By Scott Sterling
This is the first of a two-part series on helping English-language learners feel more comfortable at a new school.
Students who speak a language other than English at home are projected to make up a third of the nation’s public school students by the end of the decade. This is a huge demographic shift being felt not only by states like California, Texas, and Florida, but also Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Vermont.
Many of those students come from migrant backgrounds, whose guardians move around a lot in search of work. This means that English-language learning students tend to be the new kid in far more schools than a native English speaker. It’s important to take every step we can to make these students feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Only then can learning take place. Here are a few things to keep in mind, with more to follow in next week’s post.
Pair a student with a knowledgeable buddy
Being new in school can be a lonely feeling. You don’t know anyone. Being unable to find things can be frustrating or embarrassing. If you struggle in English, those challenges can be magnified.
When a new ELL student enters school, pair them with a buddy who knows their way around campus. Ideally (although not necessarily), this buddy is a more proficient or former ELL student themselves. Not only can this student act as tour guide, but they have the capacity to act as a mentor during the inevitable trials that lay ahead for the new student.
Conduct a language inventory among the staff
As mentioned in the intro, this ELL influx is affecting every state in the union. Meanwhile, a school’s staff includes one hundred or so people with varying backgrounds and experiences.
Before your ELL numbers start to overwhelm you, conduct an inventory survey among the staff, looking for all the different foreign languages that can be found on campus. Even limited or rusty language skills can be of use. Don’t forget to survey everyone, including custodial and food personnel. In the least, these people can serve as translators during student or parent interactions. At the most, the staff member can be a mentor to a new student.
Learn and model how to properly pronounce the student’s name
Names are our key to community access and belonging. The new student may be coming from a place where everyone inherently knew how to pronounce their name, so everyone mispronouncing it is just one more reminder that they are an outsider.
English learners are quick to accept however their peers want to pronounce their name, usually with something like “close enough”. Don’t accept that attitude. Sit the new student down and have them teach you how to pronounce their name until you get it right. Then model that pronunciation for the rest of the class. It may take a while, especially for younger students, but the time spent will be worth it when the new student feels accepted by the community.