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Language Can’t Be a Barrier

Here are practical ways to reach students when they speak what you don’t.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

David spent two months in a Northern Virginia kindergarten classroom last year, arriving from Bolivia just as the local cherry trees burst into famous bloom. He didn’t speak a word the entire time. But this year, in his first-grade classroom at Bailey’s Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, located just a few miles from the White House and a few blocks from the corner convenience store where Bailey’s Salvadoran fathers wait for day laborer gigs, David is blossoming, too.

“Apple green, apple red, an apple fell on David’s head!” What a silly song, says first-grade teacher Nora Brent, as she glides a wooden pointer under each colored word on her upright easel. Would Josseline like a turn? Why, yes, she would. Would Monica? Of course! And José? And David?


In Brent’s classroom, about 80 percent of her first-graders are learning English as a second language. Their parents come from all over the world—from Syria to El Salvador—seeking something a little better for their children. They find it at Bailey’s, where support for English-language learners (ELLs) and their teachers is institutionally strong. (Ahem, there are all of 13 children in Brent’s class, and she has more than 10 ELL specialists on campus to call on.)

But there are students like David all over the country, often in places you might not expect to find them, from the rugged blue mountains of North Carolina to the apple valleys of southern Idaho, and their numbers are multiplying daily. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 5 million ELLs were enrolled in public schools in 2003—about 1 in every 10 students. That’s a greater than 65 percent jump since 1993. By far, most are Spanish-speakers, but they also come from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and every other corner of the globe.

"Classrooms that have rarely seen these students are now needing to address the opportunity that this diversity brings," said Rufina Hernández, Director of NEAHuman and Civil Rights.

If you don’t yet have a David, sitting silently as his English-speaking classmates line up for lunch, chances are that one day you will. And, more likely than not, you won’t be ready for him. Just 12.5 percent of teachers with English learners in their classrooms have participated in a scant day’s worth of ELL-related training during the past three years, according to a National Center for Education Statistics survey. And it’s not because they don’t want to—the training often isn’t available, particularly in rural or otherwise isolated districts.

But with just 27 percent of teachers saying they feel “very well prepared” to teach English learners, according to the same survey, it’s not surprising these students often struggle. In 2001, of the states that tested ELLs in reading comprehension, only 18.7 percent were assessed at being at or above the norm.

While no one is happy with those results, educators’ frustration can be palpable. “I remember one teacher just venting all over me, ‘Take this kid out of my class and bring him back when he knows English!’” recalls Patricia Majors, a nationally certified ELL teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. “Basically, she cared about him...but she just didn’t know what to do.”

So there is the problem. A whole lot of kids who don’t speak English fluently, and way too few mainstream teachers who are prepared to work with them. (And don’t forget to factor in the No Child Left Behind law, which demands that your English learners get up to speed—and quick.)

It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But there are solutions. “The NEA believes strongly that our members can build on the assets these children bring,” Hernández said. And, while the NEA works with other organizations to address national policies, you can make it work in your classroom.

Many of your colleagues, especially those specializing in English-language learners, have plenty of good advice and strategies to help you open the lines of communication.

A Welcoming Classroom

One simple way to start connecting with your students who don’t speak English is to put yourself in their shoes. Their common predicament was brought to life for Marcie Burlett, a third-grade teacher at Upward Elementary in Fletcher, North Carolina, during a recent workshop. In one of exercise, participants sat and listened to a woman speaking Korean for 20 minutes. Sat, and sat, and sat. “I was so bored,” she sighs.

Yes, it is frustrating to have a student who doesn’t understand you—especially if you have 37 other kids, little specific ELL training, and limited school-wide support for working with that child. But, like Marcie Burlett, imagine what it’s like for him.

Tips for Teaching

Specialist Kathleen Fay, co-author of Becoming One Community: Reading and Writing with English Language Learners , offers five ways to help bring your students up to speed:

1. Create opportunities for conversation. For example, pause during read aloud, after solving a math problem, or before a writing exercise, and encourage students to talk about the lesson or assignment. If other students in the class speak the same native language, they may choose to pair off and speak in either language. This gives children the opportunity to check understanding or share thoughts with less risk than speaking out to the whole group. Buddy reading provides another great way to encourage productive chatter between peers.

2. Honor the languages represented in your classroom. Ask students to teach greetings to the class and incorporate them into your morning rituals. Have the class learn how to count to five or say “Happy Birthday.” When students feel their native languages are valued, and you have taken the risk to learn a little about their culture, it establishes trust.

