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English Language Learners

Working with Children whom English is a new language

You're five years old. At five you're quite competent in the use of English with other kids. You may still have much to learn, but basically, you understand what people say to you and you can communicate with others.

For a while now your parents have been talking about the fact that you have to learn to read and write, and that soon, you'll be going to school. You're a little afraid and very excited. On the first day of school, your mother makes sure that you've wearing a nice outfit. You have a backpack filled with blank notebooks, pencils, and crayons. You know that those are the implements you will be using to learn how to read and write. As you walk into the classroom the teacher begins to give instructions to the class. She calls out the children's names but she can't pronounce yours. The other children seem to know what's going on. They all know what to do, except for you. Are they laughing at you? Tears roll down your cheeks.

Suddenly, you realize that learning is going to be much more difficult than you ever imagined.

  • By the year 2010, over thirty percent of all school-age children will come from homes in which the primary language is not English.
  • Though we tend to think of immigrants settling in primarily urban areas, large numbers of recently arrived families live in rural and suburban communities
  • In New York City alone, there are more than one hundred languages represented in public school classrooms. The same phenomenon is the norm in many areas of the country. In Rochester, Minnesota schools serve students speaking over 60 different languages. Some of the most common languages spoken by students in these classrooms include Spanish, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and other dialects of Chinese, Haitian-Creole, and Russian.
  • While the speakers of these languages may be all ages, come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, from different economic situations, and may have come to this country for a variety of reasons, they all have in common the desire to learn English.

Over the years educators have grown to understand of the needs of students who are new to the English language.

Throughout the history of education many different terms have been used to describe or characterize children whose second language is English. For example, students with Limited English Proficiency (LEPs), students for whom English is a Second Language (ESLs), or Second Language Learners (SLLs). Currently educators refer to these children as English Language Learners (ELLs). This shift in language represents a more accurate reflection of the process of language accquisition.

It is critical that tutors see second language learners as children with prior knowledge and experience about language learning.

As a volunteer literacy tutor there are many ways you can help an ELL child develop the foundation of understanding and confidence necessary to becoming a successful reader and writer of English. Your first step will be to recognize and validate the prior knowledge and experiences of the child you tutor through showing an interest in the child's first language, and through understanding and respecting the hard work that is necessary to master a new language.

This section provides guidance to volunteer tutors working with children who are learning English, and for whom English is not their first language. These are English Language Learners (ELLs). As a tutor in a school setting you may encounter a range of programs designed to provide instruction to these students such as: Immersion programs, Bilingual programs, or Dual Language programs. While each of these has specific supports designed to help ELL students, none offer the one-on-one attention that you can provide as a tutor.
You can use this valuable time to help your student feel comfortable and confident while trying out new words and phrases as a new English speaker.

This section provides some ideas for how to get started in a tutoring relationship with a young ELL student, as well as activities to help students gain understanding and the ability to read and write their new language.