By Scott Sterling
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:
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 lie 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.
English language learning students already have an uphill battle in acclimating to a new, unfamiliar, and complicated language, but they also tend to change education settings more frequently than their native-speaking cohorts. This lack of consistency makes their journey to proficiency that much more difficult. We’ve assembled some strategies to help teachers help ELL students make the transition.
Don’t wait for the student to ask for help
Language challenges can force anyone to be shy, and that’s particularly true among students trying to build a rapport with their teacher(s). Add to that the fact that in some Spanish-speaking cultures, teachers are treated with a sort of reverence with which American teachers are unaccustomed and you have the recipe for a student sitting quietly – even if they are struggling.
That means it’s the teacher who needs to reach out to the student. Don’t wait for him or her to ask for help. Check in regularly. Or, even better, make sure the student spends the first few weeks sitting near enough to you where you can see their progress without disturbing them.
Visuals aren’t just for lessons
Visuals are a central tool in ELL curricula, with good reason. The problem is that teachers forget those tricks when covering the other aspects of their classroom, such as procedures for lunch, dismissal, sharpening pencils, etc. These parts of classroom culture are even harder for ELL students to master if they come into school in the middle of the year, after you’ve spent the first week or so modeling them for the other students.
Instead, start the year with visual posters that walk students through acceptable classroom procedures and norms. That way, if an ELL student does come into class mid-year, they will be able to fall right in with their other classmates.
Label objects around the room bilingually
Along the same line, labelling classroom objects can save an ELL student a lot of stress or embarrassment. Instead of having to search for “pencil sharpener”, they can just refer to the object. This not only aids in learning classroom procedures, but it also can help move the student’s conversation skills along.
Give them time to educate everyone else (but don’t push them)
ELL students are a tremendous cultural resource for everyone who comes into contact with them. But that can also be a lot of pressure as they are bombarded with questions. Instead, make it known to the student that they are welcome to make a presentation to the class about their language, culture, and customs, but only when they’re ready. It can save a lot of those awkward question-and-answer sessions.
There’s so much more that teachers can do to help these students get acclimated to their new surroundings. What can YOU add to the list? Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation, and for more guidance on this and a host of other topics, visit the Learning Sciences bookstore.