Megan Brady, OFLA Executive Vice President
Spanish Teacher, Northwest High School
With more and more newcomers in the US, it seems that our schools are seeing more and more English Language Learners (ELLs) than ever before. In many districts, there is no support readily available, and therefore the administration is relying heavily on world language teachers to fill in some of the missing gaps. While we are already typically bombarded with a full schedule (many of us having 3+ preps), naturally most of us want to help. But, what are we supposed to do? Where do we even begin?
I want to share a few tips that I have given my district administration to pass on to the teachers who are working with ELLs. While everyone’s situation is different, I think it is important to remember a few of these things which will prove to be fairly universal across different countries/populations. I am passing them on to my fellow world language teachers in hopes of lightening your load, while giving valuable feedback to offer fellow colleagues and administration who may be needing some insight. While this information may seem obvious to us, it is often not to our colleagues who don’t have much experience outside the US or with students coming from abroad.
- Relationships are everything. This is true of any students we have. See them first as humans, as young people, and check in on their social-emotional health. If they aren’t having all of their needs met and they aren’t comfortable, they won’t be able to learn. They are likely going through a lot of changes right now, but need to know they are in a safe place where they can relax enough to start the learning process again, and not just be in fight or flight mode. Reach out to these students by, for example, trying to learn a word or two in their language, even just a greeting. This will let them know you are trying, that you value them as students and people in your classroom and community, and that they can trust you. Learn to say their names correctly and greet them by name with a smile every day. Show them they belong with you. Support them from day 1.
- Language isn’t the only obstacle. It is important to remember (and to do some country-specific research!) that language is not the only obstacle these students will have with school in the US. Culture is a very important part of our daily lives that should not be forgotten. For example, while school is important and required here until age 18, that is not the case in many countries. These older students may have been out of school for some time and now have to be back. School may be held at different times in other countries (starting at 7 am may be a real shock!). Our classrooms here are very different in style than many countries. They may not be used to or comfortable with asking teachers for help. The use of technology alone may be a completely new thing, etc. It is important to be aware that there are several differences in culture that could impede learning, aside from the language barrier.
- It takes a village. Know your resources! First, our local ESC has a wonderful ELL representative who is extremely knowledgeable about a variety of important aspects. This includes resources for the whole family that you can send home to make sure they are getting any services they may need, local ESL classes in the area for parents/older siblings not attending school, translator options for meetings held with parents, connections to other teachers/districts in the area with similar situations, as well as a wonderful lending library that we can borrow from as we need. Second, Google translate (I know! GASP!) has some great resources that will work in a pinch, as well. While I personally tell my Spanish students it is absolutely restricted, this is a different scenario and we walk through that in class, as well! They are in my class to learn Spanish, not to use Google, but there are times when Google Translate is a helpful tool, such as when we have newcomers (or even foreign exchange students) with very limited English. Talk to the tech team about allowing the extension for Google translate to translate to their home language (there are so many options now that chances are their specific language is available) to at least help them get by in some classes. This is a great time to talk to them about how the lesser-known/used languages aren’t going to be translated quite as well due to the algorithms, but it will still be something to use as an aide. Allow them to use their phones, or a tablet, so that they can use the Google translate app with their camera which will instantly translate anything they hover over while using the app. Use the Google Read extension to try some read aloud (remember, not always perfect, but worth a try to see if it is helpful to their specific language!). Also, the Google translate site/app has a microphone button that you can use for audio, and that can say the words aloud for you if reading isn’t a valid option for your students. Reach out to your elementary friends, even if your student is in high school. We have found great success working with the Heggerty system in helping our students learn to read in English and work on pronunciation. Third, a tutor can work with them on this each day in order to bring up their reading/speaking skills. When all else fails, find a buddy in their school to help them. I have had a mixed study hall with my heritage Spanish speakers and my Spanish Honor Society students, where we pair them up or put them in groups to just work on homework together. It was a great tool for both sides as my Honor Society kids use their Spanish and realize the difference in cultures/schooling/etc. and my tutees got great help and explanations with their classes and also school cultures. Perhaps more importantly, they built great relationships and became good friends. This year, we have two newcomers in 5th and 6th grades, and so I have trained a few of my Spanish students on how to work with some ELL topics, and they have a bag for each school ready for them. They come to my room during study hall, grab the bag, and head to the elementary/middle schools to work with the girls, sometimes sitting in with them during classes and helping there, and sometimes pulling them to work on the ELL topics to build language outside of the classroom. It has so far been a great system, again being such a blessing to both sides. Work as a team to do the best you can do!
- Second language acquisition is much like first language acquisition…and also exhausting. Knowing that babies and toddlers have months (years!) of input before they start speaking in random words eventually turning into phrases goes to show how much it takes to be able to conquer a language. Second language acquisition is much the same. According to research, if they are over age 8, typically it is best to teach them grammar/language explicitly so they can use their first language skills to help them identify and correlate to the second language. That being said, it is a long process and it may not come as quickly as we want to see it. But don’t give up – keep giving them scaffolded input to help them become successful! Keep in mind, however, that doing a day of school is exhausting for everyone, but if it is in a second (or third!) language, it will be even more exhausting to them. Offer frequent brain breaks, and don’t punish them for checking out when they are so mentally exhausted they can barely keep their heads up.
- Seek help and training! Many of us are being thrown into this new situation without training. Reach out to neighboring districts to see if you can get a team to work together. Reach out to Ohio TESOL and see what training they may offer. Most of all, stay tuned to OFLA and what professional development we are offering this year to help with the growing influx of newcomers to our state. Our amazing PD team already is planning a few different sessions on specific ethnic groups to help us cater to these populations and make everyone more successful in their efforts. We are a team, and together, we can make a difference!