Educators are having to retool their approach to teaching English as a second language, given the growing number of English language learners in the U.S.
"The percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners (ELLs) was higher in fall 2016 (9.6 percent, or 4.9 million students) than in fall 2000 (8.1 percent, or 3.8 million students)," notes the National Center for Education Statistics.
Teachers are faced with the challenge of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for an increasingly diverse student population. An inclusive classroom environment is one that encourages active participation and facilitates learning for all students. While promoting sensitivity to cultural differences, one of the biggest hurdles to engaging all students is the language barrier that some students must overcome.
English teacher and education writer Rusul Alrubail writes, "Being an English Language Learner in the classroom can be a very overwhelming experience for students regardless of age. It's important for educators to build an atmosphere that fosters a safe and empathetic environment for ELL students." Recalling her days as an ELL student in the fifth grade, Alrubail shares that most of her challenges dealt with the social aspect of integrating into a new school and classroom, and with new classmates.
Benefits to Inclusiveness in the Classroom
Students will take their cues from the teacher when it comes to interacting with ELL students. Teachers must be genuine and non-judgmental when dealing with students. ELL students may quickly withdraw if they are treated differently, and learning outcomes will suffer. A positive learning environment is one in which students learn acceptance of differences in culture, religion, economic status and language so that all students feel respected and supported.
Whether ELL students have a separate specialized class for English or are mainstreamed with a fluent English classroom, the goals of inclusiveness and achieving English fluency are the same.
Tips for Teachers
In an article on strategies for promoting a multicultural environment in the classroom, Bright Hub Education shares some tips for teachers. Teachers can help all students understand one another by creating a word wall in the classroom which shows common vocabulary words in both English and the ELL students' native language(s). Another way to foster inclusion is to have a multicultural library in the classroom. This helps expose children to different cultures without pressure. Celebrating cultural differences by having food fairs, making posters highlighting different cultures, and holding question-and-answer time about culture or homeland are ways to include all students.
Dr. Kelly S. Meier has worked in education for more than 30 years, and has authored many books on educational leadership. She encourages teachers to pay attention to their classroom environment. "When a student walks into your classroom, the environment should convey inclusion. What pictures do you have on your walls? How is the room arranged?" Her recommendation is to intentionally weave diversity into the fabric of the educational experience.
From her experiences as both a student and a teacher, Rusul Alrubail has some recommendations for teachers looking to create an inclusive classroom. One simple suggestion that shows personal respect for all students is to learn how to properly pronounce their names and, when necessary, correct students who mispronounce their classmates' names.
Understanding that in some cultures it is not socially acceptable to ask questions, it is crucial for teachers to make sure that ELL students are given information about daily routines that might seem obvious. Explaining use of the restroom, eating and drinking, what to do when feeling ill, how lineups work, what the start- and end-of-school day procedures are, how recess and lunch breaks work — these are basics that all students need to understand.
Teachers can integrate culture into the curriculum by including artists, inventors, creators and prominent figures from other cultures and countries, and by advocating for diversity and equality in school displays.
Alrubail reminds teachers that it's okay for students to speak their first language. She notes, "If you 'enforce' an English only rule in the classroom it will create a divide and a form of resistance from struggling ELL students. Instead, allow them to speak a language of their choice. Go over to them and find out if they have any questions or need clarification on instructions. Instantly, this builds a conversation and a connection between you and the student."
Specializing in Bilingual Education
Education professionals who want to gain expertise in developing inclusive educational strategies for teaching diverse student populations can do so by pursuing a Master of Science in Curriculum and Instruction with a Specialization in Bilingual Education degree. Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) has a fully online program designed for working professionals.
The TAMIU online degree program consists of 33 credit hours and can be completed in as few as 12 months. The flexibility of multiple start dates offered throughout the year combined with the fully online format make this an ideal option for those who don't want to quit working to attend in-person classes on campus.
The curriculum includes courses on History and Philosophy of Bilingual Education, Bilingual Oral Language Assessment and Development, Bilingual/Multicultural Teaching Strategies, Teaching English as a Second Language, Teaching Reading and Language Arts in Bilingual Setting, and more.
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