English-as-a-second-language students are the fastest growing population within the student community, according to the National Council of Teachers of English. From the 1997-’98 school year to the 2008-’09 school year, the number of English-language learners enrolled in public schools increased from 3.5 million to 5.3 million, or, by 51 percent. With growing diversity in the United States, those statistics continue to grow.
However, learning English can be a tough endeavor, so we asked experts across the country what their top tips are.
1.Be patient and adjust expectations. Learning a new language takes a lot of time. Not only are students learning grammar and vocabulary, but they’re also learning a new culture and way of doing work, says Dr. Anne Pomerantz of the Penn Graduate School of Education. Frustration hinders progress, and the best thing to do is simply adjust your expectations and trust that your child will soon become proficient.
2.Shop around for schools. Not all schools are well equipped for these students. Many public schools do not have the resources to work individually with your child. However, says Dr. Pomerantz, “Public schools tend to be more diverse than private schools. Some private schools don’t even have ESL staff.” Some questions to ask when looking for a school are:
• Is there a full-time English-language specialist at the school?
• What is the school doing to engage parents of English-language students (e.g., resource fairs; translation services; adult courses)?
• What is the school doing to promote interaction between these students and their English-speaking peers?
3.Be your child’s advocate. Unless you’re lucky enough to have your child go to a school well equipped with English-language resources, you’re going to have to fight for your child’s own English-learning education.
“Some parents come from places where they may not be used to the parent-teacher involvement, and they don’t understand that they have the right to join a PTA, or they might not realize that they need to speak up on behalf of their child,” said Dr. Pomerantz.
However, says Robyn Schulman, professional development academic and career advisor at the Illinois State Board of Education, and a seasoned English-as-a-second-language instructor, parents new to this country may not know where to start.
Shulman recommends presenting every previous school record you can to your new school because English-language students are often mislabeled as learning disabled. She also recommends asking for a translator if one is available.
4.Expose your child to as much English as possible. The best way to learn is still the way we all learned our first language as a child — through practice. Thomas Dalton, owner of the company English in Denver and a professor at the University of Denver, says that he focuses on primarily encouraging kids to stop feeling self-conscious and practice as much as possible. He recommends that parents encourage their children to speak English as much as possible, without worrying about making mistakes.
“In order to learn something, you have to be free to make mistakes. Just blast through and make mistakes,” he said.
5.Make it fun. Vanessa Wade, a private tutor in Texas, encourages students to speak as much English as possible. She has a game in which she picks a word and tries to get a student to say anything and everything about the word for three minutes. This helps students get over their self-consciousness and forces them to talk as much as they can.
“When it’s fun, they forget that they’re learning,” Wade said.
She also recommends letting kids watch cartoons and movies in English to expose them to the language.
6.Help them be good observers of their environment. Being an English-as-a-second-language student isn’t only about learning a new language — it is also about learning a new culture.
Dr. Pomerantz emphasizes the importance of teaching kids to observe their new environment. She encourages parents to ask kids about the specific details about their day, and ask questions about why certain things happened, rather than making assumptions about their new culture or about their own limitations.
“Take an inquiring stance rather than an evaluative stance,” she said.
7.Take risks yourself! Parents set an important example for their kids, said Dr. Pomerantz. It’s important for parents to take risks and be willing to make mistakes. Dr. Pomerantz also encourages parents to make an effort to speak English to their children, no matter how limited it is.
Jenny Chen is a freelance writer specializing in education and parenting. She has written for Washington Parent and Mothering Magazine.
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