There are currently more than 180 different language groups represented by the students in America's schools. Students who speak English as a second language (ESL) constitute a significant percentage of the nation's school population: schools currently provide programs for nearly 3 million ESL students, and it is estimated that this population is growing two and half times faster than that of native English-speaking students.
Many of these newcomers are likely to have difficulties adjusting to their new environment. As teachers, we face multiple challenges: We need to teach the content-area curriculum, while at the same time supporting students' English-language development, and helping them adjust to a new school and a new culture. The following are some strategies to consider as you try to meet the educational and social needs of your second-language learners.
1. Assess Needs
Within a few days of the newcomer's arrival, assess her English-language proficiency. Does she know letter names and sounds? Can she count? Can she follow simple directions and answer simple questions? What has her literacy experience in her first language been? Ongoing, informal assessment will give you a clear picture of where the student is.
Imagine how overwhelming and alienating it is to be educated in an unfamiliar language and culture. The student grasps only some of what he hears and probably feels disconnected from the school community. He may struggle to socialize with his classmates. After assessing his particular needs and sensitivities, you might decide to help the group understand and appreciate his position by arranging for an adult to present a short lesson to the group in the student's primary language. After the lesson, discuss with students how they felt about the experience of being educated in another language.
3. Foster a Sense of Belonging
Help the newcomer feel welcome. Make sure to say her name correctly, communicating friendliness and patience with a warm smile and relaxed body language. Discuss with the rest of your class how they might help the new student adjust to the class and its routines. If you can find someone who speaks the student's native language (another student, a parent volunteer, or school personnel), have them write or record a welcoming message in that language. You might even have the new student answer her classmates' questions in her native language while her interpreter translates her answers for the class.
4. Assign a Buddy
Ask a responsible and friendly student to help the newcomer find his way around school, master classroom routines, get involved in games at recess, and understand directions. Arrange for different students to be his buddy for various parts of the school day, or rotate the responsibility on a weekly basis, so that a number of students can share the experience. Try to be particularly vigilant about certain problems that may arise, such as finding the right school bus at the end of the day, counting money at lunch, and so on.
5. Use "Sheltering" Techniques
Sheltered English is, in part, an approach to teaching ESL students so that they can comprehend and participate in as much classroom learning as possible. When you speak to her, slow down your rate of speech and repeat directions several times, checking periodically for understanding. Whenever possible, use simple, subject-verb-noun sentences, visual references (words written on the board, pictures, photos, maps, diagrams, charts, and so on), and physical gestures or pantomime as you speak.
6. Teach Key Words
Make sure the student knows basic school-based words, such as student, teacher, principal, bathroom, nurse, book, reading, math, writing, board, homework, clock, cafeteria, lunch, playground, recess, and bell. You might draw pictures on index cards and label the objects on the back. Keep a box with these cards in an accessible place in the classroom and add new vocabulary words as needed. The student can use them as flashcards or use the words in spoken or written sentences. Also, be sure the student knows how to ask for help in various basic contexts: if he's sick, if he doesn't understand, if he needs to know what page the class is on, and so on.
7. Read and Reread Books Aloud
Read aloud to the student (or have a buddy or volunteer do so) to help her learn the language, build curriculum concepts, and expand vocabulary. Choose high-interest books with strong visual cues that correspond directly to the text; use patterned, predictable books when possible. Read books again and again so that the student internalizes certain language patterns. Find books that she can read independently, using her reading level and interests to guide your selections.
8. Provide Opportunities for Success
If the student is comfortable with this, showcase certain accomplishments and talents. For instance, the student might read a story to the class in his native language, display an outstanding art project, or act as the captain of the soccer team for a day. Give the student simple, nonverbal classroom jobs, such as passing out or collecting papers.
Encourage participation in less language-demanding subject areas: music, art, physical education, and certain areas of the math curriculum (such as computation). When the class is working in small groups (this type of interaction with native English speakers is ideal because the student gets many opportunities to speak), give the student a specific, manageable role such as being responsible for the supplies or creating a chart or time line.
9. Keep Track of Language Progress
Keep a portfolio of the student's work throughout the year. You might audiotape conversations with the student at different times of the year to show him how he has progressed.
10. Value Bilingualism
Support continued literacy development in the student's first language, because literacy skills in the native language enriches English-language development. Encourage the student to continue reading and writing in her native language and invite her to practice this during free-reading time.
11. Encourage the Family's Involvement
Different cultures have different perspectives on family involvement in school. Help parents of ESL students feel part of the community by first arranging for an interpreter (or inviting them to bring one) at your initial conference. Explain certain school procedures and expectations that may be unique to American schools (such as an emphasis on cooperative learning, portfolio assessment, parent volunteerism, and so on). Find out what special skills, talents, or interests families might be willing to share with the class. If possible, have school communications translated into the parents' native language.
12. Foster an Appreciation of Cultural Diversity
Consider a whole-group social studies unit on family origins and cultural heritage. You might display a world map on the bulletin board and have all students put pushpins with their names on their families' countries of origin. Students might interview a family member, plan an international food festival, teach the class several words from another language, create country maps, and so on. Through these and other activities, students can learn to connect with their own cultural heritage and come to appreciate that the United States is a country of immigrants.
Try these websites for lesson ideas, advice, and additional resources.
Some helpful books for teachers are:
- The Classroom Teacher's ESL Survival Kit, by Elizabeth Claire & Judie Haynes (Prentice Hall, 1994).
- The Inner World of the Immigrant Child, by Cristina Igoa (St. Martin's Press, 1995).
Books for children that address the newcomer experience:
- I Hate English!, by Ellen Levine (Scholastic Inc., 1995).
- How My Family Lives in America, by Susan Kuklin (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
- Journey to America, by Sonia Levitin (Aladdin, 1987).
Kenneth Shore, Psy.D., is the author of three books, most recently Special Kids Problem Solver: Ready-to-Use Interventions for Helping All Students With Academic, Behavioral, and Physical Problems (Prentice Hall, 1998). He is a school psychologist for the Hamilton Township Public Schools in Hamilton, New Jersey.
Illustration by Cyndy Patrick