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When You Don’t Speak the Same Language: Making ELLs Feel Welcome

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literacy for all young learners  mediumMany years ago a man I know, whose family spoke only Polish, entered school on his first day of first grade unable to speak a word of English. His teacher sent him home and conveyed to his family that he wouldn’t be allowed to return to school until he was speaking English. Today that story seems preposterous. Sending home a non-English-speaking child is not an option! And considering that some teachers now are faced with multiple languages, there might be some rather empty classrooms should all of the English language learners be sent home.

But if you don’t speak the same language, how will you welcome English language learners to your classroom? How will you build a relationship with them? How will you help them build relationships with the other children? These are some of the questions I asked panelists Mary Renck Jalongo, Karen Nemeth, and John Spencer in a Gryphon House-sponsored episode of Studentcentricity. The episode, which was jam-packed with practical solutions, can be accessed here.

Beyond what she had to say during the interview, Mary wants teachers to know that they can’t expect young children to simply “pick up” English. She calls this a “destructive myth” and states that “children need opportunities to learn supported by competent, committed, and compassionate teachers in order to acquire another language.”

In terms of making English language learners feel comfortable in what has to be an uncomfortable – and possibly terrifying – situation, Karen advises:

Welcoming young children who speak different languages to early childhood education is really the responsibility of the entire school community. Schools and programs that are most successful in working with diverse populations have great support from savvy administrators who help staff find the language resources they need and set the tone for a positive attitude about learning and honoring new languages.  

Planning to meet the needs of young DLLs takes time.  Schools that arrange for teachers to have adequate planning time, effective professional development and support for cross-discipline collaborations are the schools that rise to the top as models of excellence in today’s educational climate. I wrote about this, along with 45 national experts, in my 2014 book Young Dual Language Learners: A Guide for PreK-3 Leaders (Caslon Publishing).

The school administrator, principal or director can also lead the way to engaging families as true educational partners who are prepared to support language learning and literacy at home. The children are also part of the educational community as they play and work together. I wrote New Words, New Friends and Nuevas Palabras, Nuevos Amigos (Language Castle Press) as children’s storybooks that teachers can use to teach children the specific communication skills they need to interact successfully with peers who speak different languages.

When the whole community works together to welcome DLLs, outcomes for the entire school are brighter. I really believe that those first few days of school can make all the difference in getting the year off to a great start for everyone! 

Additional resources:

“Fast 5 Gamechangers That Make a Great 1st Day for DLLs” on www.languagecastle.com  http://www.languagecastle.com/2014/08/fast-5-gamechangers-make-great-1st-day-dlls-prek/ by Karen Nemeth.

50 Strategies for Communicating and Working with Diverse Families, 3rd edition, by Janet Gonzalez-Mena.

Many Languages, One Classroom: Teaching Dual and English Language Learners by Karen Nemeth

Literacy for All Young Learners by Mary Renck Jalongo



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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Tuesday, 25 June 2019