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NYC Helpline: How To: Develop as a Professional

Making English Language Learners Feel At Home in Monolingual Classrooms
by Theresa London Cooper

Students attending many of the New York City public schools have the benefit of learning about various cultures as we live in what is referred to as a melting pot. Talking with and socializing with others is a great way to learn about cultures other than our own. At the same time, English Language Learners (ELLs) in monolingual classes – instead of bilingual classes – need a great deal of support from their teachers. To that end, monolingual teachers should be aware of some of the things they can do to make ELLs feel at home and to respect their cultural and linguistic capital to support their learning. Some things we can do impact the affective domain and others affect student achievement.

As the teacher, how do we make our ELL students feel at home in a strange, new place?

First, learn as much as you can about the culture of all of your students. Talk to their parents; explore the culture through the Internet, books, and restaurants. Invite parents in to co-present with their child to share artifacts, foods, attire and literature to familiarize the students with the particular culture.

Second, there are number of things we can do to support instruction. When possible, partner the student with someone with the same culture who has a command of the language and who can help the student acclimate to the new setting. Post visuals around the room to help students comprehend important ideas. When appropriate, use cognates to build your students’ knowledge of the English language. Show them the similarities of their language to the English language when possible. Artifacts also help ELL students understand concepts that are presented.

Third, try to incorporate information in your lessons from their culture to help them make connections. While teaching a fourth-grade social studies lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King, I decided to incorporate two other influences on his life – Henry Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi. I proceeded to show a video clip on Gandhi’s life and the class discussed their thinking about what they viewed. I was surprised to find out what an impact in made on one of my students who was from India. It dawned on me that I had not referred to her culture once during the year. After the lesson was completed, she beamed and we developed a much closer relationship. I learned a valuable lesson that day. In showing the video clip, I acknowledged her and her culture and she appreciated it. It is critical that we give all of our students a voice and acknowledge their presence in our classrooms through our lessons and conversations. “Seeing” them is the beginning of building a classroom community that lays the foundation for an environment of acceptance, risk taking, and authentic learning.

Fourth, establish routines that you use consistently to convey important information. In this way, ELL students can learn them more quickly and use them to convey information. Use as many non-verbal signals as possible to give ELL’s greater opportunities to communicate with others.

Lastly, build alliances with the support staff in your building who can help you build your background knowledge of ELL instructional strategies. This particular suggestion is especially critical for monolingual teachers who have English Language Learners in their classrooms. Remember; when possible make sure you have interpreters for the parents during parent-teacher conferences.

Coming to a new country and having to learn a new culture and language is a tremendous challenge. Students do it each day. As teachers, we must develop our skills to see that they get the support to learn and meet the standards like their English-speaking classmates.

Do you have English Language Learners in your classroom? If so, how do you support their learning? What might you do differently to refine your practice?

Do you have a question or comment about this article? E-mail Theresa.


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