Top 5 Things to Know About Your ESL Students’ Backgrounds
The ESL Students
When we talk about English as second language (ESL) learners, we almost
always imagine people who are physically different from our own characteristics.
Often, we think these are the students who just arrived from abroad and can’t
understand a single word spoken by the teacher. Additionally, they are the
ones who stay quiet in class and talk only with classmates who share their
native tongue. This period of “silence” due to challenges in communicating with
people in the new environment can last for some weeks, for some, even for
months. Though second language acquisition theories recognize this silent period
as a learning stage, it has posted challenges to ESL teachers.
For students, the challenge may be hooked on the barriers of communication as
they find it difficult to understand language codes used in the new environment
as well as their inability to convey what they meant to say. Partly, students
may also restrain from communicating with peers as they have apprehensions on
the practices of the community and the school. This is true as different
cultures have differing ideas on how to establish social contacts. When there is
less or no communication going on, acquiring language is slow, which in turn may
result to poor academic performance.
The ESL Teachers
The collapse of strict national boundaries and immigration restrictions has
posted challenges for educators. In the classroom, teachers have to face the
demands of having to deliver the curriculum with some students not able to
comprehend even the simplest lessons in English. Additionally, even if students
have a decent grasp of the language, factors like culture may hinder their
understanding of the topics. This is because they may interpret the lessons
based on the perspective of the culture where they came from. When given
objective exams, teachers may notice that many students would go for answers that
divert from that of the majority. As a result, students may suffer from getting
Because student achievement is mostly based on measurements like tests, ESL
students who are not yet ready to use the language despite their grade level may
suffer from ridicule and pressure to fit in. Despite the availability of
remediation, language students may need some time to adjust, thus, putting a
strain on the teachers. Consequently, with students not being able to keep up,
teachers may even be questioned for the failure to bridge gaps and solicit
students’ interest to learn.
Top 5 Things to Know: Tips for Teachers
Perhaps one may wonder why there is a need to learn the students’ backgrounds
as they are not directly related to lessons. It should be noted that while
backgrounds may not be directly related to language lessons, students
intellectually, socially and emotionally process information in order to learn.
When these three come together, they create great impacts in learning and
academic performance. Studies on schema or prior knowledge suggest that it plays
a major role on providing directions for learners to progress. Here are the
reasons teachers must learn their ESL students’ backgrounds:
1) Country of origin
It's not discrimination, but rather giving yourself
opportunities to learn something distinct about a child’s reality. The variety
of students from different countries mean diverse group of students with
different cultures and languages. In the US for example, most ESL students come
from families of Hispanic descent. With many countries in South America sharing
similar language, custom, traditions, food, and practices, it can be
understandable that despite some differences in specific practices, students
from these countries tend to go together.
When the teacher knows where their students came from, teaching becomes
easier as they can adjust to the specific needs shared by the students of the
same background. Understanding the students better and designing activities that
are helpful to them can be the result of the teachers’ knowledge on the basics
of their language, the general cultural practice, and some other related issues.
Awareness of these factors in language learning can help teachers devise ways to
support student learning both in the classroom and at home. For example, the
teacher can integrate topics or things present in their culture in a lesson. In
lessons about countries, teachers can even ask students to say a popular
quotation from their country of origin to be given an English equivalent.
Consequently, when students realized you know so much about where they came
from, they feel less alienated and would enjoy the sense of being welcomed.
2) Cultural practices
Rather than just grouping students generally like
Latinos, Asians, or Africans, move beyond it by knowing students’ cultural
background deeper. Find out whether they are from mainland Asia or the Far East,
from the Caribbean or South America or the specific parts of Africa. Surely,
students from nearby territories may share similarities but they have something
interesting to share, things that are distinct to their own cultures. Remember
that even for immigrant families, heritage is still important.
When teachers have wide perspectives on these factors, designing lessons that
cater to this uniqueness can be achieved. For example, after evaluating
students’ cultural backgrounds, the teacher can assign students to present
stories about their culture and their practices in front of the class. When this
task seems too challenging for an individual to do, grouping them according to
their background can be helpful. Because they have to tell stories they are
familiar with, they will only be challenged on how to express them in English,
making them develop critical thinking and resourcefulness to translate or find
words that fit the stories. Since students are more motivated to talk about
things they can directly relate to, you are not only giving them the opportunity
to develop language skills but also their sense of pride for who they are.
Alternately, you can ask students to talk about food, present a dance, or songs
from their regions.
