We all get frustrated with our students at times. But there can be a special frustration that comes with working with ELLs (English Language Learners) whose learning is often more opaque and less easily assessable and documentable.
And yes, even though I am an EAL teacher, I admit to getting frustrated with my ELLs too. However, I also know that my reasons for being frustrated are usually not the fault of the students. So let me lay out many of the common reasons we get frustrated with ELLs and provide some rationale for their behaviours and some insight for ourselves as educators.
Our ELLs are not expressive
When I’m trying to get a shy ELL student to speak up, I can sometimes find this frustrating. Why can’t my student spontaneously put their thoughts together without being nervous about making a mistake and say what they want to say in a confident individualistic style that I can relate to as a product of my western culture and education system. Yeah, why not.
The acceptability of expressiveness, or even eye contact, can vary between cultures, genders, and even personalities. Our ELL might be shy. They might not be used to speaking up in class. They might not be accustomed to having to express their own idea. Or the student might be going through the initial quiet phase of language learning which may last an entire year or more.
But watch your ELLs speaking in their own languages with their peers, and you’ll be surprised at how they can can shriek and yell as much as any other happy student.
So it’s not the culture or the personality that’s likely the problem; it’s a temporary language barrier. Give it some time.
They speak too much of their first language
There was an awful time in Canadian history when First Nations children were forcibly taken from their homes to be given what was believed to be a better, more civilized education. Worse, they were further severed from their cultures by being forbidden to speak their own indigenous languages with each other. Today, as we wrestle through the awful consequences of that legacy, it’s good to remember that international educators are often teaching students who may very well lose their first language in pursuit of a more globally useful and versatile English. Many times I’ve had parents move from being paranoid their children are not learning enough English to later being concerned their children are not speaking enough of their first language at home.
But there are other issues, too. Many students are not at the point where they can effectively use any English beyond basic communicative purposes, and it will take time to acquire the academic vocabulary necessary to fully use English. The last decade has seen the rise of the concept of translanguaging where students are encouraged to use or even rely on their first languages to help them understand course content. In the period of time that students are acquiring English proficiency in an English Medium of Instruction School, there is the real risk that students won’t acquire the grade level academic knowledge that other students are acquiring but who aren’t also burdened by learning English.* Insisting on English only, doesn’t help address this danger either.
I’ve written about a simple strategy to promote English language speaking. It involves dividing students from different language backgrounds as much as possible through careful seating arrangements. Another useful strategy is to plan for times when teaching course content where the concepts can be explained by a higher English proficiency student using their first language with another lower English proficiency student of the same language background. Whatever risks there are of poor translation, in many cases it’s going to be better than what the teacher is able to do within the same amount of time.
It’s such a simple task, so why don’t they get it!
I think it would be a great staff exercise at any school where there is a large percentage of ELLs (most international schools these days, by the way), to deliver a workshop in a language that is not understood by the teachers. It wouldn’t even need to be an entire workshop. Just a few minutes and the point would be made.
Some knowledge concepts are tricky, but many are not, especially if they’re being taught at a grade appropriate level. Many ELLs have already been taught some course content at a higher level in their first language. Twitter user @askakorean** shared a beautiful story about his experience as a Korean immigrant without any English on his first day arriving mid-term at an American public school. His science teacher was giving a test on photosynthesis that day but told him it wouldn’t count because he had just arrived. Determined to submit something rather than leave the test blank, he wrote his answers in Korean. The teacher got it translated, marked, and then revealed that he had received the highest mark in the class. The same student went on to graduate second in his grade.
The little story serves to show that many times our ELL students are not less intelligent, or incapable of learning new things; they’re just poor at English. They’ll need a lot of patience, careful instruction, and a safe environment to learn in before these tasks will become easy.
ELLS are disorganized
I can be disorganized. I have friends whose English works just fine and they’re also disorganized. I have other friends who are incredibly organized and whose English is also impeccable. That being said, I have gotten frustrated at all my students when I feel that they’re not being as disciplined and organized as we’d like them to be.
One reason is that the new school system the ELL is learning in may be much different from their previous school system. I have seen students coming from schools where everything is highly prescribed. Answers are written in school provided notebooks, planners are provided with detailed instructions about homework requirements, and classes operate on very regular schedules.
