A student from another country can enrich classroom learning in more ways than you can imagine
Regardless of how many years a teacher may have taught, every year begins anew. Our classrooms may look similar and our curriculum may not have deviated from the previous year, but one element remains a constant. Just as the times change, so do the demographics of a community. And very often, a classroom will be enriched with a new student from another community, another state or even another country.
Along with a fresh look at American life, students from other countries often bring with them another language. And although some of these children may already know English, there are others who enter our classrooms with limited proficiency of the English language. How we approach these newcomers can have a huge impact on their early success in school.
Entering a new school, a new student is often filled with excitement. However, unfamiliar surroundings can often be stressful, and finding oneself in a learning situation where the sounds and sights are foreign can be scary. The student whose first language is not English needs a supportive environment and also needs to feel comfortable sharing with his or her classmates. Naturally, when we model specific behavior, the other students will replicate it.
All in the family. I've discovered that when initiating early introductions, it's best to move beyond the obvious general discussions about the geographic location of the student's country of origin. Although this is important, we should be sure to give enough time to discuss some of the cultural differences. Encourage your new student to show the class some traditional artwork or even products that may come from his or her homeland.
However, it's very important not to unintentionally make the new student feel singled out or even on display. In order to keep this from happening, I assign a family oral history project to the entire class. All of my students are asked to interview their relatives and create a map of where and when their family first came to the United States. Each student, unless they are of Native American descent, will discover that they too were once immigrants. In addition to the written portion of the assignment, 1 like to give parents or relatives an opportunity to come in and talk to the class about their own family traditions. Regardless of where the students are from, it's a genuine insight for all of the students to learn something new about each other.
Giving words meaning. We all know that words are the foundation of learning how to read. The meaning of words can be taught through a number of language-supportive ways. For instance, homonyms cannot be predicted by any rules of grammar or pronunciation and these word pairs can be difficult for our students who are non-native speakers. There are children's books, however, that can help put some fun into what may have been a rather laborious group of lessons.
One of my students' favorite author/illustrators who brings homonyms alive is Fred Gwynne. A Little Pigeon Toad (Aladdin, 1990), The King Who Rained (Aladdin, 1988) and A Chocolate Moose for Dinner (Aladdin, 1988) are a few of his books. The illustrations in all three are wonderful because they paint a picture of a child's literal interpretation as compared to the actual word's spelling and meaning. I find that our non-native speaking students are able to visually understand some of the English language's figurative meaning when we use these books.
Teaching the functions of parts of speech is easy to show when I use several of Brian P. Cleary's books. A Mink, a Fink, a Skating Rink: What Is a Noun? (Carolrhoda, 1999) identifies nouns in rhymes. His other books, land You and Don't Forget Who: What Is a Pronoun? (Carolrhoda, 2004), Hairy, Scary, Ordinary: What Is an Adjective? (Carolrhoda, 2001) or To Root, to Toot, to Parachute: What Is a Verb? (Carolrhoda, 2001) are all equally clever and remove some of the doldrums from learning the parts of speech.
Budding poets. As the school year progresses and new students become more proficient at identifying parts of speech, I ask my class to write a five-line poem in the constructivist manner. Here each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning as he or she learns. First, I model on the overhead and then give each student a written template with instructions on a separate piece of paper. I maintain the overhead so that the new English speakers are able to feel more comfortable by being able to see the model clearly. When each student is finished, I ask for volunteers to come to the overhead and write their poem on a transparency, which is then displayed so all can see and read. Here is a sample of my instructions:
Write a five-line poem using the following directions:
1. On the first line write a noun of your choice.
2. On the second line write two adjectives joined by and to describe this noun.
3. On the third line write a verb and an adverb to describe this noun in action.
4. Start the fourth line with like or as followed by a comparison.
5. Start the final line with if only followed by a wish.
The following is a wonderful poem by my former student Javier who had come to Miami from Cuba with his aunt and uncle:
Exciting and challenging
Like a small boat
If only my mother could see me now.
Finding their way. How else can we continue to help our newcomers? Ask second-language speakers to become a language resource by tying their cultures to class curriculum whenever possible. For example, many words in English may have come from their native tongue (see box at right). Wherever the student is from, we're able to find words that have found their way into English.
I also recommend giving your new students a picture dictionary and a class folder of "survival" vocabulary. Pair your non-native English speaker with a reliable student. This assigned child becomes not only a friend and coach, but also serves as a support system for the student in his or her new environment, ensuring a smooth transition into a new classroom.
Teaching is an experience that no other occupation can rival. We have the ability to teach our students and, at the same time, learn from their experiences.
Adopted words and Their Origins
typhoon, chopstick: Chinese
haiku, karaoke: Japanese
kindergarten, frankfurter, pretzel: German
potato, succotash: Native American
bronco, alligator: Spanish
Nanette Avery is an educator and freelance writer living in Miami-Dade County, FL
Copyright Early Years, Inc. Oct 2005
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