As you get ready for the school year you’ll hear this classic and fundamental advice: get to know your students. What does this mean when it comes to meeting and getting to know the English language learners (ELLs) in your classroom? You may wonder, what are some of the things that I should ask or consider when learning about and teaching English language learners? Let me share with you some basic information you may want to know about English language learners in your classroom as the first weeks of school progress.
The most important first step is to learn how to pronounce your students’ names. As an English as a Second Language teacher, I understand the challenge of learning the students’ names, especially when these students come from all around the world. But it is essential to keep the pronunciation of their names authentic and real. It is sad when people want to Americanize a student’s name, losing completely the essence and cultural importance behind that name. Behind each of those names there is a story, a cultural value, and meaning. By pronouncing the name correctly, we show we respect these things.
When teaching ELLs of Hispanic heritage, you may not realize that a lot of these students and parents use all of their names when writing and signing papers. In many Latino cultures we use both of our parents’ last names, which many times creates confusion when registering students for school. For example, my first name is Stella and my middle name is Maris. My first last name (which represents my dad’s side of the family) is Villalba and my second last name (which represents my mom’s side of the family) is Rodriguez. My complete name is Stella Maris Villalba Rodriguez. If my mom was registering me for school, she would write all of my names in the registration card. A lack of cultural understanding has led to confusion, and many last names are hyphenated in ways that mystify families. In my case, many people thought I was “Stella Rodriguez,” and that the other two names were just middle names. My advice is to ask the school secretary to see the student’s registration papers, in order to determine how the family presents the student’s name. If questions and doubts persist, then your students’ families are the most suitable people to answer all your questions.
Recent Histories and School Routines
Classroom teachers also need to find out if any of your English language learners are refugees, or have arrived from refugee camps recently. Our ELLs come to us with a vast range of knowledge and life experiences which influence their perspectives in unexpected ways. Procedures like fire or tornado drills can be scary for students for whom the noise of a siren can have a completely different meaning. When in doubt, it is always safe to ask and never to assume. Even something simple to us like bathroom routines can be an overwhelming experience for someone who cannot read the “boy” or “girl” codes on the doors. International students may come to us with some school experience in their home country. We can’t assume that the school experience that they received back in their home country is the same as here in the United States. For example, many Asian students are accustomed to long lectures from their teachers and a lot of independent work. The idea of cooperative learning activities, or participating in book discussions and asking questions, are new to these students. They will need time, patience, and our willingness to get a sense of how our classrooms match or contrast with those in their home country.
The best advice I can give is to get a valid benchmark of the student’s language proficiency. If you have an English as a Second Language teacher in your building, get in contact with him or her to find out the student’s language level. Most districts give assessments to measure language proficiency. This language proficiency level describes what phase the student is in as they are acquiring a new language. The proficiency levels are beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced or advanced. Some states may alternatively define their proficiency levels as pre-functional, beginner, intermediate oradvanced. Knowing which phase the student is in will provide a base of understanding when preparing and designing lessons plans.
There are many other things that you will find out about your students over time. What I’ve covered in this brief article are a few fundamentals for beginning to build relationships with the English language learners in your classroom. Enjoy the journey of getting to know your students, each with a rich cultural history to share!