Welcoming Second Language Learners

Welcoming Second Language Learners

The number of students speaking English as a second language (ESL) is steadily increasing. These children come to the classroom with diverse cultural backgrounds and varying degrees of proficiency with English. We asked several educators, “What are your ideas for helping second language learners feel welcomed and supported in the classroom, especially during the early weeks of the year?

A: In addition to meeting the educational needs of second language learners, many teachers struggle to understand cultural differences, communicate with families, and help students and their families feel welcomed in school. Below are some general guidelines to help classroom teachers meet these challenges.

  • Learn about the values, traditions, and customs of the cultural groups represented in the classroom. Many cultural community groups have speakers who will make presentations to teachers. Also, there is a lot of information available on the Internet. If possible, do home visits to learn more about a child and his/her culture.
  • Be aware of potential self-image problems in students who begin to reject their own ethnicity in the process of adopting American values.
  • Promote classroom and school activities that celebrate cultural diversity.
  • Avoid making assumptions about what children already know, particularly related to cultural values and activities (for example, not all children may have had a birthday party).
  • Take advantage of any training offered in your district on language acquisition, cultural diversity issues, and differentiated learning.
  • When talking with second language learners, use the following guidelines:
  1. Simplify the input: speak slowly, enunciate clearly, and limit the use of more complex words or slang.
  2. Check for understanding: offer clarification and ask for confirmation of understanding.
  3. Use contextual cues: props, gestures, visuals, etc.

Recommended Reading: Cultural Differences and Social Skills Instruction: Understanding Ethnic and Gender Differences, Gwendolyn Catledge and Joanne Fellows Milburn, 1996.

Melissa Correa-Connolly is an academic counselor at Academy Middle School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. She has taught grades 3-5, bilingual and special education. She leads workshops for K-8 teachers on teaching second language learners and is a Responsive Classroom certified consulting teacher.

A: The key to helping second language learners is to provide a supportive, nonthreatening, and language-rich environment. Language emerges naturally in such an environment. Here are a few ideas for welcoming these children into a new school.

  • If possible, prior to the child’s arrival, hold a meeting to prepare students for welcoming a newcomer. The purpose of the meeting should be to raise students’ consciousness about the newcomer’s country, language, and culture. The more knowledge children have about a new student, the more accepting they’ll be. Encourage children to comment on how the student might be feeling and to brainstorm ways to be welcoming.
  • Arrange for another student to give the child a guided tour of the school. If possible, choose a guide who speaks the newcomer’s native language. If this isn’t possible, arrange for a classmate to give the tour with an adult who can translate. Throughout the tour, the guide can demonstrate how to behave in different situations, such as how to go through the line in the cafeteria, how to check in at the nurse’s office, where to wait for the bus, etc. The guide or adult translator can also take photos of various school locations, staff members, and classmates, which the new student can then share with family and friends.
  • Finally, listening to unintelligible talk for long periods of time can be tiring. Second language learners need opportunities to take breaks from this, especially during their first few weeks in a classroom. I provide a “Newcomer’s Bag” for this purpose. It’s filled with games and activities that allow for easy success and stress-free breaks from classroom activity. The bag includes items such as Lotto and Memory, daily schedules with clocks, clay, coloring books, tracers, play money, books on tape, and picture dictionaries.

Tara Allen is a fifth grade teacher at Bywood Elementary School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. She has been a classroom teacher for five years and is in the process of becoming a presenter for The Responsive Classroom approach.

A: As an ESL teacher, I always introduced a unit on “Our Families” early in the school year. It was a great way for all of us to get acquainted and for non-English speaking students to begin to learn English. This unit could be adapted for use in any primary classroom.

I began by sharing photographs of my family, along with magazine photos of diverse family groups. Using these photos, I introduced family vocabulary—mother, father, baby, brother, sister, grandmother, etc.—and we practiced using these words in various sentence forms. I then asked children to draw a portrait of their own family. For non-English speaking students, I demonstrated what I wanted them to do.

We displayed the finished drawings on a bulletin board, leaving space beside each one for a photo. I then sent home notes (translated into the family’s primary language if possible) asking families to send in family pictures or photocopies of them. For children who didn’t have photographs, I either made a home visit and took photos myself or sent the child home with a disposable camera.

These photos and drawings became the reference material for a wealth of language instruction, both oral and written. We used them to practice vocabulary, handwriting, and sentence writing. Students also made books about their families that were cherished both at school and at home. As children’s language development progressed, we began to share real family news: “My grandmother is sick” or “We have a new baby.” Giving second language learners the English words for the people they love the most is a powerful way to make connections early in the school year. It helps ESL students grow in language proficiency while everyone grows to know one another.

Recommended Reading: Conversations of Miguel and Maria: How Children Learn a Second Language, Linda Ventriglia, 1979

Bonnie Baer-Simahk is the early childhood coordinator for the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, public schools and a consulting teacher for Northeast Foundation for Children. She is a former kindergarten and ESL teacher, grades K–6.

A: Last year, the ESL teacher and I decided to cluster all of the kindergarten ESL students in my classroom. This allowed the ESL teacher to work with these children within their regular classroom, helping the students to feel less isolated and more connected to their classroom community.

Early in the year, Morning Meeting provided many opportunities for helping ESL students feel a sense of belonging while helping English-speaking students develop understanding and empathy for their non-English speaking classmates (see The Morning Meeting Book). For the daily greeting, we learned how to say hello and good morning in the ESL students’ languages. For sharing, the English-speaking students modeled how to do this and it wasn’t long before the ESL students began to sign up. Even if they couldn’t communicate fully with words, many participated successfully by holding up an item to share and responding to yes or no questions. During group activity and news and announcements, the ESL students became familiar with many common English words and phrases along with songs, chants, and raps.

Throughout the year, English-speaking students paired up with ESL students to help them learn to use areas or materials in the room. Family members of ESL students visited the classroom and taught us how to count, speak, or write in their language. Around Chinese New Year, one student’s mother taught us how to write 0–10 in Chinese. Children made red Chinese scrolls and used black paint to write their phone numbers in Chinese.

This year, the ESL teacher and I organized a summer orientation for ESL students and their families. This involved a guided tour of the school and classroom and an introduction to routines and materials. Families left with a glossary/pictionary of important words and phrases for the beginning of the school year. I’m looking forward to starting another year of this program; the benefits are tremendous for all the students.

Rick Ellis has been an early childhood/elementary school educator for over twenty-five years. He currently teaches kindergarten at the Dutch Neck School in West Windsor, New Jersey.

Tags: ELL (English Language Learners)