Although America is a diverse country, accepting people who are different from us is something 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.
4 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 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 students maintain fluency in their 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 ELLs to become fluent and skilled English speakers so that they can achieve their maximum grade and test score potential.
Teachers of younger ELLs 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 ELLs 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. ELLs 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.