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Learning about Your Students' Backgrounds

By: Colorín Colorado (2007)

Where do my students come from?

Pat Mora

Watch children's author and literacy advocate Pat Mora discuss how to reach out to parents of ELLs.

The English language learners (ELLs) in your classroom may represent diverse languages and cultures from around the world. The majority of ELL families in the United States come from Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. These Hispanic families may have many things in common, such as customs, foods, dances, values, and the Spanish language. However, there are also many rich cultural differences within and between countries like Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador.

The more you learn about where your students come from, the easier your job will become. This includes learning more about their language, culture, values, family, and home environment. This knowledge will help you to better support your students in the classroom and to receive more support from home. There are many ways to make this linguistic and cultural diversity a huge asset. Your efforts will also make ELL students feel more welcome.

View a list of the many languages (with percentages) spoken by ELLs in the United States, 2000-2001.

Language

At home, your ELL students and their families communicate in the language they know best. Although there are regional and social variations of Spanish, Spanish is one commonly understood language.

The more Spanish that you know as a teacher, the more you will be able to reach out to your Hispanic students and their families. Even a little Spanish can go a long way. Here are a few things that you can do:

Learn a few basic words and everyday expressions in Spanish

Although it may seem like a small gesture, using Spanish phrases can mean a great deal to your students and their families. Making the effort shows that you respect and value their language. These lists of Spanish/English cognates and common classroom words and phrases will help get you started.

Try taking a Spanish class

Learning more Spanish will improve your communication with Hispanic students and their parents. And by going through the process of learning a second language, you will better understand the challenges faced by your students, who have to learn English and subject matter at the same time. You will also become more aware of effective strategies for teaching your students.

Culture

Try to really learn where your ELL students come from. Move beyond the "Latino/Hispanic" label. Is this student a Mexican immigrant or a second generation Mexican American? Is he or she from Central America, a Caribbean island, or South America? Your students and their families have interesting histories and a rich cultural heritage to share.

Here are two things you can do to learn more:

Inform yourself

Read about your ELL students' countries, regions, and customs. You can find information in books, articles, and on the Internet. Even just looking in encyclopedias or travel guidebooks will give you a basic overview of their countries.

Invite their culture into the classroom

Invite students and/or family members for show-and-tell, story-telling, food tasting, dancing, etc. Doing this will likely raise the self-esteem of ELL students and generate greater respect from their peers.

Values

Hispanic families often immigrate to the United States with high hopes for better educational opportunities for their children that can lead to economic improvement. Even if parents do not speak English or cannot read in Spanish, they often share some of the following values and beliefs about education:

Respect for the teacher and school

In Latin America, parents tend to put teachers on a pedestal. They respect education. It is assumed that the teacher's job is at school and the parent's job is at home.

Hispanic parents in the United States care deeply about their children's education, but they may not be used to taking an active role. It is up to you, the teacher, to explain that in the United States it is common for teachers to welcome and invite parents to be in touch, come in for conferences, help with reading and homework at home, and make decisions together with the school.

High expectations

Hispanic parents in the United States tend to make big sacrifices for the future of their children. They often move far from home and work long hours so that their children can succeed in school and in life. So it is no surprise that these parents have high expectations and aspirations for their children's success in school.

Family relationships

Family is often the cornerstone of Hispanic social structure. Families have a strong sense of interdependence, mutual respect, and co-parenting. Grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings may be helping to raise your ELL students. This extended family might live at home, visit frequently, or live nearby. Many Hispanics travel back and forth between their native country and the United States. Understanding this family structure might help you to gain trust and participation from both the immediate and extended family members.

Home environment

Although you do not want to pry for information, the more you can find out about where your students come from, the better you will understand their strengths, needs, and real-life circumstances. One way to find out is to get to know their families — whether at school, in their home, or in the community. But if a family is very reluctant to meet with you, respect their wishes and understand that they may have good reasons for this.

Having answers to the following questions may help you to better work with your students and their families:

  • Who lives at home? Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings? How many of them speak English? How many know how to read in English and/or Spanish?
  • How long have they been in the United States? Why did they come?
  • How familiar are they with the U.S. school system?
  • What is the child's prior educational experience?
  • Has the child been formally instructed in English before? If so, for how long?
  • Do they come from a big city or a rural town?
  • Does your student have a quiet place to study? Is there someone to help with homework?

Most of this information can also be obtained by using a written "Getting to Know You" survey or through informal conversations.

Learn more about identifying your students' language preferences and abilities.

Reaching out

Children's author and literacy advocate, Pat Mora, discusses how teachers and librarians can reach out to parents of ELLs.

This video is also available on YouTube.

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