3. Find opportunities to use English authentically. Students could write a letter to the principal asking about a school rule; read a book aloud to younger students; figure out how many school lunches need to be ordered for the third-grade field trip. Practicing the English language in a meaningful context will make it easier for students to understand you during lessons.

4. Post your class schedule each day. A predictable routine is easier to follow. When students know what is coming—every day they’ll write stories at 2 p.m.—they will be better prepared to participate. You might also add photographs or sketches next to tasks on the schedule to aid comprehension.

5. Don’t feel you must correct every grammatical mistake. Students could become discouraged if they are constantly corrected. Accept approximations and respond to the meaning behind the comment. It takes time to become fluent in a second language, and approximations are a natural part of language development.

That’s why, before the first “Good Morning” comes out of your mouth, it’s important to get your mind in the right place, suggests Wendy Hammerstone, another North Carolina National Board-certified ELL teacher. A little compassion “will come through in your teaching,” she says.

When you do say “Buenos días”—it can be a kind gesture to practice greetings in other languages—do it in a way so all students feel genuinely welcome. And when a new ELL joins your class, first introduce her and then ask another student—preferably one that speaks the newcomer’s language or another friendly, responsible peer—to be a special buddy.

Modify Lessons

You probably have students who can’t remember a word you say unless they also see it on paper; some who can’t focus for five minutes; and others who delight you with their vocabulary, but depress you with their lack of math skills. You deal with their varying levels of ability on a daily basis.

A lack of proficiency in English is a curveball, to be sure, but in a certain way, it’s not that different from dealing with other challenges. Good teachers regularly modify lessons for different learners, and you’ll need to do the same for your ELLs, notes Patricia Majors.

Last year, as Thanksgiving approached, Karen Christenson’s Burley (Idaho) High School 10th-graders were reading George Orwell’s satiric novel, Animal Farm, and working on projects that showed their comprehension. Some riffed fluently on Orwellian themes in long dramatic essays—while others, still fresh from the isolated valleys of southern Mexico, did more visual presentations. One new English learner was making a model of the farm and connecting parts of it to significant quotations from the book. By not forcing a “one size fits all” approach, each student was able to learn in a meaningful way, at his or her own level.

When teaching your ELLs, think different assignments, different assessments, and different presentations of the material. Christenson pulls out key vocabulary words and makes sure her Spanish speakers understand them first in Spanish, then English. (This is easier when bilingual students are able to help—less so, if your student is the school’s lone Estonian.)

Christenson also provides key information in writing on the board, where it’s less likely they’ll misunderstand it (some students find it easier to read a new language before they can hear and comprehend it). In addition, she works on giving her students opportunities to talk to each other, usually in small groups, which can be less intimidating than discussions involving the entire class.

Of course, all of these individualized lessons require “a lot of work,” says Christenson—who also stays after school to tutor her English learners. “They’re good kids. They want to learn and they’re very cooperative, but it’s an enormous task. There’s a limit on the time that you have to modify lessons.”

Make sure your administrators—and union representatives—are aware of just how much time you spend on these tasks. When it comes time to distribute resources to schools each year, your testimony can be used to prove the need for new or additional staffing.

See it, Say it

Check out Nora Brent’s silly apples song again—“Apple green, apple red, an apple fell on David’s head.” When she hands a copy of her home-made book to David, he reads the first two words fluently, taking hints from the color of the ink and the fruit drawn to the side. Then he stops abruptly at “red.”

“Tell me in Spanish, what color is this?” she asks.

“Rojo,” David answers.

“Let’s take our magic tape and write rojo, and you can say that,” she says, as she covers up the word “red” with white tape and writes rojo on it. (Don’t be afraid to use a student’s native language, our specialists say: Often students have extensive vocabulary in a native language, which can be used to aid comprehension. Eventually, they will learn to match English to Spanish, or Russian, or Korean.)

Brent and David continue, and he pauses again on the last line: “An apple fell on David’s head.” What’s this word? Next to the text, Brent draws a little picture of a tousled head next to those final four confusing letters and touches his black hair.

“Head!” he exclaims.

“Did the picture help you?” Brent asks, and he nods. “Readers use pictures to help them sometimes, so it was smart of you to look at the picture for help.”

And it was smart of Brent to draw them into her book. Teachers use all kinds of strategies to reach their students, and visual hints can be especially useful, says her colleague Kathleen Fay, co-author of Becoming One Community: Reading and Writing with English-Language Learners.

