Intercomprehending: Dismantling the Deficit Approach in ESL

When I first proposed an ELA course where students could move at their own pace while reading texts they chose, and work in heterogeneous groups organized by interest, I was scared. No matter how progressive a teacher I may be, there is that voice telling you:

If students go at their own pace, you will lose the sense of urgency needed to overcome academic and language gaps.

If you let students choose their own texts, without teacher-created scaffolds, the texts will be too hard and they will be too frustrated.

If you let students determine what questions about the texts get asked and discussed, they will never go as deep as if I were leading the discussion.

If you let go of monitoring and closely evaluating every student’s comprehension of every text they read, are you also letting go of valuable learning opportunities?

If you let students group themselves, they will choose their friends and self-segregate.

If you ask teachers to teach this way, the shifts in practice and pedagogy will be too big to sustain or operationalize in the classroom.

A year later after starting this new course, and even with successes under our belt, those fears persist, especially now: we have a new crop of teachers joining our ELA department to take up this work, and we are simultaneously developing a Writers Workshop course where our students will have the time and space to “own” their English through authentic writing (ie not just essays) as they develop and learn to master it. We have barely had the time to reflect on the parts of the course that need to be improved upon.

So, rather than flail and agonize over the challenges I face and the fears that won’t go away, I read. I read a lot (apparently there is no sleep during the summer either). I read texts by people whose ideas are contrary to mine (like teaching with a whole class novel), and I read books and research that both undergird and expand my approach to the course’s philosophies around how people learn best.

I felt that undergirding and support when I discovered research into dialogic literacy, and then when I found research by Maren Aukerman, who really captured what I have been wrestling with in terms of how I conceive of comprehension and how teachers intentionally or accidentally, communicate a “right” interpretation to texts. (Example 1,

Most recently, I read this research published in the Harvard Educational Review by Aukerman, Lorien Chambers Schultz and two others called, “What Meaning-Making Means Among Us: The Intercomprehending of Emergent Bilinguals in Small-Group Text Discussions.” If you have any familiarity with me, you probably know I fell off my chair and onto my geek ass when I read that title.

I recently tweeted out some favorite quotes from this paper and hope to popularize it as much as possible in both literacy/reading circles and ELL-instruction circles. (So, please feel free to engage via Twitter and spread the discussion of these ideas.)

Here are some choice sentences:

Many prevailing narratives about [emergent bilinguals] focus on what they presume to lack […]. Research indicates that many teachers, even those who believe strongly in bilingual education, also adopt such deficit views to the practical detriment of their students (Escamilla, 2001; Aukerman, 2007). At the same time, some teachers and researchers have pushed for a frame shift (e.g., García & Kleifgen, 2010; Gutierrez, Baquedano-López, Alvarez, & Chiu, 1999; Valdés, 2003), arguing that more attention should be paid to what students are doing as they navigate multiple languages, and to the mental flexibility and resourcefulness of emergent bilinguals (EBs) (e.g., García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008).


Some scholars (e.g., García, Makar, Starcevi, & Terry, 2011) have identified a particularly important dimension of translanguaging: students’ ability to use peers as resources to help them communicate their ideas and “make sense of their worlds” (García & Levin, 2014, p. 200). […] Translanguaging as a social practice has started to affect language policies in schools — from calling attention to children’s language use in classroom learning to being considered in school and district policies around language use and instruction. However, while children’s oral sharing of their ideas in ways that draw on varied linguistic repertoires is slowly becoming more acknowledged as a collaborative social practice, scholars of second language acquisition have generally not examined the implications of this insight for the particular ways in which EB readers comprehend and interpret text, their textual meaning making.” (Aukerman, et al., 2017)

How true is this? How many well intentioned teachers still start within or fall into a deficit model. I know that’s one place where some of my scary voices come from.

One piece of language that really stood out to me here is where it says, “more attention should be paid to what students are doing as they navigate multiple languages, and to the mental flexibility and resourcefulness of emergent bilinguals”. This is something teachers can do as a means to re-center their classroom. The act of listening to a group of students deliberate over how to approach, read and discuss a text is a source for teachers we often overlook. How do they respond to each other? How do they act on confusions? What do they do to reach consensus on meaning? What do they do when they don’t? Do they recognize the significance? I mine these student-student interactions for lessons around strategies to teach.

The discussion in this research around the role student discussions of texts play in their understanding of the text really reaffirmed what I see in my classroom.

Allowing students to make sense of a text together, reading and processing it in response to each other is valuable in and of itself; not just if it leads to a “correct” interpretations the text. The act of “intercomprehending” is itself a powerful act of learning. I mean, it just took my breath away when I read this. It really challenges the way many ESL teachers may approach student discussions of text, and I know that while that has been a corner I have turned in my practice, those scary worries continue. (I’m lucky to be at a school with a principal who especially wants to see student voices valued, so the pressures and fears are not coming from my administrators, the way other teachers may have that to contend with.)

Now, this research doesn’t soothe all my fears, of course, but it does two things: it raises my understanding of the approach I’ve been using by giving analysis, context, terminology and nuanced dimensions to it (before I used to look at my discussions in terms of intersubjectivity and shared attention), but also it makes clear for me that what I am doing is basically still in the research stage. I’m not going to find research that will totally allay my fears because it doesn’t exist.

I will continue reading widely and trying to synthesize different areas of research, pushing against these fears and questions as we synthesize an approach that can do right by our students. I hope you will join in on this journey, if you haven’t already in your practice.


*We have a philosophy and approach, and while we train these new teachers in it, we need to support and empower them to give further life and meaning to our work.

Just as students grow in their comprehension when grappling with a text and achieve new understanding through experiencing intersubjectivity, we can hold the same perspective when working with teachers, if we see the course itself as a “text”.