize their potential.