In her own workshop with a class of kindergartners at the Bailey school, Fay gathers them on the floor in a lumpy, touchy-feely group of denim knees and hair braids, and tells a story about the strange noise that woke her from her sleep. What was making the strange noise? “I couldn’t see the owl,” she says, pointing to her eyes. Then she tugs on her ear: “But I could hear the owl.”

Fay urges the children to tell a story of their own to a friend and then draw it, too. “There were monkeys!” Marcos excitedly tells his buddy, as nearby Sabrina complains, “It was raining really hard and I couldn’t sleep!” Meanwhile, Fay walks around, helping students get started and stay on track.

This kind of workshop setting is very supportive, Fay says. “There’s a little time to teach directly, and then they go off to work where you can offer one-on-one help.” Plus, when kids are sharing, they’re talking. And even if you suspect that they’re chatting about toys or clothes, it doesn’t matter—talking about anything still leads to language acquisition.

It's All Good

If there’s one thing Vicky Goodman wants her mainstream colleagues to do, it’s this: “I tell people to just relax,” says Goodman, a Nationally Board-certified ELL teacher in western North Carolina.

It takes five to seven years to learn English. No matter how quickly NCLB asks for test results, you simply can’t make it happen much faster than that. A new language will come eventually—faster if your students have a good foundation of literacy in their native language.

Of course, that’s easy to say—there’s not many scarier things than having a sophomore who doesn’t speak English walk into your biology class (except perhaps a junior!). At that age, you expect students not only to speak English, but to have a foundation of academic knowledge, especially in content areas like science and history.

But try not to get discouraged, and take a final tip from one of Bailey Elementary’s fifth-graders, who knows something about enjoying the journey: José is working on a map of his home in El Salvador—a prelude to writing a story about it.  In America, he says, roads are straight and smooth. “In my country, instead of a road that is straight, there are a lot of rocks and it’s bumpy—but it’s good,” he says.

Kind of like the road he’s on right now.

Photos by Danny Peck

Entering stage left, the English-Language Learner

Theater workshops require students to try on facial expressions, use body language, and talk, talk, talk.

When he begins his 10-day drama workshops, Daniel Kelin, director of the Honolulu Theater for Youth, doesn’t hear much from the English-language learners. But by the end they’re giggling, running from role to role, urging each other to “open your mouth like fish,” and acting out Pacific Island stories about the sea and its magic men. Even more impressive, the students are able to narrate their own stories, using the English language in a purposeful new way and growing in confidence in themselves.

“It was awesome,” said Jennifer Wolf-Moon, whose English-language learners at Kealakeh High School have attended annual workshops with Kelin for the past three years. “When you put them in a drama situation, it gives them an opportunity to express themselves in a different way.”

Often, success with English-language learners depends on giving them frequent opportunities to talk, especially in genuine ways— practice makes perfect, after all. Drama provides that opportunity, and makes it easier by providing physical cues to language. There are props, body movements, and voice inflections—all of which assist in comprehension.

“In the beginning, we talk about ways we communicate, both verbally and physically,” says Kelin. “I’m not trying to teach them directly to use language. I’m trying to set them up in situations where they have to learn language.”

Kelin starts off with a few exercises to get their bodies moving. “What are the things people do at the beach?” he asks. And, because this is Hawaii, after all, he quickly offers a qualifier: “What we don’t want is, ‘I want to go surfing!’” from 10 different students.

The students’ answers, first spoken aloud, come to life through thoughtful actions. Here is a lone surfer, balancing precariously on a killer wave; over here, a shell-seeker, stopping to pick up a treasure; and down the beach, there’s a surf-caster, sensibly casting his hook far from the surfer.

The English-language learners on Hawaii’s Big Island, where Kelin regularly works with students of all ages, come mostly from the Philippines and other Pacific islands, like the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, but also from Mexico. Many Hispanic parents work on the famous Kona coffee plantations. Overall, ELLs represent about 10 percent of the total student population on Hawaii. As on the mainland, their numbers are growing, says Precille Boisvert, a state Department of Education ESL resource teacher. Also mimicking mainland trends, they arrive with varying degrees of English.

The beauty of the drama program is that it doesn’t matter how much English they have, Boisvert says. “They can respond with the limited language they have, with a text that is more normal, more natural.”

Getting students to the point where they can narrate their own stories, using oral and physical representation, is a gradual process. After creating a beach “tableau” and trying on different physical roles, the students listen intently to Kelin’s tales of island myths and build more dramatic skills.

Toward the end of one of his workshops, he nods toward a few reluctant actors and says, “Everybody in this room has to talk today.  Francie, Clarence. You have to play a character and your character has to talk.”

And the thing is, they do.



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