Education - Teachers
By: - at June 8, 2013

Top 5 Things to Know About Your ESL Students’ Backgrounds

The ESL Students
language learning 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
teaching languagesThe 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 lower marks.

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.

country of origin native speakers

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.

cultural practices

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.

first language

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.

attitudes and values of language students

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.

Closing Thoughts:
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 environment faster.





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