School Culture and English Language Learners

Cortez Deacetis

English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing subpopulation in the country with the highest dropout rate and the lowest graduation rate of all subgroups. Though you can find specific statistics on the ELL population by going into individual districts and department of education sites, it is very difficult to find up-to-date real statistics as a nation on the total English language learner population. These students must meet the same graduation requirements and standards as the English speaking population. Therefore, schools need to provide an environment which embraces their culture and reaches ELLs specifically according to their needs. Teachers are encouraged to learn how to use teaching strategies that will engage learners at their level and ability. For these reasons, helping children feel they will be successful begins with the orientation process. So, here are some questions regarding your school culture as it relates to your ELL population.

  • How much does your school personnel know about the culture of your new students?
  • How can your school personnel learn more to reach your ELL population? How can your school personnel promote a sense of community among students, parents, faculty and staff?
  • Does your school have a plan of action that will encourage students testing out of the ELL program? If so, what is that plan and do all personnel know what it is?
  • Does your school offer regular ELL training on topics such as placement, parental involvement, culture?
  • Does your school have student ambassadors or student mentors paired with new ELL students to better support their transition to a new school?
  • How does the school provide orientation for your ELL parents and students?
  • How can school personnel make the first day for ELLs successful?
  • How can school personnel assess your ELL’s learning ability in order to determine the level of instruction needed?
  • Do you give incoming students a diagnostic test for a more accurate placement in classes?

How did you respond to the questions above? Did you answer positively? Does your school provide a welcoming environment to your immigrant students and their families?

Immigrant children face many challenges. English language learners come to school with a wide range of life and educational experiences due to their diverse backgrounds. They may have come to the United States under false pretenses or may have been separated from family members to have a better life in search of the ‘American dream’. Fraught with the stress of moving from one country to another, they also struggle with not knowing the language. Communication is the number one difficulty almost all ELL students and parents struggle with; culture shock then follows.

Culture shock is dealing with the stress of something new and unfamiliar. Students learning English as a second language may have come from a country where the goal of education is to teach and learn mechanically. These students will therefore not be used to learning by discovery and the thought of thinking critically and sharing out loud is unheard of. ELLs might shy away from enjoyable class activities, group discussions, or team work because they may feel threatened by the language barrier, the unknown expectations of the activity, or simply losing face because they may not know the right answer. They may also perceive a wrong answer as causing the teacher to lose face which might cause them to not respond. Teachers who do not understand a child’s culture, might then perceive these behaviors as disrespectful or might accuse the student of not participating, when in fact it is simply the case of feeling ‘culture shock’. Many ELLs are also not used to praise and may feel uncomfortable when asked to share an opinion or belief. They may feel it is a private thought and won’t feel safe sharing with others. On the far end of the spectrum, you might find your ELL may have never had any formal education in their country and is so lost educationally and socially that he/she may need ongoing long-term orientation to each and every lesson and activity. This would require serious patience of the part of the teacher and true differentiated instructional strategies for learning to be successful for ELLs in this situation.

Rather than cause your ELLs more stress then what comes naturally with culture shock, be creative and be patience. Show your support for learning and growth at all levels. Celebrate all cultures in your classroom and school. Learn about different countries, give opportunities for your ELLs to share out about their country, their language and their purpose for coming to the United States. Talk with them individually. Have your ELLs teach you a new word in their home language as you teach them a new word in English. Doing this builds great relationships and it opens up the lines of communication creating a sense of safety and comfort. Students want to feel safe in a classroom environment. Provide your ELL students a class mentor (a classmate) to answer questions, help navigate around the classroom, provide peer tutoring if necessary, or whatever it might take until he/she is comfortable with the class routines, expectations and lesson activities. The mentor can also rotate each week allowing other students to participate in your mentoring program. Give your ELLs translated documents, homework sheets, class activities, etc. This can be done by translating documents on Google translator, Yahoo translator or other online translators for free. Just as important as translated documents is encouraging students to use a bilingual dictionary for everything including tests and quizzes. Word for word translations provide support and are additional resources for success.

We know culture may affect classroom behaviors, but it also may influence comprehension of content. The role of the school and the teacher is critical in creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere, one that supports the development of these students as bilingual learners. Teachers have a unique opportunity to utilize the culture and experiences ELLs bring to school to expand the learning of all students in the classroom. Reinforcing the effort helps students see a clear relationship between what they do and what they achieve. Through careful planning and open communication, your school will not only make the first day of orientation for new ELLs an extremely pleasant experience, but you will also create an atmosphere of inclusion and belonging that will result in a student’s desire to be in school, as well as increase his/her academic, social and personal achievements.

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