When a New Student Has Language Barriers: 7 Tips for Teachers

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About five million children in the United States—that’s approximately one out of 10 students–are learning how to speak English. This is a huge demographic shift, not only in states like California, Texas, and Florida, but also in Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Vermont.

Many of the students come from migrant backgrounds, whose guardians move around a lot in search of work. This means that English-language learning students tend to be the new kid in far more schools than a native English speaker. This lack of consistency makes their journey to proficiency that much more difficult.

It’s important to take every step we can to make these students feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Only then can rigorous, student-centered learning take place. Here are a few strategies to help them become acclimated and ready to learn:

1) Pair a student with a knowledgeable buddy

Being new in school can be lonely. Aside from knowing few people, being unable to find things can be frustrating or embarrassing. For kids who struggle in English, those challenges are magnified.

When new ELL students enter school, pair them with buddies who know their way around campus. Ideally (although not necessarily), buddies are more proficient or former ELL students themselves. Not only can they act as tour guides, but they have the capacity to act as mentors during the inevitable trials that lie ahead for each new student.

2) Conduct a language inventory among the staff

As mentioned in the intro, this ELL influx is affecting every state in the union. Meanwhile, a school’s staff includes dozens (or even hundreds) of people with varying backgrounds and experiences.

Conduct an inventory survey among the staff, looking for all the different foreign language proficiencies that can be found on campus. Survey everyone, including custodial and food personnel. Even limited or rusty language skills can be of use for translation during student or parent interactions. Some of these staff members will prove to be game-changing mentors for students.

3) Learn and model how to properly pronounce the student’s name

Names are our key to community access and belonging. The new student may be coming from a place where everyone inherently knew how to pronounce their name, so everyone mispronouncing it is just one more reminder that they are an outsider.

English learners are often quick to accept however their peers want to pronounce their name, usually with something like “close enough.” Don’t accept that attitude. Sit the new student down and have them teach you how to pronounce their name until you get it right. Then model that pronunciation for the rest of the class. It may take a while, especially for younger students, but the time spent will be worth it when the new student feels accepted by the community.

4) Don’t wait for the student to ask for help

Language challenges can force anyone to be shy, and that’s particularly true among students trying to build a rapport with their teacher(s). Add to that the fact that in some Spanish-speaking cultures, teachers are treated with a sort of reverence with which American teachers are unaccustomed and you have the recipe for students sitting quietly—even if they’re struggling.

That means it’s the teacher who needs to reach out to the student. Don’t wait for him or her to ask for help. Check in regularly. Or, even better, make sure the student spends the first few weeks sitting near enough to you where you can see their progress without disturbing them.

5) Visuals aren’t just for lessons

Visuals are a central tool in ELL curricula, with good reason. The problem is that teachers forget those tricks when covering the other aspects of their classroom, such as procedures for lunch, dismissal, sharpening pencils, etc. These parts of classroom culture are even harder for ELL students to master if they come into school in the middle of the year, after you’ve spent the first week or so modeling them for the other students.

Instead, start the year with visual posters that walk students through acceptable classroom procedures and norms. That way, if an ELL student does come into class mid-year, they will be able to fall right in with their other classmates.

6) Label objects around the room bilingually

Along the same line, labeling classroom objects can save an ELL student a lot of stress or embarrassment. Instead of having to search for “pencil sharpener,” they can just refer to the object. This not only aids in learning classroom procedures, but it also can help move the student’s conversation skills along.

7) Give them time to educate everyone else (but don’t push them)

ELL students are a tremendous cultural resource for everyone who comes into contact with them. But that can also be a lot of pressure as they are bombarded with questions. Instead, make it known to the student that they are welcome to make a presentation to the class about their language, culture, and customs, but only when they’re ready. It can save a lot of those awkward question-and-answer sessions.

For even more guidance, read Educating Hispanic and Latino Students by Jaime Castellano.