Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Help! These kids just arrived in the US and they don't speak any English yet!

My friend Katie, an experienced and award-winning university Spanish instructor, has been tutoring a woman who wants to learn Spanish because she's adopting three children from Guatemala. When the kids (ages 7-15) arrive, Katie will be tutoring them in English. (They won't be starting school right away; their mom, Kirsten, is going to homeschool them as she has with her other children.) Katie asked me for input since I've taught English as a Second Language (ESL) and worked with children. However, as I haven't taught ESL at the elementary level, and as the girls I tutor are learning French for fun, not survival, I'm turning to you all, the readers of this blog. Do you have any suggestions for ideas, activities, and resources?

Here are my recommendations so far:

Katie should not let on to the kids that she's a fluent speaker of Spanish. This way their lessons can be complete English immersion and the kids won't ask constantly ask for translations. She can do this by using lots of gestures, pictures, drawings, props, repetition, and cognates, and by acting things out or demonstrating. Oxford University Press makes some good picture dictionaries specific for English language learners, as do other publishers, but I suspect that most children's illustrated word books would also be useful.

Katie and Kirsten should set goals of what they want to accomplish, what they want the children to be able to do--talk about themselves, ask important questions, follow directions around the house, identify objects, listen to stories, etc. (Should she start teaching them to read in English? I don't know; if they don't read in Spanish yet, probably not, as we wouldn't want to overwhelm them. So then should they learn to read in Spanish? Help! This is beyond my expertise!) Each lesson should address those objectives and the kids should leave the session feeling like they've learned something new or understand something better.

Katie should vary the activities in each lesson to appeal to different learning styles and to accommodate the fact that seven-year-olds usually don't sit still very long. Including as many different kinesthetic activities, movements, and games will keep the kids engaged. (Click here for some of my homemade games ideas.)

Katie and their mom could pick out some textbooks and materials for English language learners at the elementary level; perhaps local elementary schools could tell them what they use in the different grades. Each child should have his or her own book(s) (rather than sharing them). Unfortunately I don't know enough about this genre to make recommendations myself. Anyone?

While teaching lists of nouns and verbs (to any age student) is very manageable for a good teacher like Katie because these words are easy to illustrate and act out, she should also familiarize them with function words like articles (a/an/the), pronouns (I/me/she/her etc.), interrogatives (who/what/where etc.), prepositions (in/on/near/to etc.), and conjunctions (and/or/if etc.). It's frustrating as a language learner to be able to point to objects and label them but not actually make sentences or express complete thoughts.

By the way, a book that has worked amazingly well for the little girls I tutor in French is called I Can Read & Speak in French: The Simple Picture Method for Kids to Learn French Immediately. It draws upon the Symtalk method where a usually-logical symbol represents a person, place, object, action, or idea. In this book, which also exists in Spanish and so probably in other languages, a sentence describes a photograph. Each word in the sentence is illustrated by its assigned symbol. As soon as the child can associate the symbol with the word, he can "read" the sentence, especially when aided by looking at the illustration. The goal is not to have them read, but rather use the vocabulary (composed of all the different parts of speech) to describe the picture. Eventually the child is able to tell the whole story of the children who go to the park with their bikes and dog and kites and end up falling in the fountain. It's very empowering for students to be able to tell a story in the new language! I also encouraged the girls to personalize, to tell me about when they go to the park, to describe their possessions, and so forth, using the same key vocabulary and the included flashcards. All this took, of course, a month or two of going over the new words little by little, reviewing the previous ones, playing games like Memory with the flashcards (I also made bingo cards with them)--it doesn't happen all at once. And the Symtalk method becomes increasingly more complex and can be used with many different levels and ages, but I don't know much about it beyond what I've seen with this book and at one conference session where the presenters showed us a lot of advanced Symtalk games. The book I describe here also comes with a CD, stickers, and directions. Here's a sample vocabulary page and one of the story pages:

If Symtalk books like this for ESL children don't exist, perhaps Katie or Kirsten could create something similar, using pictures of the family and their home and their possessions to tell a story.

The parents and siblings should reinforce at home what Katie covers in the English lessons, but also expose the children to songs, appropriate television programs and movies, lots of books, magazines, and poems in English, and interactions with other kids at home, on the playground, at playgroups, perhaps something like a music or gymnastics class.

Katie and the parents should check out the websites TESOL/ESL/TESL Resources and Colorin Colorado, too.

I recognize that so far these are pretty general guidelines. I'd also like to be able to suggest some specific activities that Katie can start doing the first day she meets with the kids. If you have any ideas or comments, please share them with us!

Click here for an update (as of September 2007).


  1. I did some teaching to groups of 5 year olds. The best things I found were games and outings. We did a lot of colouring, singing, dancing. Of course an 8 year old might resist this, but would definitely work for a 6 year old. We also took outings to the zoo, stores, etc.

    And like you say, she should definitely not let them know she speaks Spanish!

