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Cultural Understanding As Part of ESL Education

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According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), five million or 10.1% of public-school students were English language learners (ELLs) in the fall of 2017. First or native languages for these students include Spanish or Castilian, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali, Russian, Hmong, Haitian and Portuguese.

While California and Texas have the highest concentrations of English language learners, and urban districts tend to have a higher percentage than suburban, smaller towns or rural areas, ELLs are located all across the United States in almost every school district.

Challenges of Learning ESL

Students who are learning English as a second language (ESL) face many challenges in a school environment that is new and unfamiliar. ESL students may know some conversational English and live with family members who speak English, and, for them, the path is easier. For students in whose homes no English is spoken, however, school can be an especially intimidating place.

The English language is difficult to learn with all of its rules and multiple exceptions to those very rules. When you compound that with the assortment and number of idioms, slang and dialects, it can be an overwhelming challenge.

While learning English, the ESL student is also trying to succeed in the other content areas, like math, science and history, where they need to know a more formal or academic English. Add to that the cultural differences they are experiencing, and the result is much stress on children who are simply trying to fit in.

A webinar presented by the Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education on supporting ESL students in the classroom points out that, because ELLs have very diverse backgrounds, it is important to take their unique circumstances into account. For example:

  • ELL students may have limited formal education, or their educational experience has been significantly disrupted.
  • Many ELLs who were born in the United States speak a different language at home. And while they are both articulate and fluent in their native language, they lack English proficiency.
  • In addition, some recently arrived immigrants or refugees may be dealing with poverty, non-citizenship and/or familial transiency. They may have been traumatized by war, social turmoil and persecution. Combined with a lack of sufficient language or vocabulary, it is difficult for these students to advocate for themselves or describe their needs.

Each of these challenges will impact students’ ability to participate fully in the learning process, and they may lag behind their peers in expected academic achievement. Proactively responding to their circumstances will support them as they grow and develop their language acquisition and proficiency.

Cultural Understanding and Inclusion

A natural way to help non-English speakers feel comfortable in a new setting is to learn about their culture. To the extent possible, become familiar with each student’s personal situation. When all students share their cultural backgrounds, a sense of being included and understood often follows, promoting respect for and acceptance of diversity among all students.

In a research-based article about culturally responsive teaching in higher education by ESL teacher Sangeeta Johri, she said about inclusion, “Establishing inclusion refers to principles and practices that contribute to a learning environment in which students and teachers feel respected by, and connected to, one another.”

Representing students’ lives and cultures in the classroom is another way to give ESL students a sense of belonging instead of isolation. The importance of helping ESL students embrace English and American culture while still maintaining their native culture and language cannot be overstated. The goal is bilingualism, not replacement.

Cultivating Relationships

Writing for Edutopia, Emily Kaplan former ESL teacher turned journalist interviewed educators with decades of experience teaching ELLs, and reported on her findings. Teachers agreed that when “students feel known, appreciated, and comfortable taking emotional and intellectual risks” the result is a successful classroom. Learning a new language and a new culture should be additive, not subtractive.

One way to create a supportive learning environment is to help students engage with each other and form personal connections. Teachers play a vital role in ensuring that ESL students are not limiting themselves to interactions with others like themselves; widening the circle of interactions gives every student the security of being part of the school community.

Engaging the Families of ESL Students

Parents and caretakers of ESL students may also be new to English, presenting an additional challenge for academic and social growth. It is important to be intentional about addressing these issues:

  • Making sure that there is clear communication with parents and families will support the ESL student’s progress.
  • Translation of vital school information into the student’s home language is imperative.
  • Awareness of cultural values and parental priorities regarding holidays, school activities and cafeteria menus shows respect and inclusiveness.

Preparing to Teach English Language Learners

The University of Louisiana Monroe offers an online degree program for Master of Education, Curriculum & Instruction with a Concentration in English as a Second Language (ESL). This fully online program is taught by a diverse faculty, many of whom are non-native English speakers. The program can be completed in as few as 15 months and prepares you to work in academia or in a corporate setting globally as an Administrator, Curriculum Supervisor, ESL Instructor or Instructional Coordinator. Courses include a focus on social and cultural aspects of language acquisition and the program concludes with a practicum.

Learn more about ULM’s online M.Ed. C&I program with a Concentration in English as a Second Language.


Consortium on Reaching Excellence in Education: Breaking Down Language Barriers for English Language Learners: How to Support ESL Students in the Classroom

Edutopia: 6 Essential Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

MultiBriefs Exclusive: The Benefits of Using a Motivational Framework for Culturally Responsive ESL Teaching

National Center for Education Statistics: English Language Learners in Public Schools (May 2020)

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