University of Illinois at Chicago
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“Is Something Wrong with Me?”: Understanding the Identities of English Learners in Higher Education

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posted on 2015-07-21, 00:00 authored by John J. Lee
In educational institutions, there are many ways students become marginalized or feel “othered.” Some of these categories of marginalization include race, gender, skin color, and sexuality, but one category not often discussed, particularly in higher education, is by language. Each student comes to school with unique background experiences, cultural practices, and even attitudes toward learning. For ELLs (English language learners), one of their academic needs may be specialized language instruction, yet there exists several complications in the way they are placed into their English courses as well as the labeling of these students as they enter postsecondary institutions. Upon entering U.S. colleges and universities – institutions that have historically played a significant role in enforcing policies of monolingualism and English-only movements – many ELLs are viewed in deficit terms and attributed labels such as difficult, underachieving, and deficient (Gaffney, 1999; Harklau, 2000; Yoon, 2008). Ensuingly, ELLs in higher education become viewed as a single monolithic, homogenous group; more importantly, standard academic English continues to be the norm against which the linguistic “others” are measured. Through a qualitative case study that employed an ethnographic data collection method (Merriam, 1998; Creswell, 2003; Yin, 2003), this inquiry examined how six undergraduate students in a first-year writing course that is designated for ELLs see themselves and are seen by others in relation to the target language and culture of a U.S. postsecondary institution. Their experiences with learning English, relative closeness of the bond with their parents’ cultural heritage and native language, episodes of language brokering, and prior enrollment in a bilingual or ESL program were important factors that intersect as they negotiate their identities as college students and understand certain terms like ELL student, literate, and smart. The second focus of this research study examined identity and literacy practices on SNSs (social networking sites) by considering their use in context. As the world becomes increasingly more diverse with respect to language and technology, being literate, particularly in today’s digital age, requires knowing how to use digital texts (e.g., images, videos, and hyperlinks) for navigating nontraditional spaces. There is an increasing number of students communicating online, each one of them reading and writing thousands of words online each week (Williams, 2008). Notably, the digital literacy practices of today’s youths reflect the emerging reality that their social and academic lives are mediated by the ubiquitous presence of SNSs like Facebook, which has over 850 million daily active users on average and 1.35 billion monthly active users. Consequently, digitally-mediated forms of communication have become central to students’ lives, and one of the more interesting developments in literacy research has been the ways that students construct and negotiate their identities through digital texts and fully disembodied-text mode that “reveals nothing about their physical characteristics” (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin, 2008). The images, stereotypes, and identities that are manifested through institutional practices and policies can affect how students are socialized and how they negotiate classroom life and achievement. Findings from this study show that the deficit view and discourse of ELLs in higher education is commonly known and shared among ELLs, yet the hidden curriculum of schooling (Harklau, 2000; Auerbach, 1995) which perpetuates negative societal images of students of minority groups can be negotiated. As literacy practices evolve and shift from the page to the screen and from the classroom to digital space, ELLs have found that they can negotiate their identities through digital texts and different multimodal representations. This study aligns with the extant literature that claim that the deficit views of ELLs do not rest entirely with the ‘ELL’ term itself. The ‘ELL’ term is descriptive in nature, as many of the participants indicated that they self-identify as ELLs due to their linguistic proficiency and parents’ native language. According to researchers like Ortmeier-Hooper (2008) and Hinkel (2004), the problem of the ‘ELL’ term stems from the ideological underpinnings, and more significantly, the institutional identity attached to the term. The categorization and positioning of ELLs in U.S. postsecondary institutions has led to the development of a subordinated social group and even social identities. Participants in the study professed to having “problems” with English and how they sounded (i.e., accents), yet most of the participants disassociated themselves and even dismissed the institutionalized ELL student identity. They recognized that the ELL student identity is equated with identity markers and certain negative images like disabled, slow, and unemployed. The findings of this study build and extend on the literature by examining the ‘offline’ or real-world sociocultural influences of the participants and the participants’ positionality in institutions and classrooms. Just as identities and the study of literacies are inextricably connected, institutional policies, educational institutions, classroom practices, and cultural dynamics can play a significant role in the creation and re-creation of labels and identities as students grapple with the lifelong question of, “Who am I?” This analysis is particularly significant in today’s rapidly-growing multilingual and multicultural society.



Morales, P. Zitlali


Curriculum and Instruction

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Razfar, Aria Guevarra, Anna Kumashiro, Kevin Lee, Stacey J.

Submitted date



  • en

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