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.
(Next page: 2 more strategies for building community at a multi-cultural school)
Strategy 2: Forge Connections with ELL Parents
In my efforts to communicate thoroughly with the parents of my ELL students, I’ve often had to track down another employee who could speak the appropriate language to translate between us. For instance, an employee in our technology department helped me communicate with a parent who spoke only Russian. With my Peruvian family, I had more colleagues available who spoke Spanish, but there are still different styles of Spanish, especially in Texas where there’s “Tex-Mex” as opposed to the more formal Castilian. It required a great deal of time to locate these individuals and find a mutual meeting time in order to translate newsletters, send a text message or even three-way call for something as basic as transportation changes.
I’ve also used visuals and online translators to communicate with these families. I usually provide my messages in both our languages, as I felt that would be instrumental in helping the parents learn English. I had prior notice of my little boy coming from Russia, so I was able to ask the school to purchase Rosetta Stone in Russian. I practiced Russian all summer; that way I could at least communicate phrases and general ideas in his native language.
Out of all of these options, I always tried to find the best communication method for each situation and family.
In looking for a more comprehensive solution, I recently discovered a parent-teacher communication app called Bloomz. It has a translation feature to communicate with non-English speaking parents, plus it provides time-saving tools like parent-teacher conference sign-ups. I was so impressed with these features that I sat and learned every single thing I could, so that I could implement the app in the 2016-2017 school year.
I have already seen how instant translation can help bridge the communication gap with the family of my Peruvian student. The family was concerned that their daughter would have trouble acclimating, but I was able to put their mind at ease when they could use the app to read my translated communications and see pictures of their daughter participating in classroom activities.
Strategy 3: The Use of Quick Communication Benefits All Students
Opening the lines of communication with parents has also helped other students in my class, especially since I have students with varying needs such as health concerns, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. I am able to send a quick message to a parent when I don’t have time during class to make a phone call.
I had a student who had an accident and didn’t have a change of clothes. This child had material/detergent skin sensitivities, which meant she couldn’t just use a change of clothes from the nurse. I was able to contact the parent to bring a change of clothes without stopping my lesson or interrupting the management of my class.
In another case, a mother was away on a business trip and the child in my class was having severe separation anxiety. Knowing that her mother and I were sending pictures back and forth reassured the daughter and helped me keep the mother informed about how the separation was affecting her daughter’s asthma and other issues. Being able to communicate in this level of detail with both English and non-English speaking parents is incredibly reassuring for everyone involved.
Every parent needs to know what’s going on with their child, regardless of what language they speak. Being connected to their child’s school connects ELL families with an important support network, which is especially important in the service, where we often have parents deployed or temporarily assigned away from family. The peace of mind that this kind of open communication can give parents is invaluable, whether they are deployed, have just moved to a new country, or have a child with special needs.
As our world grows both more interconnected and more diverse, teachers will need to adapt their communication styles so that they can stay connected with today’s student body—and their families.
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