What should I do when a student joins my class but doesn’t speak English?

I get the same question every time a teacher gets a new student who’s a brand new immigrant: Where do I begin with a kid who doesn’t speak any English?

This is a complex question that has a lot of answers, so I’ll try to be brief.

#1 Start by being kind, empathetic, and welcoming. 
I find that when we really understand the other person’s point of view, we’re more capable of responding in a helpful way. This is the reason I post so many videos and articles about understanding language barriers, the language acquisition process, and culture shock. It also really helps to have other students to help the new kid. We all have the “teacher in training” kind of kid who is really studious and helpful and always volunteering. Or that kid who’s brilliant but clearly bored. Or sometimes, a student who is bilingual and might be struggling to grasp difficult concepts. Pair a new immigrant with one of these kids, and you’ll get great results almost every time.#2 Find out how much English is no English. More often than not, new immigrants have at least a little English rolling around in there somewhere. It might be a few catch phrases or the kind of thing you could pick up through Sesame Street or movies, but it’s something. And, a lot of immigrants took English in their home countries before coming here. They learned some basic vocabulary, reading and writing skills, but they learned to speak English from a person whose accent is so thick that they don’t sound very much like native English speakers. It could be possible that if you wrote down your requests, using simple grammar, you’ll find this person understands exactly what you want. Generally, the ESL teacher at your school will assess the student within the first week or two of school and that assessment will give you more information. If you’re at a school that doesn’t have an ESL teacher, you may need to give the student a short assessment of your own.

#3 Take it slow – for a little while.

When I get a kid who really has no English, I put him on some kind of language software like Rosetta Stone or Duolingo as much as possible for about a week or two. I get the kid in as many social situations as I can because his peers are going to talk about things he’s interested in. I give him simple assignments, translated versions of difficult assignments, and tell him to do what he can, and I grade for completion rather than correctness. You can translate almost anything using http://translate.google.com/. I also get the student as many native language resources as I can find, bilingual word-to-word dictionary, and picture dictionary. The word-to-word dictionaries are allowed on most standardized tests, so he’s got to learn to use them ASAP. Most picture dictionaries have grammar workbooks for basic and intermediate students. Title III funds should pay for all of these items…that’s why the federal government gives these funds to schools. Your ESL teacher should be able to help you get these resources, but if you don’t have an ESL teacher, talk to the bookkeeper or principal at your school.

#4 Get basic personal information.

When you move to a new place, you fill out a lot of forms and applications. Jobs, apartments, utilities, schools, doctors, etc. Your student needs to know how to fill out these forms. More than likely her mom and dad have been doing this for her, but she’s going to need to know how to do it for herself. So, start with basic information like name, address, type of residence (house, apartment, trailer), family relationships and names (maybe do a small family tree so she sees the names of your spouse, parents, siblings, etc.), and give her some sample forms to fill out. If she can understand this basic lesson that means you’ve figured out how to successfully communicate with her and teach her. Yay! Take the victory.

#5 Teach basic instructions, commands, and simple procedures.

At the beginning of the year, all your students need to learn the procedures and rules for your class. The non-English speaker is no exception. It may take a little longer – maybe this kid hasn’t been in school in a few years or maybe his native country had very different expectations of behavior. Expect that it might take twice as long for your non-English speaking student – on everything! After a while, yeah, you may need to pull out discipline forms, but be patient. Very patient. Start by teaching basic commands and directions: open your book, get out a pen. Use gestures and possibly be over the top with those gestures – like a mime – because your words may have no meaning right now, so your body language needs to say what you need to say. You also need to teach basic directions: left, right, go straight. And, teach prepositions as you go: on, in, to, and at are generally the most difficult to understand and the most commonly used. There are some great exercises you can try to teach these skills, but depending on your subject and grade level they may not be appropriate for the whole class, so use games. That’s right. Games. Review games, board games, computer games, anything which requires a person to start by reading simple instructions. Instructions for games are far simpler than instructions for a lot of school work! Another option is to give students something to build, like a diorama or a scale model. If he’s reading instructions, using a word-to-word dictionary, talking to some peers, and doing something physical, the basic building blocks for language will fall into place a lot faster.

#6 In the end, be prepared and be patient.

You can, and should, plan ahead for an ESL student in your classroom. Even though you may not have one now, you probably will one day. You can have your English speaking students create picture cards for the basic routines of your classroom, label things in the room, and prepare a welcome packet for school routines that your student handbook forgot. Things like, getting through the lunch line or how to open a locker. How-to essays don’t have to be essays; they can be posters or fliers with pictures and detailed instructions! If your students are involved in preparing for a new kid, they’ll probably be nicer to the new kid and more involved with welcoming him or her.



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