Saturday, February 19, 2011

English Language Learners

I was teaching a class for high school students at a local Providence school last week and was reminded of the issues that Virginia Collier raises in the chapter you are reading this week.

I had students working on college application essays, brainstorming descriptive words about themselves to use as an anchor for their writing. "Dedicated," "creative," "driven," "curious..." I gave them five minutes to draft a list. I watched two students on my right struggle with pen to paper. They are both native Spanish speakers, and they often talk to each other in Spanish when not addressing the group so I guessed that Spanish was a more comfortable place for them if given the choice.

They each had one or two words on their papers, while most others in the room were jotting down lists of 7, 8, 9... so I thought of Virginia Collier and had an idea.

"When you are brainstorming words for this essay," I said to the whole group, "you can write those words in any language. This is just to get your brain warmed up, and to get your initial thoughts on paper. When you write, you will write the essay in English, but as you are jotting down the best words to describe yourself, write freely in any language that feels most comfortable to you."

I made eye contact with the young women to my right and they smiled at me. Suddenly their lists or words flowed freely, filling up the page. And I knew that allowing them to start in Spanish would make this writing exercise much more successful for them.


  1. I really liked this post. I feel that giving students the choice of being able to use their first language, combined with English as a second language is a very important thing, as Collier said. I don't see any problem with students speaking their native language that they feel most comfortable with, as long as they can communicate with the teacher. I felt Collier's book, or the chapter that we got to read, was very effective to prospective teachers on how to handle students with a different language than English as their first language.

  2. Especially in something like brainstorming or a personal rough draft, I think it's a good idea for bilingual students to use their first language.
    Collier had some very good ideas for multilingual students. It was definitely an aid to us in the future, and now in VIPS.

    Even if English is your first language, there are some words and phrases that leap to your mind in another language. There are times when I starting thinking in Spanish, without realizing it.

  3. WOW! This is so meaningful. I cannot even find the right words to use. Like you told us in class about numbers are always thought of in the first language you know, so aren't many other things, too. There should be no reason for a student to struggle in a classroom because their first language is not English. I agree with Emily and students being able to speak in their native language to feel comfortable.