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Meeting the Needs of ESL children


He was a happy, eager boy who, I found out later, had an incredible amount of patience. During literacy lessons, I placed Antonio in the lowest level literacy group, which consisted of three children with special needs and two with low levels of literacy. He spent quite a few weeks in this group working on very simple tasks, including colouring pictures and joining them to their starting letters and making words out of letter cards. I placed signs around the classroom and thought I was meeting Antonio’s needs. It wasn’t until I discovered that the English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in the school could speak and write a little Spanish, that I became aware of Antonio’s command of language.

classI placed a picture of a colourful jungle scene on the display board and asked the students to write a creative story that took place in that setting. The ESL teacher wrote these same instructions in Spanish for me and I copied them onto the board. I asked Antonio to write his story ‘en Español’ (in Spanish) and his eyes lit up. He wrote and wrote, nearly filling a page. I studied the prose that afternoon and, although I couldn’t follow the story, I saw capital letters, paragraphs and even some punctuation! For nearly a month, I had assumed that because Antonio could only speak minimal English, he would need to start from the bottom rung. This wasn’t true at all. I moved Antonio to a higher literacy group and the improvement was amazing. He was hearing a different level of conversation and almost immediately began joining in. The students asked questions of their new group member and waited patiently while he used simple words, drawings and signs to answer them. Antonio befriended the children from this group and even gave them Spanish lessons at lunchtime.

ESL learners are students who speak a language other than English as their first language. It is part of our job as teachers to meet the needs of these students as best we can in the mainstream classroom. Fortunately, many schools have ESL teachers who are specifically employed to work with learners of ESL for a number of hours per week. The ESL teacher supports the students by helping them to read, write and speak English. Being able to spend time with the students in small groups gives them the opportunity to improve the students’ oral language, increasing their confidence. The ESL teachers also encourage the children to value and use their first language.

Obviously, not all children will be as eager or as susceptible as Antonio was. The age at which a student enters the classroom and the command of his/her first language play an important part in the student’s ability to grasp the English language. These criteria can also affect whether the child’s first language will be lost or rejected. In many cases, the ESL teacher makes the first contact with the parents and the community of a student learning a second language. It is essential that classroom teachers and ESL teachers develop procedures to communicate the information learnt about ESL students.

When classroom teachers incorporate an ESL student’s first language into a lesson, they are giving the student the opportunity to see and discuss not only his or her language but also his or her culture. With forward planning of topics and themes, this culture can then be celebrated and the student’s identity recognised. During a technology unit that involved making bread, I found and placed on the display board pictures of the different types of bread eaten all over the world. I asked the ESL students in my class to find out how the word ‘bread’ was spoken and written in their ‘home’ language. Next, I sent letters to the parents of my ESL students asking them to write the word ‘bread’ in their language. The response was surprising. Not only did I receive words, but also pictures, recipes and even bread! I carefully copied the words and mounted them next to the bread from the country where the language was spoken. We had a ‘Bread from Around the World’ party where we tasted many different types of bread. I asked my bilingual students to say the word in their language, and explain to the class how the bread was eaten in their home. For some children, this involved speaking, while others were able to tell me using pictures and signs that I interpreted for them. The party was a success and showed the students that I appreciated and valued their culture.

Recognising and defining words is a big challenge for children learning English. Using pictures, drawings and real-life objects is an effective way for students to match words to their meaning. To help an Arabic child who was confused with the meaning of the word ‘frill’, I searched the playground during ‘yard duty’ for a frilly blouse or frilly socks. The child appreciated my effort and was one small step closer to understanding her new language.

Students who are learning a second language not only face the challenges of learning everyday words but also need some grasp of the English language to access all of the curriculum areas successfully. Asking ESL students to label scientific diagrams or design a history time line can be an almost futile task. (It is understandable that ESL students proclaim they look forward to maths lessons the most!) Being able to access an ESL teacher or other adults who can spend time with the students in smaller groups can increase enthusiasm and understanding of the content involved in the subjects. I achieved success by asking my support staff to introduce the terminology being used in science and SOSE before the lessons. The students become acquainted with the language by studying pictures, playing with equipment and labelling diagrams using cards that had the words in English and in their language. With the older students, I created booklets that covered the content for the week for certain subjects but used simpler text and pictures. I also included word games that could be played before the lesson. When the lesson was presented to the whole class, the ESL students experienced familiarity with the words and were able to concentrate on the concepts being taught rather than struggle with the terms.

To best meet the needs of ESL students, especially during literacy lessons, ensure there are reading books available that require low levels of reading skills, but are of high interest. If the funds are available, order picture books in English that show examples of each child’s culture and include children with similar backgrounds. Use reading corners with taped text, teach the class repetitive songs and allow the ESL students to listen to and converse with children who have high-level oral language skills. Also, learning some words in their language reminds the students that you value their culture.

Meeting the needs of ESL students requires thought, organisation, empathy and energy. Opening the communication between teachers and parents and showing the students that you value their language and their culture, will help ESL students along their path to becoming bilingual.

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