In the after-school program, one challenge I faced continuously throughout the year was working with English Language Learners or ELL students. When working in Santa Ana and Orange, the main demographic of students was Latino/Hispanic. In fact, more than 90% of the students were Latino at the schools I worked at. Despite being born and raised in southern California, many of these students had learned Spanish as their primary language since many of their parents could not speak English fluently.
The inability to speak English was even more severe for my elementary school students who recently came to America directly from Mexico. These students came to school and my after-school program literally knowing no English. For myself, I couldn’t comprehend how difficult learning math, reading and writing in a completely different language must be. I assumed my ELL students felt the same way because they were often disengaged and bored in class especially when they were being instructed by a teacher who could only speak English.
Another unexpected issue were their classmates. Thankfully the other classmates treated my ELL students with respect but, since everyone was Latino/Hispanic, nearly everyone could speak Spanish! In turn, their classmates would constantly speak to my ELL students in Spanish, and my ELL students never felt pressured to speak in English.
To address this issue, I did the following:
1.) Partnered up my ELL students with a successful classmate that could speak English and Spanish fluently – This way, whenever a teacher gave an instruction in English, the classmate could automatically translate the instruction to Spanish. However, I made sure to choose a classmate that was excelling academically because I did not want them to compromise their own learning to help their classmate.
2.) Spoke with my ELL students in both English and Spanish but never combined the two – If I gave a direction in English and my ELL student still didn’t understand, then I would translate the direction into Spanish. However, I avoided combining the two languages and speaking in “Spanglish” so that my ELL students knew to keep the two languages separate.
3.) Reminded my ELL students to always speak in English – Whenever I spoke with my ELL students, I reminded them every single time to speak English. I knew that as the year progressed, my ELL students were learning more English but sometimes they were afraid to speak because of having a heavy accent. However, I constantly reassured them and praised them whenever they spoke in English so that they would not be afraid of speaking in another language. Eventually, it became second-nature for my ELL students to try speaking in English whenever they talked tome.
4.) Reminded my other students to speak with my ELL students in Spanish and English – I always told my students to speak in both languages when talking with my ELL students. I taught them to speak in Spanish first and then say the translation in English immediately after.
To better understand how my ELL students must feel learning a new language, I decided to learn a new language as well. Even though I already spoke Spanish after taking high school and college classes, I chose to learn a language that literally had no relation to Spanish or English: Mandarin Chinese. The reason why I chose Mandarin was because of its complexity so I knew that learning it would definitely be a humbling experience. The struggles of learning a difficult language definitely put into perspective for me how my ELL students must feel when they are in class.
After learning how to speak Spanish, I knew that I could connect with my ELL students on a higher level that I couldn’t accomplish when I only knew English. By speaking to them in Spanish, it demonstrates that I am making the effort to truly understand what my ELL students are saying. And when my ELL students see how hard I’ve worked to understand them, I’ve observed that my ELL students are more likely to work hard for me as well. Plus the parents appreciate anyone that can speak in Spanish too! 🙂