Why is it important for teachers to know how their English Learners entered the United States?
Many of us have the idea that the United States is a homogenous society – a melting pot of people who have become one like the other in the great stew that is the U.S. However, this is not true. The U.S. has always been the home to many ethnic and language groups. How do these new people enter the United States in the 21st Century?
There are seven distinct groups of people who form the English Learners community in the United States. The commonality across all of these learners, adults and children, is that English is not their first language. According to the Cambridge Dictionary online a native speaker is someone who has spoken a particular language since they were a baby, rather than having learned it as a child or adult. It is helpful for teachers to know the different ways their students become ELs because the method of entry can greatly impact a student’s ability to learn English and gain concept knowledge through English when in school.
A List of 10 Ways to Enter the U. S. as an English Learner
- As a refugee: a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
- As an asylum-seeker: a person who, from fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, social group, or political opinion, has crossed an international frontier into a country in which he or she hopes to be granted refugee status.
- As an immigrant: a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.
- As a migrant worker, a person who moves from place to place to get work, especially a farm laborer who harvests crops seasonally.
- As a student: A student visa can be obtained by a person interested in studying at a university in the U.S.
- As an adoptee: Foreign-born children who have been adopted by U.S. citizens.
- As a child of immigrants or refugees: Children with parents who immigrated or were refugees often are English Learners as their parents speak a home language different than English.
- As undocumented immigrants: People who have come to the U.S. often seeking employment and their children frequently become English Learners.
- As foreign-born citizens. Although rare, children or spouses of U.S. service members or diplomats may be English Learners upon return to the U.S.
- As an unaccompanied refugee minor (URM) is any person who has not attained 18 years of age who entered the United States unaccompanied by and not destined to: (a) a parent, (b) a close non-parental adult relative who is willing and able to care for said minor, or (c) an adult with a clear and court-verifiable claim to custody of the minor; and who has no parent(s) in the United States.
Refugees and Unaccompanied Refugee Minors have inevitably suffered severe trauma before entering the United States school system. Teachers can adopt different expectations for students who have experienced extreme deprivation and/or violence. Both deprivation and violence can impact a student’s ability to learn-much less learn in a new language. Setting realistic expectations for a student’s growth will help a teacher stay positive when teaching a student below the standard grade levels. Many of these learners may have interrupted formal education or no education at all prior to entering the U.S.
Asylum-seekers have often had similar experiences as refugees. They have often had to flee their home country due to imminent danger. Teachers who can recognize the fight or flight responses sometimes inadvertently triggered in these students can often overcome these barriers by assuring that the learning environment is safe and welcoming. This means both physically and culturally. Taking the time to learn the story behind the learner’s move to the U.S. can open a bridge between the teacher and the learner that can then lead to a trust-based learning relationship. This is imperative when working with refugees, unaccompanied minors and asylum-seekers.
Undocumented Immigrants as English Learners have the additional life stress of hiding. They are constantly aware that they may be forced by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to return to their home countries. Most frequently from Mexico and Central American illegal immigrants who have moved to the United States to escape extreme poverty, drug cartels, or gangs although there is a large group of migrant workers who migrate yearly to harvest fields and then return home. These learners also need to feel safe in their learning environments. It helps a teacher to know a learner’s status so that when discussing options about education with parents or adult learners you can understand if there are unspoken limitations to services that these families can access. Frequently, fear will keep them silent and will prevent them from reaching out for help with their children when needed. A teacher familiar with this situation can help the family navigate the school, health, job-seeking system without placing the family at risk of deportation.
Migrant Workers are a subset of English Learners that present a unique challenge. The greatest issue English as a Second Language teachers face with this group of learners is that their learning is often very fragmented. A student may present with exceptional math skills in one area of the curriculum but with gaps in some of the most basic skill sets. Knowing about the traveling lifestyle of the student’s family will assist you in understanding this dynamic and help you determine how to fill in the gaps in their education.
Immigrants and Students with Visas are more likely to be “ready to learn” than students who entered the U.S. in other ways. These learners have chosen to come to the U.S. knowing that learning English will be critical for their long-term success in the states. Typically, they have had an education in their home language and perhaps already know two or three languages. Learners that I have met who entered the states in these ways almost always learned English at a seemingly more accelerated pace than their peers who entered the country in another manner.
The final two groups of English Learners are Adoptees and Foreign-born Citizens. This is a very small group of English learners and data about these learners is very limited. In my personal experience I have taught no foreign-born citizens and only a handful of adoptees. Within my limited experience I have witnessed that the stress of a new family, new food, new culture, and new language can cause these children initially to act out-especially at the preschool and lower elementary ages. Once they are more settled and through the initial phases of culture shock, they tend to progress rapidly in learning English and adjusting to school. Again, based on my very limited experience I would guess that this is due to their home environments where their parents and new family members speak in English. I have also noted that parents who adopt are frequently willing and able to access any mental health or physical health resources that may become necessary. This is atypical for families of refugees or asylum-seekers.
What are your experiences with different groups of English Learners? I know that no two students are alike, however, have you noticed any tendencies that align with how students originally entered the country?
Craig, Susan E. “Author: To Reach Struggling Students, Schools Need to Be More ‘Trauma-Sensitive'” Interview by Elisha McNeil. Web log post. Education Week. Education Week, 17 Feb. 2016. Web. 08 June 2016.
“native speaker”, B2, Cambridge Dictionary, Aug. Web. 10 Aug. 2016
“Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.” Mass.gov. The Official Website of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.
“Who Are Refugees?” Settlement Services International. Settlement Services International, n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2016