Question: I work in a Pre-K class where all the students are English Language Learners. When students are communicating with me they use English but they immediately switch to their first language when they converse together and when they are not involved in a teacher guided center. I have been trying to motivate them to use more English in the class and with each other but they can’t seem to find the value in it since all their classmates and the community in which they live in all speak the same language. How can I go about motivating them to use more English in the classroom?

Polly Greenberg: I’m sure we agree that it’s great for children to have two languages; what an advantage throughout life (though it may take longer to get going in both at the beginning). And I agree with you that people need to learn English, along with maintaining their home language, if they live in a predominantly English speaking country.

I would enlist parents in this effort. Have a potluck social followed by a brief meeting to talk about “Your Child Learns English.” Try to build relationships with any amenable parent during the party and through discussion at the meeting.

1. Emphasize how important it is for children in Spanish speaking families to speak Spanish fluently so they and their parents—and grandparents—can communicate freely. If we expect parents to support our efforts we need to reassure them that we will not alienate their children from them. Also mention that many jobs require Spanish and English, so being competent in Spanish as well as English is advantageous.

2. Ask parents if they think it’s important for their child to learn English. If so why, and if not why not. See if you can get every parent present to comment on this. You never know what parents think and convey to their kids unless you ask. You might find, for example, that some parents move back and forth between countries, and because they’re here for only a few months each year, don’t consider learning English a priority. Encourage those who think it important for children to learn English to discuss this with the others—peer “teaching” is effective. The goal is to get parents to talk to each other.

3. Ask if people would like you to send home a few word cards every week with an English word and a picture or Spanish word on each card so parents can use the English words (objects and actions only) as they go about their business, becoming their child’s teacher at the same time.  

4. Ask if anyone is taking English classes. If so, compliment them and point out that they are setting an excellent example for their children.  

You probably already play action games requiring simple English words with your class, but the more you do it the better. For example, play freeze tag. To get unfrozen, the child must shout the name of a vegetable, fruit, color, or whatever category you’ve chosen and been working on at one of your centers. You say the children speak only Spanish when they play freely. What happens if you join in (not trying to alter it) and speak English as you play?

For more advice by Polly, check out the Setting Limits column.

For more information on bilingual education and research, visit the National Association for Bilingual
. Also visit the National Association for the Education of Young Children for information about English Language Learners.