Anke al-Bataineh, ELL course instructor, WGU
Stay up to date on all the latest from Hey Teach: Get periodic emails that include exclusive content, special guides, and other great resources you won’t find anywhere else!×
As an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher, you have a tall task to help students who’ve moved to the U.S. from another country. But have you considered what an ELL student’s experience is like from their perspective? If you asked your ELL student for a list of their challenges, it would probably look something like this:
1. Every day that I come to class, I have to navigate many more challenges, with a much heavier cognitive load, than most of my peers.
2. Learning to speak English is one thing, but learning to be polite/cool/smooth is a whole different ballgame. I know how to answer straightforward questions, but not how to tell if they’re meant to mock me, or how to tell a joke in front of a teacher without stepping out of line. I want to function and succeed, yes, but please know how much I long to fit in and gain those non-academic skills, too.
Further reading: Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners
3. I may look different from my classmates, but I also look different than I used to when I lived in my home environment. I’m taller, but shopping for clothes is much more challenging here. My hair and skin may be changing while I’m trying to figure out how to be attractive and fashionable in a whole new culture. Opportunities for embarrassment are truly everywhere, at all times. Oh, to just fit in!
4. My parents have more stress and higher expectations than many of my peers’ parents. Their investment in my being here came at a significant cost, and I am cutting a path they have not walked. They are curious about my life, but it is so hard to convey my experience to them. They have given me enormous opportunities, but now I have to live up to those sacrifices, and I feel that pressure in some way, every day.
5. I know where I was born, I know where I live, but my identity is still forming, and I often wonder “where I’m from.” My name is often altered awkwardly for the comfort of those around me. I think a million times a day about who I am, who I am supposed to be, who I want to be. I just don’t know yet, and sometimes it means uncomfortable choices.
6. I have role models, but they largely come from another environment. I want to emulate their strengths and successes, but I don’t know what that looks like in this context. We are told every day, and especially in English class, to become like people we are not. I see people from my country struggling to acclimate and succeed, and I want to be successful…but how to be me, here, at the same time? That seems like a mystery.
7. The pop culture that I most love and relate to is foreign here. We watch different sitcoms, soap operas, music videos, we rock out to different stars, I know all the words to songs that none of my friends understand. I like this culture’s TV and music, too, but it doesn’t touch me in the same way. On this deeper emotional level, my home and identity are always somewhat distant.
8. I’m not sure what a life looks like for me here, but I am trying to forge one, so everything that happens now feels like it might define that. The person I date, the place I live, the friends I make, the labels I am given, they all seem to be defining my American life. That means the stakes seem impossibly high, and despite my young age, I am anxious about living up to this definition of who I am becoming.
9. I appreciate the opportunities available to me, but the truth is that I lost everything to come here. We said we’d keep in touch with everyone, but it’s not the same, and everyone is busy. Most importantly, there hasn’t been any chance for me to grieve leaving my home. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, and the sadness of it seems too big to process on my own, so I try to keep a brave face, keep moving forward. If sometimes I’m not up to it, please understand that I’ve been through an enormous change and I haven’t had a chance to completely process it.
10. People often think that all I need to do to understand is to translate the words they are saying. But I’ve never been in this grade before, I’ve never lived in this context before, I’ve never been in this school system before. So, much of the time, translation doesn’t address the fact that these words and ideas are totally new to me. Saying them in my language doesn’t necessarily help me understand how the concepts relate or why you are mentioning them. Experience is more important than vocabulary in many cases.
11. There are some things here that I just plain don’t like, but I’m supposed to be excited about being here. Some people are rude, some food is yucky, and some classes are boring. But I’m not sure if or how I could politely express those feelings. I want to improve in many ways and I want to be accepted, but the truth is that sometimes I’m just tired, and I’m not sure how to create space for myself to recharge.
12. It really makes a big difference to me how you make our classroom environment so warm, comfortable and accepting.
While every student’s experience is different, we know that cognitive load impacts short-term memory and comprehension. Differentiating a student’s linguistic competence and progress from their emotional, social, and cultural experience can be challenging. It requires that we create meaningful relationships with each individual student.
Further reading: Build Meaningful Relationships with Students
Being a trusted adult at school and creating a sanctuary there for them can make a crucial difference for your brave ELL students who are taking on a whole new world, while also taking on the academic year.