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Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Welcoming a Non-English Speaking Student to Your Class
Tobey Cho Bassoff

As teachers, we are detailed oriented, but when it comes to being ready for the unexpected, even the best of us can be caught off-guard. The following article will give you helpful suggestions on how to easily plan ahead, only for new students to your class, but also for students new to an English speaking community.

When the school year begins, teachers define readiness. Our classrooms, not to mention our desks, dazzle the world with unarguable order. After a few days of being in the classroom and following our routines, the order is still there, but it begins to take on definite shape and life. So, when a new student arrives, she is expected to be immediately drawn in to the inner workings of the “workshop,” known as our classroom.

What should be viewed as a wonderful opportunity for our classroom community experiences and knowledge base to grow, turns into a sigh and a question that many of us are too embarrassed to admit we ask, “How am I going to deal with this one?” This question is a reality of a time intensive job. Yet, as you will discover, if we change our planning to incorporate the unexpected student, then our outlook about this student’s place in our community will change too.

The newcomers folder is a two-pocket folder that contains getting-to-know you activities, desk plates, a map of the school, quick assessments, and a checklist for the teacher. This bright folder should be in a prominent place in your classroom and allow for easy access. For many of us, the luxury of finding out about new students ahead of time is not a reality. So, when that new student walks through the door with little or no warning, like in the middle of a lesson, you will have something ready to welcome her.

Getting to-know-you activities range in quality. When selecting an activity, you should pick something that allows the student to express her individuality, but one that is not peppered with instructions in English. I use a star activity that allows a student to draw a picture of herself with things she likes and dislikes. Every student in the class makes a star, usually at the beginning of the year, which represents their place in the classroom and our global community. This star ties with our first theme, “Journey to Adventure,” where we study space. All of the stars are displayed on a bulletin board throughout the year. When the new student arrives, I welcome her and then I show her our board. I have a model star in the folder with picture symbols to clue her into what she is supposed to draw on the star. This activity provides her with a sense of belonging to a caring community. For more ideas on newcomer activities, visit http://atozteacherstuff.com/tips/Back_to_School/Welcoming_Students/index.shtml

Desk plates send a message that says, “We’re glad you’re here.” Many of us have heard some version of the “uninvited guest” who makes an appearance during holiday meals and who feels welcomed to join the feast, because a place is already set for her. Desk plates provide a similar sense of community. When your student arrives, welcome her to her desk with a desk plate. If you are given advance warning, the desk plate can already have her name written on it. However, if the student arrives with no warning, then have a blank desk plate on an empty desk so it’s always ready for the “unanticipated guest.” Invite her to decorate the plate as one of the activities that she completes while you are otherwise engaged. If you are a middle school, high school, or specials teacher, then you can welcome your new student with a temporary name plate that is made from a tri-fold of 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper. If you elect to do this, then it may be helpful to your student to have the other students in the class use their name plates as well. For printable name plates, visit: http://atozteacherstuff.com/printables/by_lanie.shtml.

A map of the school should be simple to follow and should have visual cues for the essential places in the building. I draw the map that I provide for my students. Later in the year, I offer students in my class the opportunity to improve upon my design. They often do, and it is a wonderful exercise in cartography! The map that I draw has the major areas: cafeteria, restrooms, playground, nurse’s office, computer lab, gym, music, and art rooms labeled with pictures. The pictures that I use are taken from clip art. Visit http://school.discovery.com/clipart/ for clip art ideas.

Quick assessments allow you to quickly determine your new student’s comfort level in the school setting. Seasoned teachers know that assumptions about a student’s background can quickly backfire and cause a lot of valuable instruction and classroom bonding time to be lost. Therefore, if you select some quick assessments that provide you with a general picture of your new student, then you will be much more prepared for the unexpected. When choosing assessments, you should consider the attainable goal. I choose the word “attainable,” because it is important to understand that this assessment is by no means comprehensive, nor complete. My main goal is to understand how comfortable my students are with being in a school environment, fully recognizing that not all school environments are the same. The assessment I give provides a place for the student to write her name and the date. (Again, I have a model paper that shows how this is done.) I will look for his or her ability to copy form, or on a higher level, interpret what I have done and transfer it to the native language, or the current date, which is always posted in the class. Next, I have four different boxes with pictures, which provide a prompt for a writing sample in the native language. Most of my new ESL students come from Mexico, so the conventions resemble English. I look for command over punctuation and capital letters. Many times I find that my new ESL students have neither. If the new ESL student comes from a different part of the world, then try to find someone to help you get a handle on their level of command of their native language. If you want to understand what a new student wrote, then you can also go to http://babelfish.altavista.com for a free translation in several different languages.

Finally, provide yourself with a checklist that helps you keep track of the new student. Teachers have many ways of setting their students on the path to success. These ways include portfolios, formal assessments, workshop folders, lab notebooks, etc. If you have a list to check off when you have completed the “intake” process with a new student you will find yourself a lot more organized and happy.

A final word on newcomers: Treat them as if you are thrilled that they are choosing to have you as a teacher and to be a part of your classroom community. Every child has a story to tell and every student has a knowledge base from which every member of your class can benefit. Listen to them and invite them into your world of learning with open arms. Even if the student does not speak English, she has so much to offer if you will take the opportunity to make her feel welcome into your classroom.

Questions or comments? E-mail Tobey.


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