If you have ever traveled to a place where you didn’t know the language or tried to learn a new language you can identify with the stress and anxiety that many of our English learners face every day. According to the U.S. Department of Education there are over 4.8 million English learners in our classrooms across the country. That’s roughly 1 out of every 10 students! Because of this, all educators need to be aware of ways to make English learners feel welcome and safe in our classrooms.
Why should classrooms be hospitable for English learners?
Stephen Krashen, a linguist and educational researcher, introduced the term “affective filter”. It’s the emotional response that can interfere with learning. If a student feels anxious, self-conscious, or afraid, their affective filter is high, compromising their ability to learn. Imagine a huge wall built around the student that impedes them from learning anything. However, if we can make the student feel safe and comfortable, the affective filter lowers and they are able to learn.
(Lightbrown & Spada, 2006)
Tip 1: Honor Their First Language
The first thing that will help an English learner feel welcome and safe in the classroom is to learn their name. Unless the student specifically requests it, do not try to Americanize their name. For example, if the student’s name is Jorge avoid the urge to call them George. Ask them to repeat their name multiple times, if needed, until you are able to pronounce the name correctly. Students will appreciate the effort you make to learn their name and their affective filter will lower.
Another way to have English learners feel welcome in your classroom is to learn a few phrases in their native language. Imagine being bombarded with a language you don’t know all day and suddenly hearing “hello” or “good morning” in your home language. It would feel like a cool breeze on a hot day. Learning just a few key phrases will help students feel at ease and will show the student that you are willing to put yourself in the same position they are in. Students will appreciate their teacher trying to make a connection with them and it may just come in handy during those parent-teacher conferences.
Tip 2: Consider Visuals
Remember the teacher in Charlie Brown? For English learners in our classrooms, especially those that are newcomers, the comic above feels a lot like their reality. One way that we can support English learners and help lower their affective filter is to use visuals and text to help anchor the language they hear. For example, if you find that English learners are struggling to follow simple directions, try writing directions on the board in a simple, student friendly format, including visuals. As you are presenting those directions in the simpler format, point to the words and steps while you give them orally. This will allow students more time to process the language and make connections.
Adding visuals and text throughout the classroom to anchor learning and building them into your lessons will help English learners be more successful. Visual and text-rich classrooms allow students to take things from the abstract to the concrete quicker. Being strategic about environmental print can be a key in helping students grasp content concepts. Labeling things around the classroom, with or without a translation into the students’ home language, is another way to help them communicate and support them in their language acquisition.
Tip 3: Provide Opportunities to Experience Success
Once a student’s affective filter is low, it is important to keep it there. An easy way to maintain the low affective filter is to have students experience success. If a student feels successful they are more willing to take further risks in learning. A simple way to have students experience success is by incorporating routines into the classroom culture. Something as simple as the proper way to complete classwork and turn it in or a set way of engaging in collaborative conversations will help English learners know how to “do school.” Educational systems around the world differ greatly. Learning the school norms and culture are another thing for English learners to do on top of understanding the language and the academic content. Setting up routines will help them know what to expect and find success in following them. Also keep in mind that there are routines and culture outside of your classroom. For example, schools have norms and routines for getting lunches and interacting in the common areas. Make sure to help English learners outside the walls of your classroom by assigning another student who is willing to help teach them the ways and routines of the school.
If you are interested in partnering with Ensemble Learning to learn more about how to help your English learners be successful in the classroom, visit our website at www.ensemblelearning.org or reach out to Rocío Figueroa, Director of Equity for English Learners for Ensemble Learning at firstname.lastname@example.org.