A Day in the Life of an English Language Learner

A day in the life of an ELL

What do you remember about your time in grade school and middle school? You might recall the importance of making friends, being involved in meaningful extracurricular activities, and keeping your grades up. What about the awkward social encounters, or feeling inadequate in certain classes?

Regardless of what you remember, even under the best of circumstances, it can be daunting to balance all of these things during the already tumultuous time of adolescence.

These issues are magnified for English Language Learners (ELLs). These students arrive in our schools with many strengths. They are ready and willing to learn and contribute to their school and community. However, the way public schools are traditionally set up can be a hindrance for nurturing ELL’s linguistic, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

As the number of ELLs in U.S. public schools rises, teachers and administrators can better meet ELL needs by stepping into their shoes and understanding what it is actually like to be an ELL today.

Walk a day in their shoes

Imagine a day in the life of an ELL student: Remember, you’ve recently arrived in this country, and your family doesn’t speak English.

  • First, you must get yourself to school. This means navigating foreign surroundings. All the street signage is in English, and you’re lucky if you can find one friendly face who speaks your native language to help you.
  • Maybe you’re living in a multigenerational household, where you share a large amount of responsibility. You may be responsible for helping your younger siblings, which means getting them around, making sure they are happy and doing well in their new school.
  • When you do make it to school, you must attempt to engage with other students in your classes. The language barrier makes it incredibly hard, and no one wants to associate with the kid they can’t understand.
  • At school, your teachers may be well-meaning, but they’re unaware of how to make course content accessible to you, as they do not speak your language and have had little professional development on how to communicate with you.
  • You sense your teacher’s frustration, which makes you even more frustrated. You muddle through the school day, doing your best. Your anxiety is high, knowing you have to return the next day, facing tests and assessments that make little or no sense to you.

Language learning, ostracism and testing

Culture shock is a very real concern for ELLs. They’ve been transplanted into a foreign culture with limited means of communicating. They may want to make friends and be involved in activities, but feel scared, confused, and overwhelmed. Most students face social issues in schools at some point, but these issues can be magnified for ELLs. These students are automatically differentiated because of language barriers. ELLs may not know where to get help for bullying, and will often be hesitant to ask for help from teachers and administrators.

This potential ostracism from peers further hinders the language development of ELLs. Language learning is composed not only of academic content knowledge, known as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP, but also as the communicative, social language and interaction that occurs among peers, known as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, or BICS. BICS and CALP work together to scaffold ELLs’ ongoing learning of both language and content.

The culture of high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools has an enormous impact on the lives of ELLs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), policymakers and schools made very few of the necessary modifications of this testing culture. ELLs’ lack of English proficiency makes understanding test directions difficult, especially when tests are given completely in a paper-and-pencil format. Compounding this is the fact that standardized tests may be completely foreign for students who come from other cultural countries and backgrounds. NCLB put a lot of stress on all students, including ELLs, to perform well in order for their schools to meet yearly goals.

It’s clear that our high-stakes testing culture may be doing far more harm than good for these students. Stephen Krashen, a well-recognized expert for decades on second language acquisition, notes that stressful classroom environments only hinder the learning of language and content by language learners. Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis means that learners who feel anxiety often “clam up,” both in terms of taking in new input and producing the output needed for continued learning of both language and content. There are productive ways to help this group of students.

Tips for teachers and administrators

  • Partner with support staff, social workers, and community outreach programs to help ELLs with their social and academic adjustments and ongoing growth. These may include basic needs related to poverty, hunger, and safety.
  • Utilize experts to assess ELL language proficiency for proper placement for both language and content instruction. For example, an ELL may actually be gifted academically but lack English proficiency.
  • Modify instruction and assessment with language proficiency levels in mind.
  • Use visuals, the SIOP model, and other research-based tools to help make input comprehensible to ELLs.
  • When possible, provide translated information and documents for ELLs and their families, such as school policies, calendars, and guides.
  • Communicate early and often with parents and families, especially for new ELLs who may be facing culture shock and related issues. Form meaningful relationships so as to enhance trust and understanding.
  • Find ways to engage ELLs in meaningful and appropriate extracurricular activities that can enhance their connection with the school and feelings of belonging and contribution.
  • Most importantly, take the time to reflect upon and truly understand what it feels like to be an ELL in today’s schools.

It can do a world of good to simply realize what ELLs go through in any given day, especially with regard to schooling. Teachers who gain this added perspective can then become advocates for ELLs and make a huge difference in their ability to succeed. By simply making a few changes to our curricular approaches and helping to influence decision-making in our schools, we can guide ELLs along their path to college and career. These learners can then go on to contribute to society in numerous ways.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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