Rethinking “mainstream”: Language, labels, and opportunity

By Kerri Wingert - June 2014


Enright, K. A. (2011). Language and literacy for a new mainstream. American Educational Research Journal, 48(1), 80–118. doi:10.3102/0002831210368989

In this comparative case study, Enright explores whether the very act of labeling students as English learners contributes to continued differences in educational opportunity for students labeled “mainstream” and “non-mainstream.”

Research Design 

Enright presents results of a year-long investigation that focuses on three case studies: Belinda, a transnational bilingual female originally from Mexico; Leesa, a bilingual female also originally from Mexico; and Ollie, a Caucasian male who spoke only English. Enright examined how these three students used diverse language abilities to engage in a senior exhibition research project. She visited their class 68 times over nine months to document this work.

Theoretical Basis

Language is the means through which almost all classroom learning takes place; at least some English proficiency is required to gain content understanding (Valdés, Bunch, Snow, Lee, & Matos, 2005). According to Enright: As classrooms become increasingly diverse, however, our understanding of how home and school language interact has not improved, particularly in “mainstream” classrooms that serve students from a variety of language backgrounds. (p. 82)

Enright draws on Bordieu’s (1989) theory effect: “Symbolic power is the power to make things with words” (quoted in Enright, 2011, p. 23). Enright argues that labels of “non-mainstream” or even “Caucasian” can mask the true abilities and knowledge of diverse students.

Enright also draws from Luke’s (2004) theory of “glocalized” learning and teaching— a mash-up of globalized and localized. Glocalized education helps students and teachers bridge local contexts with global forces, such as privilege, immigration, and job market factors.

Both of these philosophical bases inform Enright’s investigation into how the languages of local and global power affect opportunities for diverse students.

Research Findings 

Enright argues that the labels schools attach to students influence the systems that support students’ learning, sometimes to their benefit but usually to their detriment. For example, Ollie, the Caucasian male, leveraged the cultural capital of his mother’s experience in school to hide what he didn’t know in order to do well on the project.

Belinda, by contrast, adhered strictly to teacher’s rubric. This procedure normally should produce an excellent project, but, in this case, it restricted Belinda’s thinking to a formula so as to be sure her English conventions were “correct”. Thus Belinda’s experience “emphasized form over function, product over process, and gist over argument” (p. 106). Her label of non-native English speaker led to a focus on English grammar, not quality thinking.

Leesa chose a nontraditional project that focused on social action in relation to a local native American issue. Her label of “ESL student” helped her gain access to support that helped her create an excellent, thoughtful project. For both Leesa and Ollie, labels like “transnational” or “native English speaker” distracted teachers from the students’ real needs and abilities. The students were similarly aware of their position in the school’s labeling system. These labels, serving as social markers to route students into systems of support, can become detrimental to learning over time.

Implications for Practice 

Enright is very clear about the ways practitioners can engage the “new mainstream” while working toward strict accountability requirements such as Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.

One recommendation is that practitioners work to engage all students, no matter their labels, with disciplinary learning through students’ diverse lived experiences. This process is especially relevant for science instruction when specific scientific language needs to be taught. Students’ prevailing conceptual understandings, which often come from their everyday experiences, can and should inform how they make meaning of new scientific language. For example, students engaged with a museum exhibit can make meaning of new scientific content and vocabulary by telling stories about how they have seen scientific phenomena in their lives. For longer-term curricula, students can, for example, photo-document science in their homes and neighborhoods in order to connect what they know to new science vocabulary in school.

Enright also beseeches educators to rethink how we label students’ origins, proficiencies, and histories, for these labels change student opportunities. In particular, she cautions that students should not be considered “deficient” in English proficiency, but rather masterful in their use of the multiple languages and discourses through which they learn disciplinary practices and engage in a community of learners.


Luke, A. (2004). Teaching after the market: From commodity to cosmopolitan. Teachers College Record , 106, 1422-1443.

Valdés, G., Bunch, G., Snow, C. E., Lee, C., & Matos, L. (2005). Enhancing the development of students’ language(s). In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 126–168). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.