We Need to Change the Way We Think About ESL Students
September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
By Fabiana Parker
In our ever-evolving world, something else needs to change, too: the way we think about some of our students. You can just look around and see that our public school classrooms are transforming into diverse spaces, where cultural richness has become the norm. In this changing landscape, many of us have thought of English as a Second Language (ESL) students as obstacles we must overcome, as young people we must find ways to remediate.
I believe we must have a paradigm shift in that kind of thinking. We must see such students more for the exceptional range of skills, experiences, and perspectives they bring to our schools, and embrace them as the invaluable assets they really are. Such a shift would not only promote inclusivity; it would enhance the learning environment for all students.
As an ESL teacher, I’ve witnessed the power of this change in perspective. I’ve seen my students make significant contributions to classrooms and school communities by sharing their cultural backgrounds and perspectives. Just by being there, they expose native English-speaking students to different customs, traditions, and global issues, fostering cultural sensitivity, empathy, and an appreciation for diversity.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of witnessing an ESL student of mine share her stories of celebrating Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, in her home country. Through her vivid descriptions and explanations, she provided authentic and engaging insight into Indian culture. Her storytelling deepened her classmates’ understanding and appreciation for the rich tapestry of traditions worldwide. Moreover, during social studies lessons, she became a valuable resource for exploring global issues. Her unique perspective on environmental conservation, influenced by her community’s efforts in her home country, broadened classmates’ awareness of the interconnectedness of these challenges. By promoting cultural exchange, ESL students become catalysts for nurturing global citizens equipped with the skills necessary to navigate an interconnected world.
ESL students can also share their unique set of language and communication skills. Often bilingual or multilingual, they can serve as language models, assisting their peers in learning new words and phrases, while providing authentic examples of diverse communication styles. For instance, during a group activity focused on vocabulary expansion, one of my ESL students took the initiative to share her knowledge of Spanish vocabulary related to the topic. She provided explanations of Spanish equivalents for certain words and offered examples of their usage in different contexts. She introduced idioms and expressions commonly used in Spanish-speaking cultures, expanding her peers’ awareness of linguistic nuances. This collaborative learning approach not only enhances language development but also encourages mutual respect and cooperation among students.
Extensive research demonstrates that bilingualism or multilingualism offers numerous cognitive benefits. ESL students often display enhanced problem-solving abilities, improved creativity, and better critical thinking skills. Recognizing these cognitive abilities shifts the focus from remediation to empowerment, enabling ESL students to thrive academically. Many of my students have incorporated elements from their native language and cultural background into artwork, infusing their work with a sense of authenticity and diversity. This helps inspire classmates to think outside the box and explore their own artistic potential, as well as supporting an environment that values individual expression and cultural diversity.
Embracing ESL students as assets means building cultural competence in our classrooms, including the ability to communicate effectively and respectfully with individuals from diverse backgrounds. This skill set is increasingly crucial in our globalized world, where cross-cultural collaboration is the norm. Having ESL students in the classroom helps prepare everyone there for a future that will demand cultural understanding and adaptability.
ESL students also bring their histories: experiences of living in different countries, encountering different educational systems, and facing unique challenges. Sharing stories is an excellent way to learn and broaden perspectives. Understanding different viewpoints encourages empathy and compassion, helping students develop a sense of social responsibility. During a discussion on geographic locations, one of my students eagerly shared her experiences of participating in traditional ceremonies and adapting to new cultural norms. Her vivid descriptions and personal anecdotes transported her classmates to places they have never been and exposed them to customs and traditions they may not have encountered had it not been for her presence in our classroom.
Viewing ESL students as assets encourages moving from a teacher-centered approach to a student-centered one. Teachers become facilitators of learning, and students take on a more active role in their educational journey. By creating opportunities for ESL students to share their knowledge, skills, and experiences, mutual learning and growth flourish. This empowers ESL students, boosts their confidence, and provides them with a sense of belonging in their (perhaps) new educational community.
Young people from faraway lands or different cultures aren’t obstacles in our classrooms—they’re valuable assets and should be celebrated as such. In doing so, we show that we value cultural diversity, intercultural competence, empathy, and global awareness. And we help all our students thrive.
Parker, a member of the Manassas City Education Association and Virginia’s 2023 Teacher of the Year, teaches English as a Second Language students at Osbourn High School.