Best Practices for Serving English Language Learners and Their Families
Section II: Classroom Culture
Bessie Alexopoulos was an English language learner who is now an ELL teacher. “When students from different languages learn together, side by side, it helps the students feel valued,” she says. “And when a student feels valued, it gives them a boost of acceptance, confidence and pride.”
Social inclusion not only helps ELL students learn the culture of their new community, it exposes all students to new ways of thinking, problem solving and living in the world. Ultimately it’s these social interactions that will provide the bridge from “otherness” to “togetherness.”
Social Inclusion Opportunities for ELL Students
Limit pull-out separate instruction time. Pulling ELL students out of class for separate instruction limits contact time with peers. ELL students who spend a significant amount of time outside of the classroom are put at a disadvantage for forming new friendships and learning new skills.
Level the playing field. Provide leveled reading material in a student’s native language, and be sure to give ELL students the same curriculum that everyone else is using. ELL students may need additional scaffolding or alternative texts, but everyone should be given access to the same essential questions, learning targets and enduring understandings. Provide all students the opportunity to showcase their talents and cultures through assignments such as a community art showcase or a photo essay exhibit. Provide texts that serve as mirrors to your ELL students’ lived experiences and cultures and as windows for their peers.
Model being a language learner. Allow ELL students to teach you and other students about their languages and cultures. Apply for a grant that will fund language classes for school staff. Learn some phrases in your students’ native languages and then use them.
Go beyond the classroom. Provide opportunities for ELL and non-ELL students to interact and work together outside of the classroom. Working alongside their peers helps ELL students gain a sense of accomplishment and take pride in knowing that they have something to contribute.
“In order for [immigrant youth] to develop appropriate psychological and social outcomes, they need to keep the bilingual and bicultural heritage,” says Elena Makarova, a researcher who studies immigration. Unfortunately, sometimes ELL students get the message that the goal of school is to assimilate them into the dominant culture. Holding a student to this expectation not only denies their identity, it denies non-ELL students the opportunity to benefit from the diversity of a multilingual, multicultural school community.
How can educators take steps toward honoring multilingualism and multicultural heritage? Consider these best practices:
- Make sure everyone in the school knows which languages are spoken there.
- Weave multiple languages into school events and celebrations, not just administrative tasks.
- Promote the value of multilingualism, even encouraging adults in the school to learn another language.
- Support the formation of language-based affinity groups that allow ELL students to communicate about important topics and add value to the school.
- Offer dual-language learning opportunities, either at the school or in partnership with other local institutions or organizations.
Teacher Leadership Spotlight
Mix It Up at Lunch Day is one great way to foster interaction across groups and improve school climate. With the help of other adults in the building and—ideally—groups of students, set aside structured time when students can learn about each other over a meal or activity. Schools that mix it up report fewer incidences of bullying and improved levels of student empathy.
Teacher Leadership Spotlight
If you notice students targeting English language learners, say something right away. Even if you’re in a hurry or don’t know what to say, stop and address the comment. ELL students can be among the most vulnerable kids in school. Ignoring bullying and bias sends the message that targeting them isn’t a big deal. Speaking up, however, indicates that your classroom is a place where friendship is valued and harassment and put-downs are not welcome. Make sure your students and your colleagues have an opportunity to learn how to speak up too! For more information, see Speak Up at School.