Communicating with students who are learning English (commonly called “English Language Learners” or “ELLs”) should begin with admiration and respect for who they are, what they are doing, and the unusually skilled people they will all become. They are on their way to a remarkable accomplishment.

Here’s why. Nearly everyone learns a first language easily at home. But becoming fluent in an additional language is usually much more difficult. It seems so difficult, in fact, that few Americans ever accomplish it; they remain mono-linguals (speakers of a single language only). By contrast, students who speak other languages at home are learning an additional language, usually both in school and outside school. Over time they will acquire a facility that few of the rest of us ever will: they will become bilingual. They might even become multilingual. Some enter school already knowing several languages.

But in the real world, not speaking English very well is too often mistaken as a deficiency. Most American educators, of course, speak only English, and teach only in English. So what do they need to do to help these students learn both English and academic content?

Fortunately, a great many resources exist for working with emerging ELLs. This unit draws upon some of these, and it provides additional links to more. For now, a few pointers will be most practical:

  • Exhibit the admiration and respect these students deserve for speaking another language and for their eagerness to learn English.
  • Help these students interact with English mono-linguals. There are two benefits: (1) American mono-lingual students will learn the value of acquiring a second language, and (2) the ELLs will get a lot more practice with English and they will form stronger bonds with classmates.
  • Learn about the cultures of these students. They may be Somali, or Guatemalan, or Haitian. Language is the chief carrier of culture, and each language is therefore deeply bound up with how its speakers understand the meaning of life.
  • With the help of your instructional team, try to arrange home visits. Families may feel intimidated by school personnel; home visits can help them feel more comfortable. And you will learn a lot about your students’ circumstances—as with any home visit.
  • Beef up your own language learning a little: demonstrate your willingness to learn a little Somali, Spanish or Mayan, or French Creole, for instance (in the case of Somali, Guatemalan, and Haitian students).