Teaching Elementary-Age ELs the Hidden Curriculum

What is the hidden curriculum? This term encompasses various characteristics of schooling that “everybody knows.” It usually consists of a wide variety of social skills, such as interactions with peers and teachers, and includes the fundamental values and beliefs of a school community. This hidden curriculum needs to be learned by ELs in order for them to succeed socially and academically in school.

How do your ELs discover this underlying curriculum? Do you teach it directly or hope that they will acquire socially appropriate behavior and language simply by being with native English speakers? It is my experience that learning the curriculum shouldn’t be left to chance. ELs often learn these unwritten rules by making embarrassing mistakes. Here are three experiences that I’ve had on the elementary school level with my ELs.

1. Special Group Occasions: We’ve all worked with young ELs who didn’t wear a costume to school on Halloween or failed to bring cards to the class Valentine’s Day party. Many families of ELs may not realize the importance of these events in U.S. elementary schools. Students who do not participate will certainly feel isolated, even if they can’t express it. One kindergarten student told me that her mother said, “No Valentines!” Although the mother had seen the notices that went home, she didn’t understand the importance of having her daughter participate in class social events.

2. Language in Context: ELs may not be able to differentiate between language used on the playground and appropriate language used when addressing a teacher. I once taught a beginning ESL student who had learned how to say “yeah, yeah, yeah” to friends during recess. Whenever I gave him directions, he would reply, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” in a disrespectful tone of voice. I had a hard time making him comprehend that this was rude language for a child to use when speaking to an adult. The same thing occurs when a second language learner swears in class. One of my ELs repeatedly used an “X-rated” expression in his third-grade classroom. What is considered “shocking” or inappropriate language for the classroom must sometimes be directly taught.

3. Behavioral Customs: Sometimes lack of knowledge of the hidden curriculum can be awkward if your ELs come from a culture where customs are very different. Several years ago I had a sixth-grade male student from the Middle East who was shunned by his classmates and often taunted on the way home from school. The issue turned out to be one of respecting personal space. In the United States, after the age of nine or ten, most boys don’t touch each other unless they are playing a contact sport. My Middle Eastern student would try to get attention from his classmates by standing too close or constantly touching them, which was appropriate behavior for boys in his age group in his home country.

How can we help ELs learn appropriate social behavior?

Teachers often complain that their ELs walk into class without looking at or greeting the teacher or classmates. ESL lessons should include teaching students

  • how to greet people;
  • to thank someone for something;
  • to ask directions;
  • to say, “Excuse me”;
  • to give and receive compliments; and
  • to make small talk.

Role-playing, teacher and peer modeling, and video are all good tools for teaching these social skills. Have students practice saying “good morning” and” goodbye” to their teachers and classmates right from the beginning. Classroom teachers need to set expectations for these behaviors with all of their students.

One of the greatest rewards of our profession is to watch children acquire language and become comfortable in school. Our job is to teach our ELs English, but it is equally crucial for us to convey the social norms of the school community. This is an essential and exhilarating part of what teaching ESL is all about.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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4 Responses to Teaching Elementary-Age ELs the Hidden Curriculum

  1. Gary Hewgley says:

    This is so true. We often assume so much about what students should know just because they are in our environment. I think we too often make assumptions that the students know something, or know how to act because it seems like common sense to us as we grew up with it. I would like to add that we should probably add a big dose of patience to that list as this may take time and practice – lots of mistakes in between. How many times did we say as we were growing up, “How was I supposed to know?”

  2. Lisa G. says:

    I agree that there is a hidden language that may need to be explicitly taught for our EL students to know some of the social norms, expectations, and what is appropriate. The Valentine example made me think about how often my students will give me cards for the holidays. When I open it up, it’s blank inside. The students clearly don’t realize that people are accustom to sign their name inside a card. Another funny example is when a student from another country gave me a negligee as a holiday gift. It is funny, but could also be potentially embarrassing (had I opened the gift in front of the student). Clearly in American culture, this type of gift is not appropriate to give to a teacher.

    That being said, I think it is important to model behavior, give students the language to communicate with one another using sentence starters, and have conversations with students one-on-one when needed so that they can feel comfortable and successful in a culture that may differ from their own.

  3. Nahida says:

    Very interesting!!

    • Caitlin says:

      I completely agree with everything that was presented in this article. We often take for granted that students understand the rules of a hidden curriculum. I teach 4th grade learning disabilities and one way that I integrate hidden curriculum in my day is through community meeting. Each morning the students need to ask each other four questions. 1. How are you feeling? 2. What is your goal? 3. Who can help you? 4. Do you need anything?

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