Working with middle and high school English Language Learners (ELLs) presents a unique set of benefits and challenges. In order to achieve the highest level of success in the classroom, it's important to acknowledge these benefits and challenges and understand how they affect student learning.
It doesn't matter how great instruction is — if the social and emotional needs of a student are not met, success in the classroom will become that much more difficult to achieve. This is especially true for middle and high school ELLs. Many ELLs at this age are responsible for much more than the average teenager, and have a complex set of transitions and concerns to face.
Many ELLs do not simply go home and relax in front of the computer or TV after school. Instead, they are obligated to help their family in various ways.
Some students contribute to the family's financial needs by working outside the home. They may work all weekday evenings and on weekends.
Other students care for younger siblings while their parents go to work. Cooking dinner for the entire family and cleaning the house are common tasks for students when they get home. All of this — and they have to complete their homework too.
Ever wonder why certain students miss so much school? Chances are your ELLs are the most proficient English speaker in their family. As a result, they are often called upon to take care of adult business. ELLs accompany family members to various appointments with doctors, landlords, tax agents, social services, etc.
While that beginning level student in your 1st period class may have limited language skills when compared to his classmates, at home, s/he may be the only one who can speak English.
Your role: The best thing you can do as a teacher is talk to your students about their responsibilities at home. If necessary, work out alternative plans for them to complete assignments and make up work if they miss school. Most importantly, lend them an ear if they need to talk and let them know that they are supported.
The importance of structure
By coming to a new country, with an unfamiliar culture, and a foreign language so many aspects of older ELLs' lives have been disrupted. Creating structure in the classroom offers students comfort and familiarity, and sets them up for success. Students know what to expect and as a result, stress and anxiety are reduced. While this is important for all students, it is especially helpful for students with little or no formal education.
Your role: Create a structured, well-managed classroom for your ELLs. Establish classroom routines, post daily schedules, and make sure students have a copy of their daily schedule that they can refer to easily.
ELLs want to fit in with their American peers, but at the same time they want their identities and cultures validated. This is an ongoing, internal struggle for most students. This struggle may also follow them home where their desire to adopt certain U.S. cultural values clashes with their parents' desire to uphold their own traditional values.
Your role: It's important to be cognizant of such struggles and the added stress it may have on students. As teachers, the best we can do is build rapport with our students, ask questions, listen, and offer help and understanding to their unique circumstances.
Michelle Lawrence is a high school ELL teacher at The International Preparatory School at Grover in Buffalo, NY.