Equity & Diversity Commentary

An Immigrant Student’s Story: I Was a Dictionary Girl

By Helen Janc Malone — February 06, 2012 5 min read

How would you support a student who did not speak English and had no one else at the school who spoke his or her native language? I was that student some 20 years ago. Coming from the war-torn former Yugoslavia, I was placed with my peers in an English-for-speakers-of-other-languages, or ESOL, class. At home, only my father spoke some English, and at school, no one spoke Serbo-Croatian, my native language.

To help me navigate through the school day, my father bought me an English-Serbo-Croatian dictionary; however, this new communication device was both slow and imperfect. As students attempted to speak with me, I would ask them to point to words in my dictionary so I could read the translation. The process was painstakingly long, so many students just resorted to nodding and smiling.

Using my dictionary inside the classroom was equally challenging. By the time I looked up a single word from an overhead slide, another slide would appear. Some teachers allowed me to use my dictionary during exam time; however, I would use entire class periods to translate problems and questions and then to try to make sense of the information using different word-order combinations. At times, when I recognized content, usually through an image or a formula, communicating my knowledge proved to be a long process. I would write down what I knew about the subject matter in my native language, translating it at home with my father to English, and then present it to my teachers the following day.

I had two sanctuaries during my high school years: my ESOL class and an after-school program. The ESOL class was my primary sanctuary. ESOL was a place where all the kids were on the same page, desperately lost in a sea of English, facing similar challenges of culture shock, assimilation, family adjustments, homesickness, and social confusion. We all read aloud slowly, worked tirelessly on spelling, and still thought and dreamt in our native tongues.

20 OP Malone CopyrightedImage J.Dekal

An after-school program, the school’s student government association, was my second sanctuary. I joined the SGA by the invitation of my social studies teacher. I started off by painting homecoming banners and planning school dances. As my English progressed, I engaged in public testimonies at the Statehouse on K-12 education issues, speaking on behalf of public school students, which led to my career path in education policy.

Having a student in the classroom who does not speak English and has no language partner at the school can prove difficult for teachers, who already have their plates full. Below are 10 suggestions, informed by my own experiences, for how to support English-language learners.

Get a baseline. While baselines are generally determined though mathematics problems and a simple reading/comprehension/writing test, it is important to discern the students’ last educational experiences: subjects they took, what content they covered, the most recent lesson(s) they learned, what subject(s) they found particularly difficult, or easy, and why. Such information is paramount in placing students in the appropriate grade level.

Push students just beyond their comfort zones. Finding ways to challenge students to build on their knowledge and language skills is a great way to help them learn new content and grasp academic skills.

Pair students with language partners. Wherever possible, it is helpful to have another student with similar English-language fluency in the class. While students could be seated apart to decrease classroom disruption, having a study partner can offer immigrant students an opportunity to check in with each other to confirm their content understanding.

Finding ways to challenge students to build on their knowledge and language skills is a great way to help them learn new content and grasp academic skills."

Utilize technology. While technology during my secondary education consisted of paper and pencils, typewriters, and overhead projectors, today’s world of apps for BlackBerries and iPads makes it possible for students to easily access online language-acquisition tools. Of course, the teacher and the student should work together to ensure that technology is used in the short term, not as a crutch.

Make it global. A majority of students going through our public schools today will likely interact with individuals from different countries either in person or online. Encouraging “native” students to interact in positive ways with immigrant students could be meaningful to both parties.

• Share your own experiences. Immigrant students who do not have a language community at school can feel isolated. Integrating cultural elements into lesson plans can help them learn about their new environment.

Use after-school programs as a gateway to the school day. Engaging recently immigrated students in extracurricular activities could be a great way to introduce them to new peers, explore existing or new interests, and feel more connected to the school, all of which has the potential to increase their participation and engagement during the school day.

Involve families. Involving immigrant families in their children’s education is important to help them feel connected to the school; to help them begin to understand the nuances of the American education system, that of the school, and the individual teacher’s expectations. Sharing information with families about adult-learning and community-engagement opportunities is also a great way to help families feel welcome.

Create sanctuaries. Immigrant students, and particularly those coming from traumatic and otherwise difficult environments, can feel vulnerable in a new environment. Cultivating supportive academic and social environments could help students who are new to the country and the language adjust to the new normal, and begin the healing process.

Don’t give up. Learning English, and adjusting to a new life and culture, is a multiyear process, particularly for adolescents with years of experience in a different environment. With participation in high-quality ESOL classes, supportive school staff members, engaging after-school learning opportunities, and school-family partnerships, immigrant students can reach an operational level of English and integrate into their new schools fairly quickly.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Dictionary Girl


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