January 2016
Heather A. Linville, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA

Last year I gave a presentation at the Language, Literacy, and Culture Graduate Student Conference at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, titled “Activism in Teacher Education: Training ESOL Teachers as Advocates.” In the title, I purposefully conflated two terms commonly heard in education today, advocacy and activism, as a reflection of how these terms lack clear definitions in TESOL and in education in general. In the talk, I shared the results of my study on ESOL teacher advocacy (Linville, 2014), but I also began contemplating what we, as teacher educators and school administrators, should expect of ESOL teachers as advocates. I wondered if what we expect moves into the realm of activism, a term that I believe is often stigmatized as too political or too risky for teachers and education. In this article, I hope to clarify these terms in order to help teacher educators prepare new ESOL teachers for this important aspect of their job. I also hope this article can help in-service ESOL teachers comfortably locate themselves on the range of English language learner (ELL) support activities available to them, from advocacy to activism.

Advocacy for ELLs is vital, and most ESOL teachers seem to agree that advocacy is an important part of their role (Linville, 2014), yet how to define advocacy is not clear. Dictionary.com (2015c) defines an “advocate” as “a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc.” or “a person who pleads for or in [sic] behalf of another; intercessor.” Champion, proponent, and backer are commonly used synonyms. On the other hand, an “activist” is defined as an “especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, especially a political cause” (Dictionary.com, 2015b), and “activism” refers to “the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals” (Dictionary.com, 2015a). These definitions highlight one reason teacher educators are challenged in clearly defining the terms; there is significant overlap, with advocacy supporting people or causes, and activism referring to “vigorous action” in support of change.

The standards for the initial licensing of new ESOL teachers in the United States (TESOL, 2010) require that teacher education programs prepare new ESOL teachers to act as advocates for ELLs. However, these standards include a wide range of potential advocacy actions in the suggested performance indicators, from collaborating with other teachers to improve instruction for ELLs and serving on instructional teams on behalf of ELLs, to helping policymakers understand ELL issues and lobbying public officials to change policies. This leaves unclear what is meant by and what constitutes advocacy.

Leaders in the field of ELL advocacy also recognize the range of actions that advocacy includes. For example, Fenner (2014) states that advocacy is

based on acting on behalf of ELs both inside and outside the classroom . . . working for ELs’ equitable and excellent education by taking appropriate actions on their behalf . . . [and] stepping in and providing a voice for those students—and their families—who have not yet developed their own strong voice in their education. (p. 8)

Athanases and De Oliveira (2008) locate the classroom as “the core site for teachers’ advocacy work” (p. 77). They additionally highlight how classroom advocacy actions impact families, communities, and even political policy. They recognize that teacher candidates need “organizational and political literacy to intercede on behalf of students in need, particularly in sites beyond the classroom” (pp. 97–98), referring to the “activism” end of the “advocacy scale.”

Activism is a term rarely used in TESOL. TESOL International Association also prefers the term advocacy. Each summer TESOL International sponsors the Advocacy Summit (TESOL, 2015), during which TESOL members lobby their federal representatives to affect policy change. This view of advocacy seems to belong more to the realm of activism and is clearly a different type of advocacy than talking to a general education teacher colleague to make sure that ELLs are receiving proper modifications on assessments.

In my work and interactions with ESOL teachers, I have found that ESOL teachers tend to define advocacy similarly to Fenner (2014) as speaking up in response to a perceived need for ELLs in their schools. They tell stories of finding resources for ELLs, motivating and encouraging them, teaching ELLs to advocate for themselves, and sharing information and resources with school staff to improve the educational experiences and outcomes of ELLs. For example, in my study (Linville, 2014), only 2 of the 15 teachers interviewed offered examples of going beyond the school to advocate for policy changes. As one teacher explained, “Honestly, I have bigger fish to fry. . . . There’s just so many logistical problems [such as coordinating interpreters for parent/general education teacher meetings] that make our job so much harder to do that I feel like I have to fight for those first” (p. 208).

Advocacy, thus, is conceptualized in our field both as action within schools to help specific students and as action beyond schools to change policy. In my own intellectual journey considering how to best prepare new ESOL teachers for the advocate role, I considered the range of actions, from those within schools to those beyond, which we refer to when we talk about advocacy. A distinction between the terms advocacy and activism seems necessary. I suggest that we refer to actions within schools, having to do with specific ELLs (or other marginalized students) and improving their immediate educational experiences and outcomes, as advocacy. For the type of advocacy that has as its goal policy changes, typically carried out by lobbying public officials, attending rallies, or starting petitions, I suggest we use the term activism.

By disentangling these terms, I believe we can promote advocacy as an expected and required role of all teachers working with culturally and linguistically diverse students. We must remember that asking teachers to be advocates or activists, no matter how essential the role, is an additional burden to the numerous professional expectations already placed on ESOL teachers in the U.S. public school system. However, Athanases and De Oliveira (2008) found that even first-year teachers are inclined to speak up for ELLs in their classrooms and schools as advocates, and my research confirms this finding (Linville, 2014). The role of activist, on the other hand, can be expected for more experienced teachers who have moved beyond their first few years of being most focused on learning how to teach and importantly, who have greater job security. These teachers can be expected to take on a more active, political role as activists.

Teachers play a crucial role in advocating for ELLs and other marginalized students to ensure their educational success within schools. By defining advocacy and more clearly integrating it into teacher education programs and professional development initiatives, teachers can understand and do what is needed to advocate for ELLs in schools. Additionally, with clarity of terminology, we can hopefully destigmatize activism by focusing on its specific goal of policy changes. ESOL teachers and others can and should work as activists to change policies and challenge societal inequities, thus enhancing ELLs’ life chances. Finally, we as teacher educators must work as advocates and activists ourselves as models for our future teachers.


Activism. (2015a). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/activism?s=t

Activist. (2015b). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/activist?s=t

Advocate. (2015c). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/advocate?s=t

Athanases, S. Z., & De Oliveira, L. C. (2008). Advocacy for equity in classrooms and beyond: New teachers’ challenges and responses. Teachers College Record, 110(1), 64–104.

Fenner, D. S. (2014). Advocacy for English learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Linville, H. (2014). A mixed methods investigation of ESOL teacher advocacy: “It’s not going in and just teaching English” (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (UMI 3624381)

TESOL International Association. (2010). TESOL/NCATE standards for the recognition of initial TESOL programs in P-12 ESL teacher education. Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/docs/books/the-revised-tesol-ncate-standards-for-the-recognition-of-initial-tesol-programs-in-p-12-esl-teacher-education-(2010-pdf).pdf?sfvrsn=2

TESOL International Association. (2015). TESOL advocacy and policy summit. Retrieved from http://www.tesol.org/advance-the-field/advocacy-resources/tesol-advocacy-policy-summit

Heather A. Linville is an assistant professor and director of TESOL at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She holds a PhD in language, literacy, and culture from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her main research interests include language teacher education, critical language awareness, and advocacy for English language learners.