As more and more ELL students enter the U.S. public school system, teachers are facing the twofold challenge of communicating not only with these students, but with their families as well. After all, non-English-speaking families have the same desires as native English speakers to know how their child is doing academically, emotionally, and socially.
I teach at Fort Sam Houston Elementary School, which is located on a military base in Texas. ELL students and families are very common at this school, because the military here has an exchange program with the surrounding nations, where military personnel can trade places with other personnel around the globe. The children of these foreign officers attend our school on the base, and as a result we have taught students from Germany, Mexico, Australia and South America.
This is a very important program and, as teachers, we want to help these families make a smooth transition into our community. Our particular situation at Fort Sam Houston Elementary may be unique, but the challenge of teaching non-native English speakers is one that more and more educators can relate to every year.
Strategy 1 for Building Community: Use Classroom Tactics like Songs, Games, and One-Way Translators
This year I had a student from Peru, and both the student and her mother knew zero English. I communicated with this student by having another student, who can speak English fluently, listen to the Peruvian child and translate for me in English. Unfortunately, my translator understood Spanish but couldn’t speak it, so she couldn’t respond to the Peruvian student in Spanish, but even having one-way communication helped ease some of the frustration.
Other tactics we use to bridge this gap within the classroom are music and visual aids. Songs can help ELLs learn context for vocabulary, while the melody helps the words stick in their minds with greater ease. Repeating a catchy song that’s stuck in their head means they are practicing language skills without even realizing it.
When teaching ELL students, visuals are also very helpful, especially since I don’t speak Spanish. My Peruvian student and I played a sort of game where I would hold up an object while saying both the English and Spanish words for it. Though these tactics are incredibly useful when communicating with kindergarteners, they aren’t quite adequate when engaging in more detailed communications with the families of these students.