Immigrant Children and Public Education

01-48The number of immigrant children in American schools is quite literally growing by the day. It’s estimated that children of immigrants represent 25% of the K-12 population in the United States and that number has jumped dramatically in recent years.

Between 1970 and 2000, the number of K-12 children who speak Spanish at home doubled from 3.5 to 7 million, while the number of children speaking Asian languages tripled from 0.5 to 1.5 million. Between 1998 and 2009 the enrollment of ELLs in prekindergarten through 12th grade (PK–12) in U.S. public schools grew by more than 51 percent while the growth of total student enrollment increased by just over 7 percent, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (2011). These students will, almost certainly, struggle in English speaking classrooms.

Here are some strategies that will be helpful in supporting the ELL (English Language Learners) students in your classroom.

Starting first with some broad guidelines for working with ELL students and then offering some targeted instructional strategies to improve reading, writing. and comprehension skills.

Acknowledge the value of students’ native language

Jones and Yandian (2002) point out that children learning a second language sequentially have already acquired communication skills in their first language and they will transfer that knowledge and those concepts to their second language.  Acknowledge the value of the student’s abilities in their own language and utilize that knowledge to aid in the learning of English.

Demonstrate expectations

Instead of just giving directions to students, specifically, demonstrate what you expect them to do. In other words, show them how to accomplish the task and present an example of exactly how the final product should look.

Provide sufficient response time

Recognize and allow for sufficient response time for ELL students. They are hearing what you say in English but will need time to think of the words in their native language to truly process what has been said. Then they will determine a response in their native language and will attempt to adapt that response to English. They may also think about the response to make sure that it makes sense before they finally respond. It often takes years of exposure to the English language before a student can bypass the translation steps and truly “think in English.” When direct teaching, ask a question then:

  1. Silently count down 5 seconds with your fingers before calling on a student.
  2. Use individual whiteboards and dry erase markers. Students write answers on a whiteboard, flip the board over until the teacher gives the cue for all students to raise their boards.
  3. Accept minimal, sometimes non-verbal responses from students. Be aware of facial expressions, gestures, or body language to learn if your student is catching-on or disengaging. Look for a smile or a nod or notice if they look away frequently or cast their eyes down.
  4. Use a buddy system. Watch for reactions to other students as you may find natural pairings when a student demonstrates that they are drawn to certain individuals or respond more readily when they are involved. The “pair” can then respond to the question.

Promote the value of being bilingual

Clearly, it’s essential that your ESL (English as a Second Language) students become proficient in English, but be careful not to unwittingly make students feel that they should stop speaking their native language altogether or that it’s something to feel ashamed of. Many parents may want their children to speak only English at home and at school. Encourage parents to speak both languages with their children. Being bilingual is an advantage.

Respect and sensitivity go a long way towards engaging English language learners

Small things make a difference. It’s understood that teachers need to teach and support the learning of English; however, it’s also critical for students to feel welcome and included with their peers. Steps that make a difference:

  1. Find out how to pronounce your ELL students’ names correctly.
  2. If you can find another teacher, a parent, or a friend – who speaks your student’s first language, have them draft a short message of welcome. Learn it and use it to make your new student feel valued.
  3. Consider learning their language if you teach in a city with a high concentration of students with the same first language. Spend some time with language tapes or a computer program to grasp some phrases in that language.
  4. Learn about your students’ cultures. This will help you to convey that you value their heritage.
  5. Connect academic content to each student’s background and knowledge about the world. Integrate their cultural experiences and background knowledge into the learning environment.
  6. Make your classroom a multicultural environment and celebrate the uniqueness of each student’s background and experience.
  7.  Utilize research on TESL/TEFL techniques.  TESOL is an international association that supports teachers of English as a Second Language. Visit for more information.

Students whose native culture is valued have a greater sense of self-worth and, ultimately, higher academic achievement. They can be an excellent source of information about their home country where it applies to academic content such as literature, Social Studies, or even topics such as land use in Science. Welcome the sharing of celebrations, holidays, and cultural events specific to each student’s nationality and use it to introduce English counterparts and customs.

Communication with parents is essential

One of the biggest challenges we face when we are not fluent in our students’ native languages is finding a way to communicate with the students’ parents. Perhaps there is someone who can translate notes into the native language or someone who can translate at parent/teacher conferences. Invite parents to reinforce their child’s instruction; encourage them to speak English at home, and to aid in other ways like turning on the Closed Captioning on the TV to reinforce word recognition and comprehension.

Celebrate students’ strengths

Finding something that ELL students can excel at without the language barrier is important to help them feel welcome. In a room where almost everyone has an edge because they are native speakers of English, excelling at something will be a huge self-esteem booster and motivator.

When assigning students to group projects, place emphasis on skills that don’t require English such as art, music, or even math ability. Consider a group mix where one student excels at English writing, one at English reading, one in Art or creativity (doesn’t require English), one with strong musical intelligence (also doesn’t require strong English skills). Now we have a mixed ability group of strengths where each student’s role adds value to the process.


Here’s a great video demonstrating one teacher’s method of working with English Language Learners.

What do you think about allowing or encouraging students to peer tutor in their native language? Have you tried it? Does it work?

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