Starting the school year with English learners
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
In just a few short weeks, schools will begin to fill up again with students ready for another year of learning. Of the approximately 50.1 million students in public K-12 schools in the United States, 9.3 percent will be English learners. For these students, school can be especially daunting as they will be learning new information in a new language.
As we prepare to receive these students and all of the students who come into our classes, it may be helpful to consider a few topics before the busy start of the school year. Focusing on these topics now will help put you in the mindset to create an environment that is welcoming and conducive to learning for all students, including those who speak a language other than English.
Learn your students' names
Our names are deeply tied to who we are. For many of us, and for many of our students, our names carry meaning. They may be family names, relate to our place of origin or have religious significance.
When we mispronounce student names and do not make an effort to say their names correctly, we negate their identity. By learning how to correctly say students' names, we are honoring them, their families and where they come from.
The Santa Clara Department of Education recently started the My Name My Identity project. At their website, teachers and schools can pledge to learn to pronounce students' names correctly. The concept is simple: Commit to learning students' names.
There are several ways teachers can do this. The first is to ask students what they preferred to be called. Lara Smith, Federal Programs Coordinator at the Reynolds School District in Gresham, Oregon, shares one way to determine this is to ask students, "What does your mother/caregiver call you?"
It is important to realize registration forms may not be 100 percent accurate when it comes to student names, or what students prefer to be called. When a student tells you his/her name, repeat it and ask the student if you are pronouncing it correctly.
It is OK if you are not immediately able to correctly pronounce a student's name if it is from a language you do not speak. However, continue to try and replicate the sounds the student is using to say the name. Continue to attempt to pronounce it just as the student would, and continue to ask the student if you are saying it correctly until you are confident you are able to say the name correctly.
Learn more about the importance of saying students' names correctly, and take the My Name My Identity pledge at www.mynamemyidentity.org.
Search for available resources
Learn what resources are available to you as a teacher. For example, some districts have trained translators that are available to translate documents for district or school personnel. While it is not appropriate to send everything for translation, some key documents such as a welcome letter or course syllabus can be especially useful for students and parents to have available in a language they understand.
Consider sending an introductory letter that lets parents know some of the key information about your classroom and philosophy, the procedures you utilize, contact preferences, etc. This useful information, when provided in a language parents and students can understand, will help avoid misunderstandings later in the year. Documents with critical information such as emergency plans and procedures, important dates, and information about the school and district leadership are also extremely helpful for parents.
Some districts also have community liaisons who represent the ethnic and linguistic communities present in the school. If this is the case, contact the liaison to learn about the services they provide to teachers in the district. They may be able to share important cultural considerations such as communication styles and other cultural norms.
For example, in some cultures it is disrespectful to look a teacher or adult in the eyes. It is important to know, then, that the student is attempting to show you respect by not looking at you in the eyes, especially when you are disciplining him/her.
Or, it may be culturally uncomfortable for girls to work with boys in the classroom. This does not mean girls and boys from certain cultures should never be asked to work together. But when teachers have a culturally responsive perspective, they can adjust their instruction and share with students the different cultural norms between their home culture and the culture in U.S. classrooms.
Determining English language proficiency levels
When students enroll in public schools, part of the enrollment process includes a home language survey. This may be a question, a series of questions or an entire form that asks parents to identify if a language other than English is spoken at home.
If the parents or person registering the students indicates there is another language used at home, the student must be tested to determine if that additional language has had an impact on their level of English proficiency. Students who do not reach a specific score on the assessment are determined to be English learners. The assessments generally give guidance on what specific scores or proficiency levels mean in terms of student language skills.
Begin by familiarizing yourself with the scores the language proficiency assessment that your district uses generates and what the scores tell you in terms of student language skills. The assessment may designate a specific proficiency level from 1-5, for example, or a named level such as beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced or advanced.
Because a variety of assessments exist and are used across the country, knowing what the scores mean will give you the background knowledge to help determine what language skills students may have as well as areas of potential need.
Teachers can and should have access to the language proficiency levels of their students based on either the initial English Language Proficiency Assessment given after students enroll, or based upon the annual English language proficiency assessment given to all English learners in the school.
School administrators, or your English Language Development specialist will have access tio the scores for your students. The scores may not be available immediately, but knowing who to ask and when the scores will be available will be helpful as you plan instruction to best meet the needs of your students.
Assessing student language proficiency
Even if you are unable to get the language scores of the students in your classroom, you can still begin to informally assess student language. Begin with having conversations with all of your students. These informal conversations will tell you whether students have basic conversational language in English.
It is important to separate student personality from language proficiency. A student who is extroverted and very verbal, for example, may have conversational skills in English, but still need additional support to learn academic English. Similarly, a shy, quiet student may mask his language skills because he is not very verbal and does not readily offer clues to how much English he knows.
One way to assess student language is through the ELD Group Frame, a strategy from Project GLAD. To implement this strategy, begin by providing comprehensible input to students. The students should be familiar with the content, perhaps from a read aloud or from providing input with visual support and multimodality instruction.
Bring a small group of 3-5 English learners together to discuss the topic. Provide a prompt to the students to begin a discussion on the information provided (such as a retell or summary of information). Prompt each student to share information related to the prompt.
As the student verbally responds to the prompt, write down, with a colored marker, what the student says. Be careful to write the student's words verbatim, as you are making a running record of student oral language production. When the next student shares, use a different colored marker to record what the student says. Each student's words should be written in a different color.
Once you have concluded, you should have several utterances recorded from the students in the small group. Have the students write their names in the color their words are written in, and record the date. Afterward, analyze the student utterances for evidence of both strengths and areas of needed language development.
This assessment can provide clues to student vocabulary, grammatical and syntax issues. Based on the evidence provided, lessons can be provided to help the students increase their language proficiency.
Checking the cumulative folder
A useful strategy that is not always employed by teachers is to review the students' cumulative files. While kindergarten students will not yet have a file, students in higher grade levels will have important records that may provide important clues. For example, the cumulative folder may indicate the student needs to be wearing glasses, but you have noticed she is not wearing any.
Language proficiency scores, previous achievement records, and other information may also provide insight into the student. While not all schools allow access to student records, it may be helpful to review the files when possible.
With just a few considerations, starting the year with English learners can and should be a productive and exciting. As the school year begins, there will be many meetings, tasks and preparations to be made. A bit of thought and preparation as the school year approaches will help both you and your student start the year off with a running start.
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