The Applied Linguist as Advocate

A person publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy; one who puts forth a case on someone else’s behalf. –OED

Advocacy for English Learners (ELs) means working for their equitable and excellent education by taking appropriate actions on their behalf; it means stepping in and providing a voice for those students… –Diane Staehr Fenner from Advocating for English Learners, Ch. 1

It is clear that the current global climate—becoming defined as it is by growing nationalism and protectionism—will require language educators, and TESOL practitioners especially, to become advocate educators. In the United States, my home country, this truer now than at any other time in my short professional past. This is because, put simply, the United States is embarking down a dark path that is increasingly hostile towards those, “not like us.” And, not like us is coming to mean anyone that does “love America” in the way that this administration thinks that they should. Examining the rhetoric and actions of this administrations lays bare a racist, white-America first agenda. One that will leave our immigrant students silenced and at the mercy of an administration that wouldn’t know how to be empathetic towards those in power under positions even if a $1 billion-dollar contract hung in the balance. These are darkening times, especially for our students who may come from countries affected by the recent travel and immigration executive orders.  These are frightening times for our students to come to our college campuses from abroad; they fear the reception they will receive and they worry about their safety. This means, simply, that TESOL practitioners must take on the mantle of advocacy. We must speak out on behalf of our student bodies, with their best interests in mind. We need to work to equip our students with the linguistic, rhetorical, and confidence tools that they will need to stand alongside us and to advocate for themselves and for others like them. It feels like a lot is on the line at the current moment; and, this is in no small part due to the deluge of news of the American governmental system being seemingly upended by a selfish, short-sighted, and dangerous administration.

But, what does advocacy look like? And, how does one become an effective advocate? I think beginning from the Old English Dictionary definition and then moving to discipline-specific concerns is as good a strategy for thinking about these questions as any other. So, here, we’ll reflect on these issues together. I promise no answers because I don’t know that I have them yet myself. As shown above, the OED states that advocacy can mean making a case on someone else’s behalf and that this is often done publicly. What’s crucial here is that the advocate is speaking out on someone else’s behalf. This may suggest that the other may be in a power under position. Power under, here, means that they may be in some way marginalized by the institutions of government, religion, or education. Our students may be marginalized by their immigration status, their gender identity, their sexual identity, even their political and socioeconomic standings (see Vandrick’s The Role of Hidden Identities”). And, being marginalized because of one or more of the items listed above can leave our students at the mercy of institutions that may no longer have their best personal, social, and educational best interests in mind.

What this means, for the educator, is the need to speak out on the students’ behalf and to help them resist that marginalization in ways that lead to positive outcomes for the student body. This may mean, as it has for me in the past, advocating for a more ethical view of ESL students. I was once in a faculty meeting at one of the universities that I worked for when one of the faculty members—herself a highly able second language user of English—decided to bemoan some of her non-native English-speaking students command of the English language. She stated that they had been with our school for a whole semester, and yet they still produced errors in their writing and their English was still “so poor.” I felt it necessary to point out that 1.) language learning takes time; 2.) she had apparently forgotten her own language learning journey and early struggles, and 3.) these are students in their first year of study. They are under a great deal of affective and cognitive strain. Frankly, we should be praising them for their accomplishments and offer them more support, not tear them down and marginalize them as “less than” the native speaking students.

It may also mean, as has recently become the case, standing up for our students in public forums when governmental policies are casting them as foreigners who we don’t know if we can and should trust and who might just be out to steal our jobs. In this regards, I feel it’s important for our various professional organizations to ally with each other and to speak out against such injustice with a unified voice. TESOL International Association’s recent statement on these immigration and travel bans is a brilliant start (available here). However, a single body of professionals, even one as large as TESOL simply isn’t enough. It must seek to work with others such as AAAL, IATEFL, and BAAL to amplify our voices and to increase our potential impact. And, since these are volunteer organizations they need us, their members, to stand with them and lend our voices and our labor to their efforts.

Finally, I believe that being an advocate educator in these times also means teaching our students how to speak out on their own behalf. Teaching them how to find oppression, both overt and covert, and how to actively resist it. It may also mean teaching them to understand kairos—that is when it’s the right time to make a move, when it’s time to withdraw, and when it might be best to enlist external advocates who may be in a more socially advantageous position. I think in these times, to really answer the questions of what an advocate educator looks like and how to become one, we need to return to works like Paolo Fraire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Linda Adler-Kassner’s The Advocate WPA. To be short, it’s time to stand together on behalf of our students in an environment that seems to be growing increasingly hostile.

Source Articles

Adler-Kassner, L. (2008). The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Advocacy. (2017). Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from:

Fenner, D.S. (2014). Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Fraire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition). New York: Bloomsbury.

TESOL International. (2017). TESOL Statement on Immigration Executive Order. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

Vandrick, S. (1997). The role of hidden identities in the postsecondary ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 153-157.

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