Trying Something New When Working with ESL Students

In high school, I had to take two years of a world language to graduate.  Since Spanish seemed like the easiest, I went for it.  I worked hard and earned high marks, but I didn’t really like it.  I didn’t see the value in learning another language at that time.  Then, in college, I had to take two semesters of a language as part of my Expressive Writing dual major.  Since I had already familiarized myself with Spanish, I continued with that wonderful romance language.  It was much harder in college as it was more of an immersion program.  The teacher only spoke Spanish for the entire class.  It was so challenging.  Ater day one, I considered dropping it because I was so confused.  I only understood about 10% of what the professor had actually said.  It was scary and tiring.  Now I know how my ESL students feel.  By the end of the year course, I got much better.  I was able to converse in Spanish quite well, but it took much practice and time.  Learning a new language is tricky and difficult.  I can only imagine how the students in my class from other countries feel.  They must struggle greatly, but they do make much progress by the end of the year.  It’s a hard road for them, but they do succeed with effort and time.

As one of my professional goals this year is to work on better supporting and helping the ESL students in my class, I started reading a book my Director of Studies lent me: Educating English Learners.  Although I just started it, I’ve begun to learn some of the challenges I’ve never actually addressed when working with ESL students.  English Learners (ELs) succeed when the teacher working with them empathizes with them or learns to speak a bit of their native language.  This makes sense to me.  If I went to China for a trip or to attend a course, I would find anyone who speaks English right away.  Language is a huge shared commonality that bonds people together.  This knowledge nugget struck me.  How can I possibly learn the many different languages my students speak?  In my class this year, I have students who speak the following languages: Thai, Korean, Chinese, English.  Yes, I speak one and so I’d really only have three to learn, but that is still a lot.  Then it hit me, what if I just try some basic phrases in each of the languages to start.  That could work.  And that’s when I remembered, I know how to say hello in three out of the four languages.  So, as the students entered my classroom yesterday, I greeted them in their native language.  A few of the students from China seemed so shocked by the greeting and my knowledge that they turned around after they had processed what I had said.  They didn’t say anything, but it felt to me like they enjoyed it.  I’m not trying to earn more of their respect or impress them, I’m trying to help connect with them and empathize with them a bit.  I want the ELs to feel like they have someone who is there for them while they are at my school learning English.  I continued it again this morning and the students took note.  They seemed happy when I greeted them in their native language and greeted me back.  It was great.  I know it’s only a little thing, but I wanted to try something.  My next goal is to perfect my Thai.

As I get deeper into the book I’m reading about helping ELs, I’m hopeful that I will learn more valuable tips about how to best support and challenge those students in my room whose native language isn’t English.  As I learn new things, I will continue to try them to see what works and what doesn’t.  My greeting experiment seemed to go over well and so I will continue that one.  I can’t wait to see what I learn next.


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