Back-to-school sales line the aisles of supermarkets and drug stores; children roam department stores picking out new fall clothes; and parents rush around with check-lists of items their children will need in the coming weeks and months.
Yes, the school year is about to begin.
For bilingual children, this time of year may feel a little daunting, especially for those who will be starting school for the very first time. In addition to all of the feelings that many students face on their first day of school (nervousness about what the teacher may be like, excitement about meeting new friends, concerns about what will be expected), bilingual children may have additional worries: Will they fit it? Will their English language skills be up to par. Will they understand everything that the teacher says? Will other students make fun of them because of their accent?
For teachers who are not used to working with bilingual children, there may be an assumption that to help these bilingual children feel comfortable in the classroom they will need extra attention. This may very well be the case, but if it is not done with care it can backfire. A bilingual child who already feels out of place may feel even more so if a teacher ends up giving him too much special attention. What a bilingual child may want the most is to have the chance to fit in and to be just like everyone else, not singled out due to special circumstances.
To help bilingual children the most, it is important that teachers not overdo their support. Instead, teachers should help bilingual children feel welcome and comfortable in the classroom through more subtle and gentle approaches.
Here are some tips for how teachers can gently help bilingual students shine:
- Be prepared: If possible, find out which languages and cultures are represented by the students in your classroom before school starts. This will help you know the background of your bilingual students before they even walk through the door. While putting together lesson plans, take into account your students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
- Be generic: Definitely find ways to talk about the languages and cultures of the students in your classroom but do so generically so that students don’t feel singled out. If your bilingual students decide to share information about their language and culture themselves, this is wonderful! Be supportive and encouraging. Just try not to bring too much attention to bilingual students unless you are certain that they appreciate and benefit from the attention.
- Be positive: When talking about interesting, exciting or positive elements about other languages, cultures and countries, try to pick out ones that are represented in your students. For example, if you are talking about tasty foods around the world, choose ones that happen to be in countries that your students are from. When choosing bilingual books to share with your students, pick out ones that include languages that your bilingual students speak. This will shed a positive light on the languages and cultures of your students which in turn may make your bilingual students feel even more accepted and at home in your classroom.
- Be equal: Not all bilingual children feel that they are different from their peers due to their additional languages and cultures. For these students, don’t emphasize their differences by pointing out how lucky or special they are since they are growing up with more than one language. Even though this may seem like a good idea, it could end up making a perfectly happy child feel separated from peers, which is exactly what you wouldn’t want to do. Let bilingual children share what they think makes them unique and special.
- Be supportive: For those bilingual students who feel embarrassed or uncomfortable because of their home language and culture, try to find ways to help them come to terms with why they feel different. Find out what might help them feel more accepted and appreciated. Some bilingual students want to talk about where they (or their parents) are from. They may enjoy it when other students ask questions and are interested. Just make sure that these discussions are making your bilingual students feel more positive about themselves and not less so.
Helping bilingual children gently blossom and shine can take a lot of patience but is an extremely rewarding endeavor. A supportive, understanding and gentle teacher can make all the difference in the life of a bilingual child at school. The reciprocal bonus for the teacher is the opportunity to learn about other cultures and languages through the eyes of the students. The more bilingual students a teacher has in class, the more opportunities a teacher has to truly understand and embrace cultural diversity first hand.
Book tip: For children starting school for the first time, consider sharing a bilingual edition of Tom and Sofia Start School. It is a wonderful book to help children become comfortable with their first school experiences.
Lesson plan tip: Teachers may also wish to try the “I am Unique” scavenger hunt outlined in the lesson plan “Understanding and Appreciating Cultural Differences.” Click here to access the free lesson plans.
Photo credit: L. N. Batides
Do you have experiences teaching students from other countries? What tips can you share for other teachers who have bilingual students in their classrooms?