Engaging English Language Learners

“At that school, 80 percent of students fail basic literacy tests,” my friend exclaimed recently. “That means 80 percent can’t read or write properly. We can’t send our kid to that school, but our only other option is private, and we can’t afford that!”

She and her husband are thinking about adopting a child and have been looking into their education options. Not very promising choices.

But what if she saw things in a different light?

What if she saw all the other things that those 80 percent of students could achieve? What if she saw the richness and diversity of the school’s culture? Each student in that multi-ethnic school has a valuable opportunity to learn firsthand about other cultures without having to leave the country.

A school is a microcosm of its community and is in a unique position to embrace students’ cultural diversity. While we can’t ignore poor performance on a standardized literacy test, we need to remember that this is only one measure of students’ abilities.

This is especially important in areas with lots of non-native speakers, many of whom have tremendous potential but haven’t yet mastered English.

Schools are responsible for fostering students’ academic abilities, and an important aspect of that obligation is to develop a healthy sense of identity. If we classify those with low English literacy skills as failures, how will that affect their development, and by extension, their identities as lifelong learners?

A school is a microcosm of its community and is in a unique position to embrace students’ cultural diversity.

A Community of Understanding
One way to tackle the challenge of growing numbers of English Language Learners is to develop links with their home cultures through their native language. According to Joshua Fishman, language is connected with culture in three ways:

  1. As an index of culture – The best way to understand a culture is through its language. When children lose their mother tongue, they lose valuable connections with the culture of their family.
  2. As a symbol of culture – Language reflects the status and social position of one culture within another.
  3. As a creation of culture – Certain aspects of culture such as rituals, storytelling, and greetings are impossible to imagine without language to convey them.

When these three dimensions are considered, the importance of maintaining linguistic variety and developing cultural awareness becomes more apparent.

Recent studies suggest that children who are able to explain procedures to their mothers are more likely to be learning them. The juxtaposition of English becomes crucial to those families. It needs to be taught in a way that draws on the cultural experiences of students to engage them in learning while at the same time keeping them connected with their home life experiences.

To successfully achieve this, educators should seek to make connections between what students already know and what they have yet to learn.

Scaffolding Knowledge
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this process scaffolding. It involves helping students develop a comfort zone and then encouraging them to go beyond it. It’s the same way babies learn to walk, using furniture and other objects to support themselves until they get the hang of standing unaided.

In the school community, these support systems come in many forms, but they need to be meaningful and coherent. Schools should provide students with recognizable and consistent touchstones of knowledge in every area of their development.

My Impressions
When I visited the school where “80 percent of the students fail basic literacy tests,” this is what I found:

  • A thriving international community of students who view themselves as learners, not failures
  • A dedicated and innovative staff who actively encourage parental involvement regardless of their linguistic abilities
  • Regular cultural celebrations reflecting the diversity of the student body
  • Weekly family literacy nights to encourage mutual communication and understanding
  • Partnerships with community businesses and local concerns leading to a thriving support network

Although 80 percent of these students may not be passing the English Literacy Assessment, they are making accomplishments in other areas. These have more to do with valuing the students for their uniqueness and the part they can play in the community that nurtures them.

Their identities as learners are being created in their environment, and their potential is becoming evident in many more ways than can be measured in standardized tests.