Before he was my student, Jose grew corn and watermelon for years in Honduras instead of attending school. He said he had stopped in sixth grade because, as he put it, “If I studied, I wasn’t working, and if I was working, I wasn’t studying.”
Jose’s memories of school weren’t positive. One teacher hit his hands with a wooden ruler, and no one taught him to read until the fifth grade. Still, he came to the United States fully determined to learn English and to graduate from high school.
What he was up against was much more than overcoming language and cultural barriers, however. Jose needed to learn how to “do school” in ways many of us take for granted.
Almost a quarter of all students enrolled in San Francisco Unified School District last school year were English learners. Many of them were students with limited or interrupted formal education, or SLIFEs (the exact number is unknown because the district doesn’t track this). Like Jose, they had missed two or more years of formal education for reasons including poverty, war, gang violence, or different cultural expectations of schooling.
These are some of our most high-risk students because they face language and cultural barriers in addition to needing basic school skills, yet there’s not a lot of easily accessible information to help teachers support SLIFEs. To address this, I’ve collected some research-based strategies along with examples of how my colleagues and I have implemented them.
Helping Students With Limited or Interrupted Formal Education
1. Create a buddy system for newly arrived students to help them learn about their school and connect with peers. Walking into a new school can be terrifying, particularly for SLIFEs. In my student support role at San Francisco International High School (SFIHS), a school for recent immigrants, I worked with other staff to pair our newest arrivals with student buddies. We chose buddies based on matching schedules, grade levels, gender, and leadership potential.
We prepped these student ambassadors to take their role seriously and help newer students learn the campus, meet teachers, make new friends, and share their own experiences and advice for surviving the first few weeks.
2. Connect classroom learning to its immediate and practical relevance. New York University educator and researcher Andrea DeCapua notes that students who have missed a lot of formal education often come from communities where new learning has immediate and direct relevance. In contrast, the content and skills we teach from middle school on are increasingly abstract and theoretical, so getting buy-in from SLIFEs is a potential challenge.
Shannon Darcey, a middle-school English language development teacher at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland, California, tackles this at the beginning of the year by asking her students to create a video tour of their school, narrated in English. Students work together in small groups to familiarize themselves with the important people, places, and things they’ll see every day for the next year. Darcey finds that students are “super eager to complete the project, and it’s very concrete.”
3. Use collaborative group-work structures that create a shared accountability for learning. According to DeCapua, many SLIFEs come from communities where learning is a shared process. While many educators in the United States use group work in their classes, it’s not the norm, and this mismatch can be tough.
Nicholas Chan uses a collaborative test-review structure that supports SLIFEs in his ninth- and 10th-grade math classes at SFIHS. After receiving one too many blank tests from students who couldn’t answer the questions, he and his collaborative partner began devoting a class period to testing students in groups before asking them to demonstrate understanding on their own.
During group tests, four students work together to study the content, skills, and language they’ll be tested on later individually. In the group test, though, they’re solely accountable for their “responsibility to group.” Chan scans the classroom for specific group work behaviors like “lean into the middle of the table” and “same question, same time”—meaning that everyone in the group works on each problem together, and no one moves ahead until everyone is ready. He notes and projects positive examples with his computer.
Additionally, students can ask him no more than two questions during the group test, a practice that Chan says forces them to rely on each other. The structure helps all students study, and specifically provides SLIFEs with a way to construct meaning collaboratively.
4. Develop age-appropriate lessons that are highly scaffolded for SLIFEs. Great curriculum for SLIFEs explicitly teaches language, deconstructs abstract concepts into the tangible, and activates prior knowledge while being age-appropriate.
Courtney Couvreur at Oakland International High School does this by asking her Statistics and Probability students to create a cookbook and, in the process, learn foundational numeracy skills about fractions, which will help them eventually interpret quantitative data they see in their everyday life.
She starts with a relatable, practical concept—cooking—and quickly gets students comparing measurements of ingredients to understand, in a physical way, what a whole and parts of a whole look like. She then teaches sequence language so students learn to explain how to make their recipes. For SLIFEs, this scaffolding provides the groundwork they will need to access more abstract concepts later.