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Giving English Language Learners a Voice

Published: May 04, 2015

When my son was in preschool, I volunteered on multiple occasions to help with special events and field trips. At one of his first parties, I remember walking around the classroom, helping children with their crafts and commenting on what a good job they were doing. The students were excited – some were jumping out of their seats, asking for help, and others were chatting, sometimes a little too loudly, with other students nearby. And then I remember seeing this one little girl, sitting quietly at her desk, watching the other students. I went over to talk to her and to help her with the craft. She looked at me and then looked away. I tried a bit more, but soon another child was pulling me away for help. I went to the teacher to ask if the little girl was OK. “She’s a new student, and she doesn’t speak English yet.” At the time, she was the only child in the class who was an English Language Learners (ELL) student.

Put yourself in that little girl’s shoes for a minute. Can you imagine how scary, confusing, and upsetting it could be to be surrounded by people who are speaking a language that you don’t understand? You might feel like crawling into a hole. Or maybe you are just taking it all in (probably a mix of both!). I now understand that this little girl, like many ELL students, was probably experiencing a “silent period”. As explained by Stephen Krashen, a respected linguist and researcher in the fields of second-language acquisition and bilingual education, a “silent period” is the phase during which “the child is building up competence in the second language via listening, by understanding the language around him.”

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With the pressure on schools and their students to perform well, especially in English proficiency, frequent assessments do not allow much time for ESL/ELL or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students to catch up, let alone have an extended silent period to become comfortable enough with English before speaking it!. 

GrapeSEED keeps students engaged through repeated exposure to songs, stories, chants, big books, poems, and action activities. These materials build meaning behind the text to help children understand what they are hearing, saying, and reading. With such an exciting and interactive daily lesson, children are also more likely to participate sooner, shrinking the silent period and accelerating the stages of language learning.

What can this mean for schools? Soaring test scores. More importantly, what can this mean for students like the quiet little girl in my son’s class? Confidence to have a voice, not only in the classroom but in life outside of the school doors.

Erin Reeder

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