Working with newcomers and beginning-level ELLs across content areas
Thursday, April 13, 2017
For teachers working with English learners, having newcomers or beginning-level English learners in the classroom can be a challenge. Teachers are sometimes ill-equipped to understand the needs of students who are recent arrivals to the United States, or who speak no English whatsoever.
While teachers have the best of intentions when working with these students, there are several issues at play, including teachers' expectations of the students or lack thereof, fear of pushing the students to learn content and language they are not ready for, and a lack of strategies to make themselves understood to the students.
Teachers can feel frustrated as the student may struggle with classroom routines and learning the content. While working with students who do not speak English can be a challenge, it is also rewarding and exciting.
Myth: They don't understand anything
While newcomers or beginning-level ELLs may not have language skills to express themselves, receptive language skills begin to develop very early on.
Students may not understand the words they are hearing, but will quickly be able to understand certain directions or routines as they observe other students. The students will be watching to see what other students are doing and will often mimic their actions when it is time to line up, get materials out, etc.
Receptive language also develops well before productive language. In other words, students will begin to understand some of the things that are being said before they are able to say them themselves.
In this regard, learning a second language is similar to learning a first language. Babies can respond to things their parents say before they begin to speak. This is because they can understand the words, but are not yet able to produce them themselves.
However, when we are working with students, it is not the case that they cannot produce the words, or begin to produce the words.
2 issues: Culture shock and the silent period
Students who are new to the country may be experiencing culture shock. Depending on where students move from, the culture and customs the student is used to may be significantly different from the new environment.
Culture shock can cause students to feel disoriented, frustrated or sad, among other emotions. This is a normal process people go through when they arrive in a new country. Teachers should be sensitive to this and offer students support as needed.
The silent period in language acquisition refers to the period of time when students are first learning a new language, and receptive language is being built but productive language has not yet started. What is important to note here is that even when students are focusing on receptive language, and are in the silent period, it does not mean they cannot or will not produce any language at all.
Students can begin by practicing saying vocabulary words being learned, for example, or practice utilizing sentence frames — especially when this is being done as a whole class. For example, as you present vocabulary, you might have the entire class repeat a new vocabulary word such as "photosynthesis."
You might use a pattern such as the following:
Teacher: The word is photosynthesis. Say that with me please.
Teacher: Say it to the person next to you.
Teacher: Photosynthesis involves the process of plants making their own food from sunlight. What is the process of plants making their own food from sunlight?
In this scenario, every student can practice saying the word with the class. It would, however, be inappropriate to single out the newcomer student or beginning-level English learner to say the word aloud for the entire class. This may put undue stress on the student and will likely not increase retention of the word or concept.
It is important to note that students who are experiencing culture shock and are in the silent period may have difficulty participating in classroom activities in the same way that other students do. It is important to be sensitive to this and help the student transition to the new classroom environment over time.
In these scenarios, consider providing a partner with whom this student can work on a regular basis. Preferably, this would be a student who speaks the same native language as the new student. If there are no other students who speak that language in your classroom, pair the new student with a student who is friendly, empathetic and likes to help people. While not a perfect solution, this provide the student with some peer support, which is comforting.
It is important to note that culture shock and the silent period do not last forever. Students should be making steady progress toward adjusting to their new environment and will begin producing language after some weeks. Take into account that some students are more extroverted and gregarious, and may begin speaking in English fairly quickly. Other students may be more introverted and shy, and may not volunteer to speak so easily.
It is important to take this into account, but to also help these students practice English skills in a safe and supportive environment so they can continue to progress in English. In other words, it is important to strike a balance between understanding that the student may be in the silent period or may be experiencing culture shock, but also helping the student to move forward in learning English and academic content.
Everyday English and academic English
Many teachers are familiar with the notion of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) coined by Jim Cummins years ago. While language acquisition is decidedly complex and cannot necessarily be simplified into two separate arenas, the distinction between the two can be helpful when discussing student language acquisition.
The issue at hand is that students who are newcomers will need to develop English skills that many students, including those who are English learners but have more English proficiency may already have. For example, newcomer students will need to learn everyday language and vocabulary, including basic greetings, names of classroom items, names of community locations and more.
This language instruction can take place in a class designed for new students who do not speak English and should be delivered by professionals who have knowledge in meeting the needs of new arrivals. However, the classroom teacher can also reinforce these skills by providing labels in the classroom, using gestures and visuals, and other comprehensible input techniques.
Simultaneously, teachers can work with new students on learning the academic vocabulary and content for the grade level and subject area. In other words, learning more basic English skills does not preclude students from learning academic language and content at the same time.
While challenging, students will need to continue learning the academic content for the grade level they are in. Even newcomers can continue to learn academic content as they are learning English. Teachers will need to be aware of students' proficiency level and utilize comprehensible input techniques to make their instruction comprehensible.
Students do not have time, however, to focus only on learning English, as they will fall farther behind in learning academic content. In fact, some students may have learned some of the content concepts previously, as different places teach specific content at differing grade levels. Students will also have differing levels of background knowledge and experiences that will help them in learning new concepts.
Newcomers are not ambassadors for their home country
While tempting to have students share and discuss information about their home country, this can be challenging for students. Especially when discussing differences in cultural practices, students may not be comfortable talking about how things are done in their home country — especially if they differ significantly from how things are done here.
Students should certainly be allowed to share information or ask questions as they desire. But asking students to share how or why something is done in their home land may be a challenge.
For example, how did baseball get coined as "America's pastime," especially when American football seems to be more popular? How did hot dogs become correlated with sporting events and summertime holidays? American students will not necessarily have knowledge or information on cultural practices; they are just a part of their everyday lives and may not be conscious to the student.
Working with newcomers and beginning-level English learners can be incredibly rewarding, as often these students show tremendous growth in language acquisition and bring a different perspective to the classroom. As with all students, they usually come to school a bit nervous but also excited to continue learning.
With our help and support, these students can flourish in our classrooms and in our society.
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