Current Issue: Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations
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Cara Tuzzolino-Werben
Idiom Editor

Elisabeth Gareis
Column Editor,
Culture Notes

Nanette Dougherty
Column Editor,
Book Review

Ann Wintergerst
Column Editor,
Promising Practices


Featured Article


Creating Empathy for ELLs
Victoria Pilotti

ELLs are not permitted to speak Spanish in the hallways at a Wisconsin middle school. At an elementary school in New York City, two five-year-olds eating lunch together are told to stop speaking Chinese. This is America, we speak English! ESL teachers are horrified and frustrated by punitive reactions of unempathetic colleagues to students speaking their native language.

ESL teachers have the ability to change these unfair practices. They are the experts on the needs of English language learners in every school building (K through higher education). ESL teachers can best help ELLs by creating empathy toward language-challenged students. The way to create empathy in educators, support staff, parents, and students who have an English only attitude/philosophy is to speak to educators and support staff individually, facilitate a workshop, and/or give a presentation exclusively in a language other than English.

Proficiency in a foreign language is not needed for demonstration purposes. An ESL teacher may choose to co-present with a colleague who is proficient in another language. The following steps begin with monolingual and end with scaffolded bilingual instruction.

  • Direct participants not to speak or write in English while they are learning.
  • Provide text in a language written in another alphabet.
  • Switch to cursive writing with no explanation.
  • Gradually add visuals/graphics/pictures.
  • Teach cognates.
  • End with English translations, directions, and explanations.

If members of the audience know the foreign language, engage them in the foreign language as teachers sometimes engage their more proficient students.

When I unpack the lesson, I point out that some participants wrote English translation in their notes and others wrote English phonetic spellings to help them remember the new language. I ask participants to reflect on themselves as second language learners in a new country. The audience always expresses feelings of frustration and stupidity. The following are representative written reflections from workshop participants:

  • The Russian lesson really brought us down to the level of making us feel like those ESL students.
  • I felt the total confusion of students in a foreign country because I felt lost and overwhelmed with all those new letters in a strange alphabet.
  • We talk so much about learning ESL, but your Russian lesson really made me realize how difficult it can be to learn a new language.
  • Reminded me of ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) lesson for autistic children.
  • I liked that you imitated a bad teacher’s reaction to a child who couldn’t pick up a word.
  • Your lesson taught me to be careful with our second language students and not to take anything for granted. Most ESL students have to be taught explicitly.
  • I liked the way you gave instructions in Russian instead of English to teach Russian words.
  • It helps me understand and know what to do and how to teach ESL students to help them succeed socially and academically.
  • The cognates were definitely helpful to children to pick up words. The familiar terms were connections to make learning Russian easier.
  • Students associated object with print lettering. I learned the importance of not introducing script too soon.
  • It is very important to bring in actual objects to make it easier to learn new words.
  • Russian lesson demonstrated how to present (and not present) bilingual instruction.
  • Really made me aware of how it feels to be on the other side of the desk!
  • The Russian lesson taught me that visuals are imperative.
  • Teaching language in a natural way by showing us the object, saying the Russian word, and showing it to us again helps us to make connections and familiarize ourselves with the Russian letters/sounds that we were never exposed to before.
  • I didn’t know how to write the letters of each word.

For that moment, day, week, month, or longer, participants embrace a bilingual philosophy and put aside the monolingual attitude. This is an effective way to create empathetic feelings toward second language learners.

Advocates for English language learners and immigrants have an obligation to share what they know as the school building experts on newcomer survival skills and strategies. We can best help ELLs succeed in their new culture by educating others about their needs and challenges.

About the Author

Victoria Pilotti is a secondary schools mentor for the NYC Department of Education and adjunct professor in the TESOL Department of St. John’s University.