It can be hard to adjust to a new system when suddenly a lot more onus is put on the student to manage their own learning. It’s helpful for me to remember that when my daughter was attending the school I am teaching at, I still forgot about forms getting signed, upcoming school events, and so on. Now that she is in a local school here in Hong Kong, I would be completely out of the loop if it weren’t for my wife being able to help read through the multiple notices that we receive and the highly detailed instructions that are sometimes even hard for a native Chinese speaking parent to understand.
Of course we want all of our students to be more disciplined and organized, and it’s part of our duty to encourage and develop those habits. But we shouldn’t assume it would be an easy task for us if we were in the same situation as our students.
Can’t they just figure out what they need to do by looking at what others are doing?
A variation of this one, that I’m as guilty as any other teacher of saying, “But I taught them how to do it!” The thing is, the teaching is not the essential part. It’s the learning that’s essential. If our students haven’t learned it, then they’ll need to be taught it again, and hopefully in a different way.
Now some kids do seem to have a lot of savvy and can pick up on social cues really quickly. My daughter is like that. These students may naturally be more organized. Or they may have a much greater fear of making a mistake than others, so they work extra hard to avoid standing out.
Some kids may have tried to figure out how things work, socially, or academically, and they may have failed. Because they have failed so many times they figure it’s not in their interest to keep trying and so instead embrace a kind of learned helplessness. They may think they’re not smart enough to acquire that English, or understand that worksheet, when all they need is a bit more time and empathy, two things we teachers don’t always dole out generously enough.
It’s also good to reflect on how foreign teachers can stick out, too. I’ve seen foreigners who have lived overseas for many years continue to commit social faux pas that they’re oblivious to. And what about acquisition of foreign languages? How much Cantonese do I speak after living in Hong Kong for two years?
These are just some of the headaches that come with living and learning in settings we haven’t grow up in. We do need our students to develop some street smarts for the classroom and for learning, but we must also be sensitive that the process of acquiring these street smarts is not always straightforward.
Don’t they realize that they need English!
This is the tough love frustration. I’ve wanted my students to see how important English is for them. I’ve been concerned about some of my students who will no longer be able to return to their home country because they’ve missed too many years of their first language but who also are not progressing in their academic English. This semi-literate state is not something any educator or parent should want for our students, and yet it does happen. We do want our students to become as highly proficient in English as possible. We have a duty to aim for this.
However, when we express our frustration “Don’t they realize that they need English”, we are often implying that our jobs as teachers would be much easier if our students spoke better English, even if it’s true. We are also betraying a little of our own privilege of being people for whom much of the world’s privileges have been served upon an English platter.
Yes. It’s a fact that English is a strategic language to learn, especially for non-anglophones. But is it also the case that our students need all that comes attached with this English? Ideological assumptions? A potentially lost first language? An inability to return to a home country when graduating from a western university because of a lack of a first language?
And do we want to be deliberately creating a world where English is associated with International Education, rather than a multidimensional one, despite all the contradictions and tensions that come with mutlilingualism and multiculturalism?
Why don’t their parents speak English!
Oh boy, would I like to be able to communicate with some of my students’ parents in English, and do I ever like it when they are able to speak English. It’s helpful to remember, however, that in most international schools, it’s these same parents that are supplying the tuition fees that pay the salaries of the teachers. Parents may not appear to be like us, and they may not understand our pedagogies, but very often they have been forced to live in a world where the primacy of English is so deeply entrenched there is little choice but to embrace it.
None of these frustrations that I shared have much to do with any poor decisions made on the part of the students we teach. Parents have not always been free to avoid studying English. They too must submit to much larger external global forces. At present, most international school teachers are monolingual English speakers from the Anglophone countries of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand. It was the colonial might of the UK and the US supremacy of the 20th century that has led to the dominance of English. The network and monopolistic tendencies of a useful dominant language have further entrenched English in international schools today. It would be good to reflect on all this the next time we’re frustrated with our ELLs!
* Burr, E. C. (2018). Challenging the monolingual habitus of international school classrooms. International Schools Journal, XXXVII(2), 77–84.
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