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How English-Language Learners Have an Edge

By James Boutin — February 01, 2012 5 min read
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During my first year of teaching, Samantha sat in the back of my first-period American government class. Having moved from Mexico, she had only been in the United States for two years. Her oral English comprehension was moderate, but she spoke rarely and was embarrassed to speak in front of native English speakers.

Overwhelmed with the task of teaching anyone anything as a first-year teacher, I felt that reaching Samantha was a Herculean task. Describing the challenge in one of my graduate courses, I mentioned that Samantha hardly ever spoke. When she did, it was always in “broken English.” I lamented that she seemed to understand next to none of the material, and I received commiserative nods from other new teachers in the room.

But the professor burst into tears.

Face flushed, our professor related her journey to the U.S. from Hong Kong as a child. She told us about the trauma of entering a new school and a new culture with no support from parents or teachers in learning English, and she recalled a time a stranger had ridiculed her for her “broken English.”

By the time she was finished, I found myself gazing across a room of crying first-year teachers. I’d never dropped a course before, but this seemed as good a time as any.

My professor forgave me for my lack of sensitivity. And she taught me a lesson I cherish to this day: Language development is integral to the development of identity and self-image. In other words, language supports do more than just help a student communicate. Nurturing language development must be part of the charge of the committed teacher, and it’s not as hard as you initially think.

Effective ELL Instruction

Five years after making a roomful of people cry, I found myself teaching at an international school in the Bronx serving recently-arrived Latin American immigrants—primarily Dominican—and all native Spanish speakers. Here, I used Cornell Notes to help my English-language learners learn history, economics, and governmental systems.

Cornell Notes are a note-taking strategy made popular by the AVID program (an organization dedicated to closing the achievement gap). Cornell Notes can be used in myriad ways, but the most basic form requires students to consider questions as they listen to, read, or watch presented material. Then they record answers to the questions, new questions that arise, and drawings that help them recall the information. At the end of the assignment, students write summaries of what they’ve learned.

On a typical day, students sat in groups of four in a modern world history course. They were given questions about the Industrial Revolution in Cornell notes format. Then I began a listening activity.

“Okay, first question,” I would say. “What was the Industrial Revolution? Anatalia, could you reread the first question again for us?” “What was the Indoostriahl... Rehboolushion?”

“What was the Industrial Revolution,” I would repeat slowly. “One more time.”

“What was the ... Industriahl Revolusion?”

I would slowly tell them the most important things I wanted them to know about the Industrial Revolution, with words I had thought long and hard about. To ensure I was focusing on listening skills, students knew they weren’t not allowed to write anything down until I was finished. It’s a challenging activity: Most of these students had only been exposed to English for two or three years.

When I finished, students told each other what they thought I said, in Spanish or English, beginning with the person who thought he or she understood the least. Ideally, they would check their understanding against each other’s and use me as a backup when the group wasn’t sure about something. Then, having heard the story from five different people (including themselves), they wrote an answer to the question.

Why ELLs Learn More

I’ve taught hundreds of students in five different schools. Nowhere have Cornell Notes been as effective for teaching content and skills simultaneously as when I’ve taught a large number of ELLs. I’ve learned that students like Samantha can, with the right strategies, be strong assets to my classroom.

Why? Many native English speakers believe that because they “know the words,” they do not need to spend time summarizing, discussing, or thinking about content that’s been shared with them. They believe that learning is just a matter of absorbing. Native English speakers often don’t appreciate the need to spend time digesting the language the way ELLs do.

Language learners must pay close attention to the material as it’s translated back and forth among peers and the teacher. With the right support, they can acquire a better understanding of both language and content during language-digesting sessions.

This is perhaps most obvious in teaching vocabulary—particularly conceptual vocabulary—to English speakers. When a student is good at memorizing dictionary definitions, it can be difficult to assess and enhance their understanding of an abstract concept like capitalism. ELLs, on the other hand, have the option of discussing the concept in another language, which can often give them insight unavailable to the English speaker. Furthermore, the act of translating often enhances the ELL’s comprehension, especially when the English words or phrases don’t exist or don’t make sense in their native language. They’re forced to think more deeply about the concept. Powerful questions often arise, which force all of us to look more closely at the material.

One of my favorite activities for building background knowledge with ELLs is interpreting quotes. Let’s say I kick off a unit on the Enlightenment by asking students to analyze a few key quotes by prominent thinkers of the era. Native English speakers often just rearrange the words in the quote to demonstrate understanding. But many quotes from the Enlightenment don’t make sense when translated word for word in other languages, so the added step of translation is a valuable process. Students who are literate in their native language can work on their translation and then explain it to the teacher or classmates. This is a powerful way to build community and help students learn about how other languages deal with particular concepts.

A Necessary Skill

Contrary to my expectations as a new teacher, I am now perhaps most “at home” when teaching those who are new to English.

I now teach in SeaTac, WA, one of the most diverse communities in the country. My school is adjacent to the most diverse ZIP code in the country, according to the 2010 census. My freshman language arts cohort includes students who, in their homes, speak Spanish, Arabic, French, Tagalog, Somali, Vietnamese, Samoan, Punjabi, Lao, Bosnian, Turkish, Russian, and Amharic. Calling home can sometimes be challenging, but I don’t always have to say the same for the teaching. My students are working hard to understand their world—and I’m eager to learn more about their backgrounds.

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