3) The first language
Instead of forcing your students to speak English as
soon as they enter your class, be emphatic with the fact that it takes time to
acquire a second language perfectly. In addition to that, it should be
understood that first language (L1) has great influence in the acquisition of
target or second language (L2). Often times, students shy away from recitations
as they are confused of the varying sentence structures of both L1 and L2. More
importantly, it should be noted that family members, including your student,
communicate in the language they all feel comfortable to use, making exposure to
English limited to the classroom or a small circle of friends.
To be able to reach out, there is now an increasing demand for the teacher to
at least know the basic words in the language spoken by the ESL class members.
Though languages can have dialects, its variations should not be too distant and
foreign for the learner. To get your students to participate in class faster,
learn some basic vocabulary used every day. If possible, you can even observe
the gestures they use. When your students see the effort, they will be inspired
to learn the language you teach and will open up to you more as you value
theirs. In addition, when calling for parents’ meeting, knowing how to
communicate with the basics or understanding their simplified speech is helpful.
During your classes, you can use your knowledge of the basic words and phrases
used in the classroom to enhance understanding. Knowing the differences in
structures of L1 and L2 and arming yourself with the basics will do wonders for
your ESL class.
4) Attitudes and Values
Many immigrant families often take risks living in a
new environment where they don’t even know the language and the customs for
their high hopes of securing for their children a brighter future. Studies even
reveal that children of most immigrants are observed to be highly motivated in
their studies. Perhaps this is brought about by the inculcation of values
putting high regard in education. For them, the more educated their children
become, the better economic progress will be expected.
ESL teachers are aware of the fact that their diverse class of ESL students
has varying levels of motivation, practices of showing respect, and views on
family expectations. For many cultures like China, South Korea, the Philippines
or countries in South America, teachers are treated with great respect. With it
comes the burden of having to live up with the expectation that children will
learn everything from school. In East Asian culture, specifically, teachers are
considered so powerful that students are not allowed to interrupt or ask
questions in class or they will be punished. When an ESL student from this part
of the world just won’t ask questions, perhaps, it is because that’s how things
should be in their culture. Additionally, ESL students can be quite stressed
trying to learn everything fast as they are pushed too hard by their parents.
Don’t be surprised to see students crying as they fail to score perfectly in the
tests. Dealing with students who are too quiet or too sensitive with grades can
be effortless when you know the reasons for their actions.
5) Family conditions
It is not about prying on your students’ private life,
but rather, it is being aware of how they live that shapes who they are in
school. When you know the kind of family they live with, it is easier to spot
their strengths, weaknesses and needs. Find out whether your students live in a
nuclear or extended family, and take note of their economic condition and if
possible, the parents’ backgrounds. People they interact with, and the lifestyle
they have can help you know them better.
Students will act differently in school, no matter how similar their customs
may be. In the like manner, they may also progress at different levels and get
motivated by various things. Poor performance in homework can even be traced
with the knowledge on how many members of the family speak English, if the child
has attended school, or has received instructions in English. If both parents
are working late, find out if there is anyone who helps them do assignments. If
the child came from the city, perhaps word choice is different from those that
are from the rural areas. To be able to assess your students, integrate a
“Getting to know you” activity with them. With informal conversations, students
are likely to open up more, helping you to know them better and personalize your
language teaching approach.
The number of ESL students in mainstream schools continues to rise. With
immigration, opportunities, and economic progress, diversity in the classroom
becomes an ordinary scene. Teachers continue to find ways to meet the needs of
the diverse students in their classes. In order to achieve the goals of the
curriculum, they may even spend their own money attending trainings or buying
materials. Keeping up with the ever-changing multicultural curriculum became a
teacher’s burden. Fortunately, many schools showed willingness to fund
acquisition of materials proven to be effective to sustain the demands of the
language programs. Additionally, many private organizations are offering
assistance to help ESL students better adjust to the school system.
Adjusting strategies and approaches may be challenging for an ESL teacher at
first. This, however, can be eased when they have the knowledge of who their
students are. When lessons are properly designed to address the diverse
backgrounds of the students, it will enhance learning, social skills and
motivation to participate in discussions. When class members are aware that
multiculturalism is valued, they will show enthusiasm to learn about each other,
and thus communicate. Since they have different native languages, they will be
obliged to speak in English to strengthen bonds. In addition, they will also
exhibit interest in topics they previously find to be out of their realities.
Understanding your students’ backgrounds does not help you deliver the
curriculum, but increases students’ chances to learn lessons and adjust to a new
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