A year and a half ago, I found myself in a Parisian sandwich and pastry shop tripping over my words. I was with two of my friends and neither of them spoke any French. I had studied French for five years in school, but it had been almost a year since my last class. I still had my basic French intact, but I had forgotten quite a bit.
One of my friends only wanted a half sandwich since she wasn’t very hungry. Unfortunately, I hadn’t used the French word for “half” in about 2 years.
I rummaged through my memory of French and pulled out, “Un sandwich coupé, s’il vous plaît!” (If you know French, you know that this was the wrong choice. I asked, with questionable grammar, for a cut sandwich, not a half sandwich). After wild gesturing on my part, attempting to clarify my mistake, and even more confused looks from the employee, my friend decided to buy the whole sandwich because it was easier.
That employee probably thought I was just another dumb American who butchered their beautiful language. Really, I knew the difference between a whole sandwich and a half sandwich (I even knew how to say it in French!), I just couldn’t remember how to communicate it.
I wonder how many students experience something similar in the classroom. Perhaps there are students who are trying to learn English who know more than they know how to communicate, or who can only understand parts of the lesson because of language barriers. With an estimated 10% of students classified as English Language Learners (ELL) in 2010-11 (https://nces.ed.gov/FastFacts/display.asp?id=96), this is a very real concern.
In my CPSE 480 class (Educational & Multicultural Issues in Special Education), we learned some really simple techniques to make your classroom more ELL-friendly. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a linguist to be able to teach ELLs effectively. To quote an old insurance company commercial, “It’s so easy a caveman could do it.”
Here’s 3 of my favorite ideas:
1. SLOW DOWN!
Why do they have instant replays (in slow motion) when you watch football? Because it’s easier to understand what’s happening when it’s slower.
The same concept applies to a new language. Students can understand more of what you’re saying if you simply slow down when you’re talking.
2. Don’t let your words do all of the talking.
Any college student sleeping during class can tell you that it’s hard to pay attention to lectures.
Now imagine listening to a lecture in a foreign language.
Even if you’re trying your hardest, it’s hard to understand what the person’s talking about. After 15 minutes of frustration, it’s hardly worth the effort to pay attention after a while.
However, if you add pictures, text, or even real-life objects, these can help give context to a lesson. This context can help a student understand more than they would have previously.
“J’aime beaucoup mon parapluie blanc à pois rose et orange.”
What did you understand from this? Probably some of the colors.
Now, what if I added this picture to it:
It suddenly makes a whole lot more sense.
3. Bridge the gap
Learn a couple of words in your student’s first language. This both helps them feel welcome and more comfortable in your class and can even help you in instruction. If you can find a list of keywords for the topic of your lesson in their native language, it will help increase your students’ comprehension.
Good luck! Buena suerte! Bonne chance!