English learners (ELs) offer a rich resource from which mainstream teachers and students can learn about other languages and cultures. If teachers support the diversity in their classrooms, all students will begin to understand and value the many distinct cultures of the world. Teachers should take advantage of this natural resource that is in their classrooms and support ELs from diverse backgrounds to develop pride in their heritage. Following are some classroom practices that you and your colleagues can adopt to help the ELs in your school develop pride.
1. Discover the Strengths and Assets of English Learners to Build Relationships
The authors of Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress (Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, & Haynes, 2017) write that every student enters the classroom with assets. Teachers need to discover and focus on these assets and give lots of encouragement and support for what the student can do rather than dwelling on what they can’t yet do. One way to do this is to ask ELs to answer the prompt, “What I wish my teacher knew about me.” Students of all ages and language development levels can participate in this activity. Even kindergarten ELs can take part in this activity by drawing a picture and labeling it, with the teacher’s help. The authors also say that
as educators, our unconditional acceptance carries a message of belonging and emotional safety. It communicates, in words and deeds, that the student is welcome regardless of his background or current situation and is part of the fabric of the classroom and school.
2. Pronounce Newcomers’ Names Correctly
Avoid the temptation to create a nickname or to Americanize a child’s name. Ask parents or a native speaker to help you learn the correct pronunciation of your student’s name. Mispronouncing students’ names can have a long-term impact for students in that it negates their identity. This in turn affects self-esteem and academic achievement. Pronouncing students’ names correctly shows respect for students and their culture, which can result in helping students to develop pride in their culture.
3. Learn Some Vocabulary and Expressions From Languages of the Students You Teach
Author Andrea Honigsfeld recently posted on Twitter that she recommends that teachers learn 20 phrases and sentences from a students’ home language:
In the US context, I challenge every teacher group I work with to learn 20+ sentences from their students in every language spoken in their classrooms — can you imagine their reaction? It is hard work but so, so, so, worth it! Quoting a friend: Monolingualism can be cured! #ells
— Andrea Honigsfeld (@AndreaHonigsfel) April 3, 2019
This might be possible if most of your ELs speak Spanish. Many educators, however, teach in school districts where students are from 20+ different language backgrounds. If you teach in one of these districts, I think it’s reasonable to learn some phrases and sentences from each students’ language. Start with saying hello and goodbye. Imagine the power of greeting each student at the beginning of the day in their home language. That would make each EL feel welcomed and part of the classroom community.
4. Tie Culture to Curriculum
Tie the cultures of your second language learners to your curriculum whenever possible. We know that all children bring to school a wealth of experiences from their families, homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Children with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have stories and experiences that are unique. They should build on the knowledge their students and families have of the countries they come from and the cultures they represent. I once observed a second-grade teacher whose social studies curriculum included the study of cities. Instead of focusing on two U.S. cities, she chose one from a new ELs’ country. This student was having a hard time adjusting to school in the United States. I was amazed at how much the study of Seoul, Korea meant to him and his family. They became an integral part of the unit and served as a resource for the classroom. Nothing is more powerful than this to support ELs’ pride in their heritage.
5. Actively Encourage the Maintenance of English Learners’ Home Language
Anna Valence concluded in her 2015 Doctoral Thesis that current research finds that the maintenance of students’ home languages is essential for ELs’ social, emotional, and academic growth. She states that “the maintenance of heritage languages is not merely beneficial but is essential to their psychological, cognitive, linguistic, social and academic success” (p. 2).
We do not want our students to learn English at the detriment of their home languages. For many years, it was thought that most families lost their home language by the third generation. There is much research that counters that today. Schools can join in the effort to maintain home languages by encouraging families to continue to use first language in their home. The presence of print and music in home language can be ties to bilingualism in second and third generations. How can teachers can support maintenance of home languages in their classroom? Here are a few ideas.
- Make a separate set of labels of classroom objects for each of the different languages spoken in your classroom. You may have two or more labels on your door with the word door in English and in the different languages. Have ELs teach their classmates to pronounce words in their home language using the labels placed around the classroom.
- Buy books in your ELs’ home language, even if they do not read yet. They will recognize the written form of their language and feel proud that it is displayed in your room.
- Set up a center with music and audio books from different languages. Give ELs a “brain break” to listen to music and stories in their home language.
- Maintain a list of websites that have content material in different languages. Wikipedia and Simple English Wikipedia have translations of most of their entries. If ELs are newcomers and don’t yet read in English, they can read the information in their home language and then learn it in English; there will be more comprehension, and they know the content in two languages.
- Allow students from the same language background as your ELs to translate or interpret information for new students. This maintains and celebrates students’ first language.
We, as teachers, can do much in our classroom to help our ELs develop pride in their heritage and feel an important part of the classroom community. Are there other ways you help your ELs develop or maintain pride in their heritage in your classroom? Please share in the comments.
Zacarian, D., Alvarez-Ortiz, L., & Haynes, J. (2017). Teaching to strengths: Supporting students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Vallance, A. L. (2015). The importance of maintaining a heritage language while acquiring a host language (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Honors College Theses (34).