Nationwide, about one out of every 10 public school students is learning to speak English. The U.S. Department of Education reports that there are an estimated 4.9 million children in public schools learning the English language, an increase of more than 1 million since 2000.
At Voice of Witness, a nonprofit that works to amplify the voices of people impacted by and fighting against injustice, oral history has supported language learning in a variety of classrooms as it incorporates literacy, critical thinking, culturally relevant content, and a participatory vision of history.
Through interview activities, English language learner (ELL) students can connect their own cultural knowledge and identity with their academic journey and find more opportunities for visibility and voice, while building their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills.
Culturally Relevant Content
Bringing first-person narratives into the classroom, especially from immigrant voices, can help multilingual students envision their own stories within the curriculum. Through the Voice of Witness book series, oral history archives such as Densho and StoryCorps, or graphic memoirs such as The Best We Could Do, these opportunities for reading and listening to people who may share cultures with ELL students can validate their experiences as part of historical narratives.
Chunks of first-person narratives can also be more accessible for students developing their literacy skills and tune their listening to find the who, what, when, where, and why of a story. Students can utilize sentence stems to discuss their readings out loud or reflect on their reading with prompts such as the following:
- I think/believe…
- This reminds me of…
- I’m confused about…
- I can picture/imagine…
- This is similar to…
- I connect to…
Integrating Family and Community
Oral history projects are natural opportunities to include families of multilingual students or other members of the community. Interviews with relatives can be conducted in their chosen language while students write about the experience in English, stretching their abilities to reflect and summarize. Interviews can also be conducted in English with student partners or native speakers, pushing their communication skills.
An oral history cookbook is one way to highlight the stories within a family and community while grounding the experience in a way that is accessible for both interviewer and narrator. Interviews center around a recipe that’s meaningful to the narrator, and students learn why they chose it and what cooking it means to them.
Multilingual students start by studying the components of a recipe or reading a graphic novel about cooking such as Measuring Up. Students should be encouraged to think about people in their own lives they could interview for the project, but there should also be a list of people (other teachers, counselors, administrative staff, coaches) at school who are willing to be interviewed.
For teachers, students, and their families, this is a chance to connect on a deeper level and provide space for families to be experts in an aspect of their students’ learning and share their knowledge.
Other accessible themes for oral history projects could include a migration map that chronicles how the narrators, or the students, ended up in this country, state, city, or even specific neighborhood. Students could also work together to choose a topic they would like to explore in their community.
Confidence in Communication
While the final product of an oral history project is important, the most crucial part of any oral history experience is the moment a student sits down with someone and conducts an interview. The work that leads up to that moment includes writing open-ended questions, practicing follow-up questions, and communicating the purpose of the interview to their narrator. By that point, the student has already learned key communication skills and is now putting them all into action.
The goal of teaching oral history skills is to help students feel confident about two key essential questions, “Will this person understand me, and will I understand them?”
When the focus is on communication, some of the pressure and stress of trying to say things “right” in grammar and vocabulary can be replaced by a more holistic view of learning the English language, which can help shy speakers become more confident in their ability to share and ask questions. Teachers can do this by sharing first-person narratives from nonnative English speakers and providing low-stakes opportunities to practice oral history.
Short interview activities in pairs can help students build up their active listening and follow-up question skills, using initial prompts such as these:
- Tell me a story about your name.
- What is something that has made you happy lately?
- Share a picture or photo that is meaningful to you.
The more students experience oral history, the more they believe that their stories are worth sharing, too.