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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Boy whispering into a girl's ear both smiling

Although America is a diverse country, accepting people who are different from us is something that we still struggle with in the classroom. Many students, especially along the coasts, come from other countries and, as a result, English is their second language. Depending on the school district, some students will be in separate ELL classes, some will be in an integrated classroom, and others may be in a bilingual education environment. Embracing different languages while helping students achieve high grades and test scores leaves teachers with a conundrum.

Here are four practices to help address this situation.

Strategies for the Classroom

1. Use Empathy to Understand Isolation

Diversity and empathy can be effectively taught by putting ourselves in another person's shoes. If an American, English-speaking student had to suddenly take the majority of classes in Spanish, Japanese, or Russian, he or she would likely gain a newfound experience of and appreciation for his or her ELL peers. Although this is not a practical solution with instructional minutes to be filled, a smaller version thereof may be possible.

Students can read an age-appropriate short story or magazine article in a second language -- preferably the language that they are studying at school -- to understand diversity in languages. Teachers with more latitude in their curriculum can set up a group project where the ELL student and English-only students work together in a group setting. For example, the English-only students can attempt to write a paragraph in Japanese and give it to the student from Japan to grade and make suggestions about. In return, the Japanese-language student will give an English-language paragraph to his or her native English-speaking classmate. This type of activity encourages not only diversity but also appropriate socialization within a classroom environment.

2. Ensure That Student Maintains Fluency in Primary Language

It's important for ELL students to maintain fluency in their primary language, both for the sake of their identity and bilingualism in adulthood. It's also important for ELL students to become fluent and skilled English speakers so that they can achieve their maximum grade and test score potential.

Teachers of younger ELL students are encouraged to engage them in conversation as much as possible. Additionally, the more comfortable a student feels speaking English, the more comfortable he or she will eventually become with reading and writing. Reading comprehension can be more easily achieved if students are allowed to pick books with themes from their primary culture that contain references and cultural ideals they are familiar with. Cultural identity should be maintained, not diminished.

3. Use Art to Express Culture

Language has always been its own art form. Students who are new to the U.S. can share something about their own language with their class, such as a short poem, a famous author from their country, or the written language itself. Letters from non-Roman alphabets can be beautifully made into art projects with calligraphy pens or other tools and media. Any project that assists ELL students with socialization in their new environment will ease the struggle of both learning a new language fluently and being surrounded by an entirely new culture.

4. Use Graphics to Aid in Communication

Picture books, as well as computerized versions thereof, are great tools for students to communicate lesser-used nouns. (Think hipopotamo [hippopotamus] or jonquille [daffodil].) The use of graphics is paramount because students entering the U.S. will have a rough transition to the American way of learning a second language. ELL students are taught English the same way that English-only students are taught their second language. They conjugate verbs and learn to write, but they don't necessarily learn to speak or react to their environment as quickly as is necessary to make them confident and comfortable.

Tolerance, Empathy, and Perspective

Teachers can set a positive example by showing their students that ELLs have a lot to offer and by encouraging the class to not only welcome but embrace language diversity. While some students will embrace the culture and language of their peers, many others will find it difficult to communicate with students who are still learning English. This is a difficult issue for teachers who value tolerance and empathy. Students who attempt to work in a second language themselves will often gain a perspective of how long it takes to fully communicate in a second language. Additionally, students who can work successfully with peers from varying language backgrounds will more often grow into productive, empathetic, and global individuals.

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Robyn Scott's picture
Robyn Scott
College Prep Tutor with Tutor Nerds

Rusul, I will do a bit of research and see what I can find as far as graphics. There are so many new things coming out these days!

WendyC's picture

I really enjoyed your post. I feel that it offered many insights to help your ELL learners be successful in your class. I can personally relate to your comments about being in the situation that most ELL students are in when they first enter an environment that speaks languages other than their primary language. This article made me think of how I felt when I first walked into foreign language classes while in school. Additionally, I agree with the fact that ELL learners should remain fluent in their primary language. I believe that remaining fluent in their primary language could only benefit them when it comes to mastering the concepts of a secondary language. I am always welcome to students speaking in their primary language within my classroom as long as it didn't interfere with the learning of classmates. Additionally, I would speak to them in spanish as well and they loved it. I think it made them feel more at home. I feel that by reading your article I have discovered some strategies that will help improve student learning within my classroom in years to come! Thanks for sharing!

Robyn Scott's picture
Robyn Scott
College Prep Tutor with Tutor Nerds

Thanks Wendy! I think it's so important for kids to grow up bilingual if possible. I only speak one language, and I can get by, but I think my ability to travel and do business would have been greatly improved if I was truly fluent in a second language. I think it will be even more important for the next generation. On the other hand, kids living in the U.S. Will need English fluency to survive and thrive.

Rachna's picture

Great post Robyn! I have a resource that I use with my ELLs, which I think you would love. It is a book that gives voice to the stories of six children coming to America from diverse cultures. My ELLs are thrilled to see themselves in a book they are reading. There is a free teacher's guide to go along with it.

Clare Roach's picture
Clare Roach
Coordinator, English as a New Language Program, Institute for Educational Initiatives, University of Notre Dame

Great article, Robyn! I've found it very successful when teachers model that they love learning new languages (even when it's tricky!). When you ask an ELL something as simple as, "Teach us how you say that in Urdu/Spanish/Tagalog, etc.?" you dignify the student by making him/her feel like an expert. And, equally importantly, it allows the teacher to illustrate that learning to pronounce words can take time. Students pick up on their teachers' values. When a teacher values learning from others' experiences, the students will too.

Robyn Scott's picture
Robyn Scott
College Prep Tutor with Tutor Nerds

Thanks Clare. Yes, I have found it very challenging to pronounce words in other languages. I imagine that's what ELL students go through every day.

Robyn Scott's picture
Robyn Scott
College Prep Tutor with Tutor Nerds

Hi Rusul, I liked this site http://www.eslflow.com/Picturelessonsandteachingideas.html especially the the last one "teaching classroom language with pictures". Depending on the amount of time the teacher has and the language level of the student, creating graphics as a class project (using either basic free clip art online or drawing by hand) would be a fun way for International students to get to know each other even if they don't speak the same primary language.

FutureTeacher2016's picture

Robyn I agree completely with everything you wrote about ELL students. I wonder how you feel about music being a way to share and express culture? I truly believe that music and food are universal languages.

I had a friend whose parents only spoke Spanish and they were always open to sharing food and inviting me over regardless of our language barrier. I am not a teacher yet but I have had the opportunity to work with ELL students and finally understood why so many ELL students can become frustrated when learning English. I would go into detail but I think my post would become too long.

I am taking a college course at the moment and my professor has heavily stressed the importance of using visuals and when necessary slowing things down. I think that working with ELL students takes a lot of patience and it's definitely worth it. I plan to become ESL certified. Thank you for your post!

Robyn Scott's picture
Robyn Scott
College Prep Tutor with Tutor Nerds

FutureTeacher2016, Yes! I think music is a great way to share culture. Food is also great; the only reason I stopped using that tool was so many of my students had allergies. If you have the opportunity and you want to, I recommend teaching abroad for a bit or working in an area of the US that has several different cultures. Get advice from colleagues who have taught abroad to find out which companies offer the best experience and salary. Welcome to the educational community!

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