Lesson 10 - Tutoring English Language Learners Illinois State Library
English as a Second Language (ESL): Native Language Literacy and Cultural Sensitivity
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English language learners bring different challenges to the tutoring situation. Two of those challenges may be a lack of literacy in their native language and cultural norms different from those of their tutor. These external factors have an impact on instruction.
Native Language Literacy
The learner who was born in another nation may not have had access to education in their native country. This lack can be traced back to such factors as poverty or war. Some English language learners do not have literacy skills in their native language that could assist them as they learn a second language. Some learners have not been exposed to reading, writing or arithmetic in any language. Some learners speak a written native language that they have not learned to read and write. And some learners may speak a language that has no writing.
These facts do not mean that the learner cannot become literate in English. These facts do mean that the learner is starting at an earlier level of literacy (pre-literacy) than someone who can read and write in his or her native language.
In the case of learners who speak a language that does not have writing, the learner would not have the vocabulary and concepts of literacy to refer to as they learn English. Tutors need to be aware that for these learners, language concepts need to be taught using methods like modeling rather than explanation.
For those students who are not literate in their native language but whose language has writing, the concepts of literacy, and the words for those concepts, like "reading" and "writing", may need to be taught. These learners need to learn the English vocabulary words to discuss and study the concepts they are learning.
Some learners may have verbal skills in English. An ESL learner who can converse comfortably in English is not necessarily comfortable in reading or writing English. Some learners may have been taught English in their native countries. They may have reading and writing skills and limited oral ability. Instruction for learners who have some reading and writing ability in English but no oral skills should take their skills into account. Becoming proficient in English takes time, exposure to the language, and effective instructional strategies.
In addition to learning the English language, ESL learners must learn about U.S. cultural norms and behaviors, as well as new academic concepts and vocabulary.
As a tutor, it is your responsibility to respect the cultural norms of your learner whatever those norms may be. Learners from other nations may have different religious or cultural requirements as to dress, to eating, to personal interaction and to many other behaviors. Your role is to appreciate and respect their culture while gently and respectfully introducing U.S. norms and behaviors. U.S. norms are not the "right" norms, but they are the norms that the ESL learners will have to understand as they live in the U.S. Cultural issues are a rich source of conversation and discussion, but also a possible source of misunderstanding and miscommunication. As the tutor, you must be sensitive to those possibilities.
Here are a few examples of differing cultural norms you may want to be aware of as you teach ESL learners:
- Eye contact. Some ESL learners, such as those from Middle Eastern, Asian, or African countries, may avoid direct eye contact, especially with someone who is in authority, as a sign of respect. They may feel more comfortable looking down or away. Don't misinterpret this behavior as evasive or disrespectful.
- Interpersonal speaking distances. Some ESL learners, such as those from Latin American countries, have differing norms about personal space. They may stand next to or speak with another person at a closer distance than is commonly accepted in the U.S. This behavior can be interpreted as an invasion of personal space. Be aware that this behavior can cause difficulties when learners of different cultures are working in pairs.
- Clothing style. Some ESL learners wear traditional clothing from their native country. Their culture or religion may require the learner to cover their head with a turban or to wear a long skirt. Tutors need to respect the cultural reasons for clothing that differs from the U.S. norm.
- Diet. Some ESL learners may be required to eat or not to eat certain foods at certain times. Be aware that using food as a teaching tool may be a problem if there are cultural prohibitions against touching that food. Be aware that learners who have experienced starvation may find using food as a teaching tool to be wasteful and therefore offensive.
- Gender roles. Some ESL learners have constraints against mixed gender groupings. Be aware that some learners may not be able to participate with a learner of another gender.
Impact of Cultural Differences on Instruction
All of the examples of cultural norms listed above might have an impact on instruction. As a tutor, think about a potential student who looks down when you are instructing him or her. Will you interpret this behavior as a lack of interest? Tutors should work to recognize cultural differences and then learn how to compensate. In the case of downcast eyes, perhaps both learner and tutor can look at a piece of instructional material together. Vary your instructional strategies to find the types that are most productive for your learner.
In addition, be aware that the way in which we learn and teach in the U.S. is part of our culture and may differ significantly from the learner's educational culture. In some nations memorization is the norm and the teacher is the expert. Learners are not expected to have opinions, and certainly are not expected to express their own opinions. Some learners from these backgrounds will find it hard to give an opinion on what they should learn. In fact, they may feel that the tutor is not doing their job by asking such a question of them.
Learners from these backgrounds also do not understand the concept of "study' as we use the term. When told to "study" material, they expect to be told what to memorize and are not clear exactly what to study. When such a learner is told to do homework but not told what to memorize they do not know what is expected. If the learner is non-literate, they may have no concept how, why or when to study or to do homework. Homework is a culturally based behavior that may need to be taught.
Asking questions is not the only way to learn, but it is the U.S. way to learn. Collaborative learning strategies and active participation are common tutoring practices that may be strange to a newcomer to this nation. Explain what you are doing and change methods that don't work so that the ESL learner is both comfortable and able to improve his or her English skills.
Adapting Tutoring for ESL Learners
When working with an ESL learner, the tutor may need to modify his or her own speech. You need to enunciate clearly and slowly. Pause between sentences or thought groups. Use gestures and visual aids to clarify the concept. Use key words frequently. Talk slowly, repeat, and paraphrase until understanding is reached. Do not speak louder. The difficulty is not in their hearing ability. Avoid using idioms (e.g. "wild goose chase" for a useless quest) and slang (e.g. "buck" to mean a dollar) words. Avoid euphemisms (e.g. "hit the hay" to mean go to bed) and colloquialisms (e.g. "gonna" instead of "going to").
When ESL learners speak, focus on their message instead of their grammatical skills and accuracy. Respond using the proper grammatical form instead of openly correcting their mistakes.