  2. This is the mom of these kids. My name is Kirsten. There are actually three children, aged 14, 10 and 7. They have been learning some English in their orphanage in Guatemala, but I am not sure how much they know. I have heard simple sentences like "open the window". But, clearly, their primary comfort language is Spanish. We will be doing some group work with my 11-year old and 9-year old, specifically a unit study called Exploring Countries and Cultures for History and Science. Their math and language arts will be overseen by the school district through K-12, a home-based program. It will be an adventure for all of us! What I would like to know is shall I try to translate their History/Science curriculum while teaching it? (that ought to be comical!) Katie will be a God-send to me as she works with them individually, as they are somewhat remedial.

  3. Oops...forgot to mention that they are not here yet, but should be in the next few weeks. We have visited them seven times in their Guatemala.

  4. Hi Reb and Kirsten,

    Thanks for writing in! Kirsten, this really does sound like an adventure, but from what Katie tells me, you're up for it! The history-science unit sounds like it will be really interesting. It's hard for me to say whether you should translate for the Spanish-speaking children. If they don't know 5-10% of the words in the written materials, then that's an indication that it's beyond their level and will frustrate them. If that's the case, maybe you (or one of your older children who speaks Spanish, if that's the case) can do the translating. Or perhaps the other kids studying the same unit can be in charge of writing simplified summaries of the written material? Then they're very engaged with the material and get to help "teach" it.

    But if there are also a lot of graphs, charts, maps, etc (ie visuals), then it might be easier to convey ideas in English, because you can supplement the words with pictures.

    You can also consider doing the readings in Spanish but the discussions in English (or vice versa).

    Good luck!

    Other readers, do you have any other ideas?

  5. Hi All-
    I would agree with Sarah's comments that if the material seems to be too challenging maybe one of your other kiddos could simplify the English by summarizing the lesson. If that still seems to be too much, maybe we could work together to either translate the lesson into Spanish and then require the kids to dialogue in English or vice versa...

  6. This might sound lame compare to what you already suggested. I remember some of my ESL classmates *I took ESL classes in 1995* had conversation partners who are native English speakers. They took turn chatting in each language. Probably it will work out for the eldest kid.

  7. Santi, that doesn't sound lame at all! (And given how good your English is now, your ESL classes clearly worked!) When I taught ESL, we also had Americans come as conversation partners; the students loved being able to interact with people their age and talk about "non-academic" things that interested them. Katie and Kirsten can help the Spanish-speaking kids meet native English speakers their ages.

  8. I'm interested in hearing an update on the children and how the lessons are going. Social studies were always the hardest for me to adapt to my ESL kids...well, I guess it depended on the lesson. Science and math were much easier for total beginners in English.

    One resource might be looking into sheltered content. There's quite a big age gap between 14 and 7, so I wasn't sure from the post if they were all studying the same thing at all times or how the home schooling would work. I grouped my students by age and then dealt with the different levels by age group...it worked much better than putting all the beginners together in one class of different ages. But that's just my experience and there are other formats that I'm less familiar with.

    Young children need lots of context so I rarely taught lists of verbs to beginners in an elementary setting but would present them in a context (guessing that was the intent here, anyway?). A technique that works well for young learners is the Language Experience Approach...you can sort of do a list then but it's based in a context. Hands-on, visual, game-based are good ways to reinforce language to young learners as you mentioned. You might also consider keeping notebooks, word boxes, word walls or journals to help them organize themselves and review language. The reviewing was important.

    Perhaps the most important resource for my beginning kiddos was the playground. Exposure to other kids their age is very important, so it sounds like you're on target there.

    What else? I liked the kids Oxford dictionaries and used them, but not everything in the package. We picked a theme and went from there, used the word cards and some of the activities, the minibooks from time to time.

    Oh, yeah...even though it's not currently en vogue, many ESL teachers have found phonics-based reading instruction beneficial to older students who haven't learned to read in their native language. From my own experience it really was a key component of reading instruction for certain students. There are lots of components that need to be in place for a good reading instruction program, but phonetic awareness was important. There's been a lot of research into the order that phonemic awareness develops; Words Their Way was a great resource for our school system.

    Hope this helps!

  9. Oh, and one other fantastic resource is anything TPRStorytelling. I'm a big fan...like Symtalk in a way, I guess, but with gestures.

  10. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you! It's so good to hear from someone who's done this sort of work already. I'll make sure that Katie and Kirsten are aware of these ideas.

    It seems like we (as teachers, tutors, or parents) need to combine a lot of approaches. Like you mention, phonics has both strengths and weaknesses, but some parts of it can really help. And TPR (Total Physical Response) is great, but I'm less enthusiastic about TPRS (especially its newer incarnation as "teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling") because it's so teacher-centered and doesn't allow for much personalization. But there are lots of great teachers who swear by it and whose students succeed with it. And sheltered content is definitely a good idea. And I'd forgotten about word walls--I loved doing those with my ESL adult students!

    I'll have to look into the Language Experience Approach and Words Their Way--I'm not familiar with those.

    Thanks again for all your concrete suggestions.

  11. Oh, and I'll post an update in the next week or two.