April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Serving ELL Students When Their First Language Isn’t Spanish

When I first started teaching English at John Overton High School in Nashville, Tennessee, 10 years ago, my greatest challenge in the classroom—besides figuring out what to do that first year, yikes!—was understanding how to best serve my English Language Learners (ELL). At that time, my ELL students were mostly Spanish- and Kurdish-speaking juniors and seniors placed in a freshman class; they had basic English skills but still lacked proficiency in its conventions.

Six years later, when I left the classroom to become a librarian at the school, I felt like I had finally mastered the Spanish-speaking ELL situation. I could read parent notes written in Spanish, request calls home with the appropriate interpreter at our school, and make slight modifications to my lessons for students who needed extra support. Also at that time, most of our school’s incoming Kurdish students had been in U.S. schools their entire lives, and no longer had much of a presence in our ELL program.

That was then—and now is a totally different story. Times have changed at Overton High!

Since 2009, Nashville has experienced a rise in Nepali and Burmese refugees. A charitable organization placed many of these families in an apartment complex in our school’s zone, and, as a result, our school now has a large population of ELL students who are not Spanish speakers.

Additionally, many of these students either have been attending school in refugee camps or have never attended a school before. Our entire facility had to commit to a major paradigm shift in our teaching methods in order to best serve these students.

Understandably, a change like this affects the library as well as the classroom. In my search for appropriate materials to assist our changing population, I devoured any journal articles relating to ELL materials; unfortunately, these articles overwhelmingly address Spanish-speaking students’ needs.

Our school’s statistics reveal that 67 percent of our students come from non-English-speaking backgrounds. They hail from 63 countries and speak 40 different languages at home.  The six most commonly spoken languages are: Spanish, Nepali, Burmese, Karen, Arabic, and Kurdish.

Are you in a similar situation in your school? If so, let me make a few recommendations.

Expand your resources
First, if it is possible, start building a popular DVD collection for your library. I am not able to use our district funds on popular DVDs, so a local program called Limitless Libraries stepped in to make this a reality for our school. Our popular DVD collection has been a game-changer in our library!

Circulation for all students—of all types of items—has increased; they walk in the door for a DVD and leave with a DVD and a book. This is an excellent collection for a school with a large ELL population because our students are learning conversational English through these movies. A bonus is that their entire families are using this collection when DVDs are watched together.

Since there aren’t many materials available in the languages of our school’s newest ELL students, it is difficult to locate English-language materials that are appropriate to high school students’ interests but that are on an extremely low reading level. We have found two series published by Saddeback, “Dark Man” and “Right Now!” to be most helpful in this area.

I also purchased a few elementary-level books for the 400s section; these are predominately used by our ELL teachers. These titles cover parts of speech, punctuation, rhyme, etc. Unfortunately, most of these look elementary, but our teachers have found ways to creatively use them in class.

I haven’t found many popular YA titles in Arabic, but I have recently located some “Harry Potter” titles to purchase; they will fill a need that has been lacking for our population.

Build strong relationships
Another key strategy is to maximize the expertise of your fellow faculty, collaborating with them and making them aware of what resources the library—and you—can provide.

Our school has a Newcomer Academy of about 15 students who have never attended a school before; they stay with one teacher all day except for an elective period. While our school does have an entirely flexible library schedule, this one teacher does plan a weekly visit to bring her students to the library for check-out. The time is not set in stone. She just checks the online calendar for an open slot and emails to make sure we can accommodate her students. Of course we are thrilled! Her students tend to be interested in our DVDs, but we can usually coax a few into checking out a book with numerous pictures—soccer and Ripley’s-type books are a big hit!

The point of this exercise is to help these students become familiar with our library and its rules for checking out and returning items. Next year, when they are regular classes, we hope to see them coming in to the library on their own time.

The biggest tip I have for a librarian serving in a school with a large ELL population is to collaborate as much as possible with your ELL teachers. In the real world, I know this is not always easy; ELL teachers often feel they don’t have the time to work with me before a lesson. But it is so vital to the success of these students to make sure that their library experiences are the best they can be.

When planning lessons, I try to bring teachers to an understanding of what they really hope to accomplish: Do you want the students to research? To learn to type? To create a PowerPoint? With traditional students, we sometimes take it for granted that they can do all of these things in one class meeting; with our school’s ELL population, these tasks must be approached sequentially and in a very hands-on fashion for both the teacher and me, because we are teaching new skills.

Of course, we still have ELL students who speak Spanish as a first language. Our library items in Spanish are still a popular part of our collection. Our Heritage Spanish classes (native Spanish-speakers who are working on grammar, reading, and writing in Spanish) have enjoyed the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Harry Potter” series in Spanish in addition to popular YA titles like the “Twilight” and “Graceling” series. We also offer lower-reading-level items in Spanish—such as the “Fancy Nancy” series of books—for our students who are taking traditional Spanish classes.

Many of these methods will seem elementary to a high school librarian, but that is the point. If you have students who have never been in school before, some of your methods must be elementary with a high-school spin. And remember that these efforts are a constant work in progress. We don’t have this perfected at our school, and I am always looking for ways to better serve my students.

Misti Jenkins (misti.jenkins@mnps.org) is the librarian and Capstone coordinator at John Overton High School in Nashville, TN. It is her tenth year at the school; previously she taught English there for six years. Do you have strategies for reaching ELL learners in your school, particularly those whose first language is one other than Spanish? Please share them in the comments below.

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  1. Heather West says:

    Fantastic article & great suggestions. It is so true, once we become comfortable with our school population it seems to change. I really like all of your suggestions, especially adding DVD’s to the collection. Keep up the good work :)

  2. Molly Martin says:

    Thanks for these insights into how to help these bright, new students! All students benefit when their teachers and advocates are this reflective and in tune with the needs of those they serve. Great article!

  3. Jane Picirilli Johnson says:

    Nice article, Misti! Great to have a friend write an article about such an important topic. Being a former librarian and now a principal, I agree…we need to do all we can to help all our students, especially those from around the world! You are making a difference!

  4. As a librarian and a Literacy Coordinator. I would also recommed the Junk Yard Dan series for older students. This really appeals to young men.
    For help with English literature I would recommend Steck-Vaughn’s short classics series that has controlled vocabulary for low-level readers in the style of the original author. They are also well illustrated. Speaking of illustrations, there are some great studies on using graphic novels to help low level readers and beginning ESOL learners.
    I myself love the total physical response excercises to help very low level English learners. It is a great way to engage learners in a multisensory approach.
    It sound like you are doing great things in Nashville. Good Luck

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