May 20, 2021
Did you know that intentional support doesn’t have to be active? Your English learners’ brains may be taxed throughout the school day by the mental effort of learning new content in a foreign language. Consult Y4Y’s new course, Supporting English Learners, for ideas on how you can let language learning “simmer” in your students’ minds by using fun and engaging activities.
Social vs. Academic Language
Let’s say you’re planning a trip to France. Are you more likely to be learning phrases like “May I please have butter with my bread?” or “Wouldn’t Kant be amused by the juxtaposition of this graffiti on a city beautification billboard?” The bread-and-butter sentence is an example of “conversational” language — words and phrases people might use in everyday life. It uses a simple sentence structure and concrete nouns. It places a low cognitive demand on listeners. Another name for it is “social language.” What about the second sentence, the one about Kant? While the musings of a legendary philosopher might come up in conversation, even some native speakers might pull out the dictionary to look up “juxtaposition.” That sentence is an example of “academic language,” which uses a more complex sentence structure and abstract nouns (things you can’t see, hear, touch, feel or smell). Unless you’re helping an English learner prepare for a vocabulary test, stick with “bread and butter” words when you’re giving instructions or having a casual conversation.
Context-Embedded vs. Context-Reduced
Another consideration when supporting English learners is how much context you’re offering for English vocabulary building. Context-embedded language offers visual clues, gestures, facial expressions or specific locations to help learners use their prior knowledge and intuition. Providing context isn’t exclusive to social language exchanges. For example, a lesson in geography can be presented with a whole host of visual clues, yet a social conversation about an experience of being bullied could be challenging. So, be sure you’re offering plenty of context. Visuals, visuals, visuals!
Cultural Competence Is On You
You can offer English learners greater ease in communicating when you recognize that it’s the responsibility of your staff to understand the cultural norms your students bring to the program every bit as much as it is for students to learn the norms of your program. Here are some elements of cultural competence, with examples that show the importance of that cultural competence:
- How they use symbols. The @ symbol can be used in Spanish to include male and female. Amig@s means friends of both gender.
- How they problem-solve. Perfectionism in the Japanese culture could make it emotionally challenging for a student with this heritage to embrace the “freedom to failure” that we advocate in problem-based learning projects.
- How they communicate nonverbally. Indian head-nodding can be agreement, but a student from this culture might nod along to give the impression of understanding or agreement out of an internal pressure to appear polite even when confused.
- How they learn. Some African cultures have demonstrated their concern for children through strictly adhered-to rules, so these students may be uncomfortable questioning new authorities, even on noncontroversial topics.
- How they resolve conflict. Girls from many parts of the world may not be as experienced as boys in advocating directly for themselves in uncomfortable situations.
- Their ways of knowing. Verbally passing wisdom between generations is part of most cultures, especially tribal cultures, and your staff should honor this mode of knowledge building.
What “Passive Support” Looks Like
Your program probably isn’t teaching English to students who aren’t native speakers. Rather, you’re supporting their learning and engagement. So what does “passive support” look like in the context of your program? As we’ve covered here, you’ll focus on social exchanges with lots of context and visual cues, and be sure your knowledge of their cultures allows them the greatest space for growth. Within these parameters, consider activities like these:
- Bilingual Mad Libs. A universal favorite that often leads to belly laughs, these side-by-side fill-ins can help students build vocabulary and exercise their understanding of parts of speech. Talk with your school-day partners and design them yourself based on current curriculum. Don’t forget to allow for a generous side of silliness!
- Bilingual Board Games. Bingo is a favorite, but the sky’s the limit! No budget for game purchases? No problem! When students design the games themselves, they’ll have even more fun. This could mean adapting donated English-only games (partner with your local Goodwill store or ask your elementary school to hold a game drive), or a quick internet search for DIY board games could give you dozens of ideas for helping students build their own from scratch.
- Icebreakers. What are icebreakers, after all, but communication devices! Try a guessing game like “I Spy”, or maybe a group drawing. Each student adds a new element to a drawing and explains in English what it is and why they added it.
- Show and Tell. Another childhood favorite, your students have the opportunity to research and rehearse what they’ll tell their peers about a cherished object or photo.
- Scavenger Hunt. Whether virtual and your students have to search out URLs, or in person and they’re looking for three dogs in a row in your program space, scavenger hunts are a lot of fun. If you’re worried about fierce competition, offer different kinds of winners besides “first” to finish. Most creative answers? Most collaborative? Most independent?
However passive this kind of support, you can still be intentional, being mindful of your needs and goals. Consult the Y4Y Supporting English Learners Intentional Activity Design Planner to organize that process.
Remind your students that we spend the first part of our lives learning so much because that’s when our brains are most ready for the learning! A new language is no exception. Help your ELs understand, too, that knowing multiple languages will give them a life-long advantage in understanding linguistic concepts. Finally, give yourself a big pat on the back every time you sneak in that passive support on their journey.