Thursday, June 6, 2013

So you have an ELL in your class!

Contributed by Dr. Eleni Pappamihiel, Program Director, ELMS Project
First off, give yourself a high-five for wondering what you’re going to need to do and learn to help this student reach his/her full potential. Too often, teachers want to treat ELLs just like the rest of their students, and this attitude rarely helps anyone.  So, for the purposes of this blog, let’s say that Zenaib Tawiah’s name has just popped up on your roster. Some of the suggestions below will be applicable to any grade level and others not so much. I’ll note where grade level will make a big difference. 
There are some relatively simple steps that you can take that will help kick off your year in a positive way.  First off, find out as much as you can from the ESL teacher who had the student last year. In some cases this may mean that you have to go back to Zenaib’s former school, if she was in your district last year.  The ESL teacher can give you the following information. Some of this is basic demographic information and other information will need to be discussed.

English language proficiency scores. The feds require that we test every ELL each year to find out their current English language proficiency level in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  Students are generally tested in March.
Country of origin and native language spoken. Don’t assume that because someone comes from Mexico, s/he automatically speaks Spanish. There are many indigenous peoples in Mexico, and many of our students speak one of these languages as a first language.
Guardians. There is a high percentage of ELLs who come to the US separated from their mother and father.  Especially if Zenaib is in high school, she may have come to live with relatives already here, or if she’s over 18 maybe even by herself.
Free/Reduced lunch status.  This will give you an idea of the socioeconomic status of the household.
Family life. What is her family life like? Is the family happy? Are they adapting to the US well? Do they have relatives back home that may be in danger? What’s the general stress level she goes home to?
Religion. In this case, Zenaib is from Jordan and quite possibly Muslim. If she’s in high school this may mean that she has to cover while at school. This may mean that she must cover her hair, arms, and legs. In some cases, she may need to cover her face as well. This will necessitate accommodations in PE and the regular class. Her guardians may not want her working in partners with boys. In elementary school, she may be allowed to work with boys, depending on the grade level. Different Muslim cultures begin placing more limits on girls at different ages. You’ll also need to take important Muslim holidays into consideration.  Would you stop celebrating Christmas if you moved out of a majority Christian country?
Personality. What is she like as a student? Is she outgoing or shy? What are her goals as a student? This can be especially relevant for high school students who may be thinking about their future after public education.  

This list represents a small amount of information you can find out from her previous year’s ESL teacher. They have a wealth of information that often goes beyond what many mainstream teachers know about their students because they spend multiple years with their students.  One of the most important things you’ll find out is how much she wants to talk about her culture and language in the class. This is critical since you don’t want to make her feel uncomfortable.
Some things you can do on that first day to welcome her to class:
  • Include an international/global corner in your class. Have something about many different countries in this corner, including words or pictures of her country. This will allow her to talk about her country without feeling like you’ve put her on the spot.
  • In elementary school, have everything clearly labeled in typed English that’s easy to read.  This will help not only your ELLs but also any other children who might be struggling readers.
  • Make sure that your routines are well-established and clear from the beginning of the year.
  • Bear in mind that many of the class rules are often culturally mediated. So a common rule like, “Follow the Golden Rule” may not be easily understood by an ELL. Also, general rules like, ‘Be Quiet” might not be readily understood by Zenaib if she’s a recent immigrant to the US, she might not understand when to be quiet and when to join in on group discussions.
The most important thing you can remember is that Zenaib might be going through culture shock if she’s a recent immigrant to the states. Your kind words, smiles, and above all, patience will go a long way in helping her feel comfortable.