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

David Hirsch


Featured Article

Who Are Our ELLs?
Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria Dove

English language learners come from many lands, speak many languages, and have encountered many experiences. When a newcomer lands on our proverbial classroom doorstep, we often are inclined to search for information to give us some insight into his or her background. One might think there is no better way to gather information than to surf the Web:

We both recognize the vast amount of information the World Wide Web offers. Yet, if you want to understand who your ELLs really are and what life experiences they have had, we suggest you look beyond facts and figures, don’t stop at surfing the Internet, and keep looking a little deeper to understand the whole person behind the ELL label.

In our shared close to 40 years of teaching experience with this population, we have seen over and over that the same student will demonstrate multiple personas within the course of a single day that are unlike what most of their mainstream classmates may present. (When we use the term persona, we refer to ELLs’ personalities and the behaviors they exhibit in varied contexts and the assumed roles they take on in various situations.) We have observed that they have at least three distinct personalities, which are as different from each other as three different lives. In the mainstream classroom, in the ESL classroom, and in their home environment, our students behave in three distinctly different ways. In one place, they think and speak unlike they do in the other two. In addition, they try to meet very distinctive expectations that the adults responsible for them in each of these environments communicate to them. What are these three personas they often exhibit, and how can we help reconcile the inner struggle that many of our students may have due to these conflicting roles?

Three Personas
Classroom Persona
Some ELLs may appear withdrawn in mainstream classes, or completely lost as grade-appropriate content is presented in a language they are barely able to grasp. Others may display unmistakable signs of boredom and fatigue. Unmistakable? Not so fast! Their lack of impression and visible lack of engagement and involvement may also be signs of fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, inability to comprehend what is happening, and not knowing what is expected of them. They might think they do not have a voice, so they try to stay invisible. Other ELLs may act distracted, looking down or looking away so they might not attract too much attraction. Some may constantly fidget, thumb through note pages, sharpen their pencils, or leave to use the bathroom as they grapple to keep themselves occupied. Yet other ELLs openly show their frustration and act up. They may attract attention by becoming the classroom clown in order win their classmates’ admiration and acceptance. It is, after all, better to be reprimanded for misbehavior than lose face and be considered “dumb” for not being able to answer a question or complete some academic task.

ESL Persona
In contrast, many of the same students, when in the ESL room, will participate actively in the lesson, laugh, and virtually come alive! The ESL classroom becomes a safe haven where ELLs will find others much like themselves. They take more risks academically and are less afraid to reveal what they do not know. These small bands of English seekers can become a cohesive group who rely on each other as well as the ESL teacher for both academic and emotional support. Many ELLs feel they are best understood in the confines of the ESL classroom even though no one there may speak their native language.

Home Persona
In this environment, ELLs have adult responsibilities and adult worries. Their parents often struggle with the English language even more than their children, who then must, become the translators and interpreters for the entire family. Besides being placed in the uncomfortable position of translating for their parents at parent-teacher conferences, ELLs, for example escort their parents to doctor appointments, go to court to fight a parking ticket, and help their parents pay the bills. Quite often, in fact, many immigrant parents and their children find their roles are reversed. These youngsters frequently know more about their parents’ financial and personal troubles than children their age should, and translating information adds up to a tremendous responsibility for them.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, many of our ELLs, after a short adjustment period, are able to meet the demands of their different personas and reconcile the different experiences. Teachers can assist these youngsters to deal with various issues by lowering their overall anxiety level when they are at school. This can be accomplished by creating a positive social and emotional classroom environment, which is essential for ELLs’ emotional stability as well as their academic success. Teachers can promote such an environment by:

  • Developing a sense of belonging through the active participation of all students in class activities;
  • Maintaining consistent and clear classroom routines, which helps ELLs feel more secure and become more confident in their ability to succeed;
  • Engaging every class member in assisting each ELL’s verbal and written acquisition of English;
  • Fostering positive feelings to overcome communication barriers, making ELLs an important part of their class community.

What is Most Needed?

Above all, collaboration and a combined team effort is necessary to understand our English language learners’ diverse lived experiences. We encourage ESL and mainstream teachers to give up a prep period from time to time and visit each other’s classrooms just to see how the ELLs they share responsibility for are doing in the other environment. We also urge ESL specialists to collaborate with other teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders to obtain information and resources that help ELLs and their families make the necessary adjustments for living more comfortably and successfully in their new community. A commitment to utilize a variety of strategies and resources will yield not only the most effective instruction to meet the academic needs of ELLs, but also will lead to ELLs’ enhanced social emotional development. Teachers have no choice but to think out of the box to work together by frequently sharing notes and observations about their students, regularly planning lessons cooperatively, and exchanging successful ways of bridging ELLs’ experiences in and outside the classroom.

About the Authors

Andrea Honigsfeld is associate dean and coordinator of the MS TESOL program at Molloy College, Rockville Centre. Maria Dove is an ESL teacher in Valley Stream and an adjunct professor at Molloy College.