Sociocultural Influence on ELL Students: Identity & Learning Issues

Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Do you ever wonder if your ELL students struggle because of the sociocultural surrounding? This lesson discusses how this issue relates to ELL students' identity and creates learning challenges.

What Is Identity?

Aadila is an ELL student. She is Muslim and her parents, both Middle Eastern, reinforce at home the varied aspects of their culture. For instance, they make food that is traditional from the Middle East. They pray five times a day. They dress in traditional clothing styles. In short, their identity is clearly Middle Eastern. Identity is important for all of us because it is the set of characteristics and traditions that are part of the sociocultural environment where we belong, which differentiates us from other cultures.

In her ELL classes, Aadila learns many new things. For example, she recently learned about 'pulled pork,' a recipe mentioned in the chapter about imperatives in her ELL textbook. Aadila was a bit uncomfortable in class because pork is a forbidden food in her culture. Also, Aadila feels uncomfortable when certain traditions that she does not practice are presented, such as Halloween, Christmas, etc. In short, Aadila experiences a sociocultural dissonance. This means simply that the social and cultural aspects of the new culture where she lives clash with her sociocultural background.

Let's now examine how this relates to Aadila's study of English.

ELL Students' Sociocultural Learning Issues

Aadila's family definitely wants to adapt to the new culture where they live while they can keep their own customs and traditions at home. However, Aadila begins to unconsciously reject the sociocultural elements of the English language because she does not identify with them. Moreover, she feels that her identity is somewhat violated. Without knowing it, she begins to lag behind her peers in class and her performance in ELL classes is very low.

As an ELL teacher, you might have many students who begin to feel awkward when learning sociocultural aspects of the world attached to English language. Your ELL students very likely are not even aware of this issue. To understand how identity can feel affected, put yourself in your students' shoes. Imagine you go to a foreign country and then attend a class to learn the language of that country. You begin to learn about traditions and customs that are strange to you. You might feel suddenly lost, wondering who you really are and what you are doing in that foreign culture. Moreover, you might feel afraid to lose your identity and become someone else. If you feel like this, it is not difficult to begin to get academically behind others who feel excited about everything they are learning.

Addressing Sociocultural Learning Issues

If you now understand how sociocultural aspects of English affect the feelings your students have of their own identity, you can see why this can affect their academic performance in ELL classes. You may wonder what you can do.

Ideally, your students would discuss their feelings of confusion at home and their family members would encourage them to continue learning while reassuring that their own identity will not be lost. Again, this is the ideal situation. In Aadila's case, she does not discuss her feelings with her parents because she herself does not understand why she feels so lost.

Your approach as an ELL teacher is safe if you talk to your students about two basic facts. First, mention that sociocultural topics that are new to them are part of learning the English language. This way, your students understand that social and cultural topics are attached to the language itself. Second, tell your students that they will always be able to keep their own traditions regardless of how many new sociocultural aspects of a foreign culture they learn.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Sociocultural Influence on ELL Students:

Scenario Prompt:

Write an essay that describes a scenario that may cause an ELL student to experience sociocultural dissonance.

Tip: Refer to the case of Aadila described in the lesson.

Essay Prompt 1:

In a paragraph or two, explain the role of identity in the ELL classroom.

Example: Learning about American traditions can cause students to feel like their own cultural traditions are somehow valued less, which then causes their performance in the ELL class to slip.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of approximately 3-4 paragraphs that explains why it is important for ELL teachers to be approachable and to foster a safe environment.

Example: You could note that ELL students often do not discuss their feelings about their ELL class with their parents.

Letter Prompt:

Pretend that you are a teacher and you want your students and their parents to find your ELL classroom to be safe, productive, and useful. Write a letter to your students' parents that expresses how you plan to address and prevent sociocultural dissonance in your classroom. (Assume that your students' parents all have access to a translator, so you do not have to worry about whether your letter is comprehensible or not.)

Example: You could explain that learning English will not in any way prevent your students from retaining their native cultural traditions and values.

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