While English is the de facto national language in the United States, it is by no means the only language of our nation, and in no way the only language we’re exposed to in modern classrooms. Our nation’s greatest strength is its diversity. We are a nation compiled of variety, a vast melting pot of cultures. While this is wonderful, it does provide some additional challenges for teachers.
This week, while planning an upcoming lesson with a first-grade teacher, the subject of ESL learners came up once more. Many children in California are Spanish ESL students. While schools do their best to accommodate, for teachers who aren’t fluent in Spanish or a mélange of other languages (Chinese-speaking students are on the rise across the nation as well), a sense of powerless can descend. The realization that this population of students is not having its needs met can be extremely discouraging.
Immersion is a powerful tool, but effective immersion education involves more support than simply throwing a student into a classroom of peers fluent in a tongue they don’t know. It’s a sorry reality that often ESL students become neglected in the classroom, factored out of questions and projects by default and left to fend for themselves. They are sometimes expected to catch up before they are treated as functioning members of a class. This isn’t usually a malicious act on the part of teachers so much as a result of teachers being too overwhelmed by having to address the needs of thirty or more other students as well.
But there are simple methods that can benefit these struggling students and their peers without placing unreasonable expectations on teachers. Incorporating art, specifically visual art, into the classroom can prove vital for ESL students adapting to an English classroom. When vocabulary is taught, it should always, without exception, be accompanied by visual aids. Whenever possible, new lessons can also be enhanced by footage or physical modeling of new concepts. This is imperative not just for ESL students, but any students who are primarily visual or kinesthetic learners as well. It may not seem like enough, but it is a step in the right direction, a step towards inclusion.