Make Back-to-School A Positive Experience for English Learners

Many hand-1592412__480-1of you have headed back to school and others will be soon. Back-to-school is typically an exciting time of preparation, new beginnings, and anticipation. There is also a certain amount of nervousness involved, especially for English learners (ELs) who may be anxious about doing well in school.

There are some great blog sites for teachers and parents for making the transition from summer to school smooth. There are also videos that illustrate English learners’ experience in school which reminds us how challenging the first days can be for these students.

In this post, I’ll offer my own tips based on my experiences in working with English learners.

  1. Be welcoming in your words and affect. Teachers’ attitudes and behaviors have a tremendous impact on how students feel about themselves as learners and on their academic performance. A smile, eye contact, a kind word, or gesture are simple actions that will go a long way in making English learners feel welcome and that they are a valued members of your class.
  2. Learn your students’ names and how to pronounce them correctly. I know from personal experience how embarrassing it can be when a teacher butchers your name or makes a comment such as, “Oh, this is a tough one. Let’s see if I can say it.” Such comments usually incite laughter from other students. One’s name is linked to one’s identity and sense of self. It doesn’t take much effort to practice saying your students’ names correctly and with the same intonation as when saying, for example, Jason Thomas.
  3. Display items and visuals around the classroom that represent your students’ cultures and languages such as photos, posters, and books. Use labels on items in English and the students’ languages, and ask students how some words or greetings are said in their home language. In elementary schools, a photo of each student with their name displayed on a wall communicates that every child is equally recognized and valued. A modified version may be devised for secondary students.
  4. Communicate high expectations, with support provided. Spell out expectations, generate enthusiasm for the upcoming year, and communicate confidence that all students will be able to achieve their best work. Make sure that ELs know that there will be instructional supports in place to make them successful.
  5. Be sensitive about asking the class how they spent their summer, where their family went on vacation, and other kinds of typical back-to-school sharing activities or assignments. Some English learners come from affluent households but statistically speaking, most live in low socioeconomic circumstances so it is unlikely that they attended summer camp or went on a family vacation. When I was a new teacher in an inner city high school, I naively asked my students what they had done during the summer. Many responded that they had mostly stayed indoors and watched TV or had to go to work with their parents. I was amazed at how eager most students were to return from summer break because school provided structure, safety, social interaction, and a purpose to their day.
  6. Post the daily schedule and classroom rules/expectations in a visual manner that is easy for English learners to understand, even if they can’t comprehend every word. You may teach a mini-lesson for English learners to be sure that they understand the rules and expectations in a positive way and can participate fully in classroom routines and activities. Set them up for success!
  7. Don’t criticize students if they are a day or more late in returning back to school. Teachers are excited about the new school year and it can be understandably disappointing if students aren’t in attendance from the first day when you have spent time and effort establishing a classroom culture and all that that entails. However, it isn’t the student’s fault when she misses some days because her family had other responsibilities to tend to. Just this past year I was observing in a school that had been in session for a little over two weeks. In a 4th grade classroom that had a high number of English learners, a girl approached the teacher to say she didn’t know what to do for her report, an assignment the other students were working on. The teacher replied that since the girl’s family “chose to take an extra two weeks of vacation in Mexico” she would have to figure it out herself or ask a student. He pointed out that the other children returned to school on time and knew the assignment. Needless to say, I was shocked that a student was made to feel unworthy of help because of circumstances beyond her control. Don’t take your frustrations out on students –ever.

The new school year is a time of excitement, anticipation, and new challenges. Students are more likely to attend school and actively engage in learning when their social, emotional, and intellectual needs are satisfied in the classroom environment. There is a lot that teachers can do to get the school year off to a good start, which may put English learners on a trajectory for tremendous academic and linguistic growth, even for the most reluctant learners.

Hopefully some of these tips will inspire teachers to make their classrooms positive learning environments for every student. Have a great year!


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