August 30, 2008

Alone, Confused, and Frustrated: Developing Empathy and Strategies for Working With English Language Learners

By Washburn, Gay N

Abstract: In many states, the rapidly increasing number of English language learners (ELLs) presents new challenges for undergraduate education programs. In addition, because areas with the most rapid growth generally have little history of educating the ELL population, there may be a corresponding lack of understanding of and empathy for ELLs. The author describes a language shock class that develops empathy for ELLs among preservice teachers, develops strategies for teaching ELLs, and promotes understanding of second language acquisition. Analysis of preservice teachers' reactions to the shock class helped them brainstorm strategies for working effectively with ELLs. Keywords: empathy, English language learners, language shock class, preservice teacher training

Recently, a class of middle school practicum students discussed the classes they were observing. About one-third of them noticed the presence of English language learners (ELLs) in the observation class. However, when their university teacher asked how each classroom teacher worked with the ELLs, the preservice teachers shook their heads, looked puzzled, or frowned. Several said the teacher did not work differently with the ELLs. Another said his teacher tried but did not know any methods for working with them. For these preservice teachers, information on how to teach ELLs is unlikely to come from their practicum or student teaching placements. In this article, I examine how these preservice teachers can learn to work successfully with the student population they are sure to encounter.

In Kentucky, as in other states, the number of culturally and linguistically diverse students in the classroom has grown, and all projections indicate that this number will continue to increase. U.S. Department of Education (Kindler 2002) statistics show the number of ELLs in public schools more than doubled in the last decade of the twentieth century. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that 40 percent of the student population in 2030 will be ELLs (Herrera and Murry 2005). These students are increasing not only in coastal states and large urban areas but also dramatically in the Midwest and South (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs 2005). Furthermore, although many teachers already find ELLs in their classrooms, only 12.5 percent have participated in more than eight hours of training or professional development on how to work with ELLs (National Center for Education Statistics 2002). How do they work with them? Some are prepared to wait until they think the student can understand the class content, regardless of what the student may miss in the meantime. Others may avoid the issue or assume it is someone else's problem, such as the English as a second language teacher. However, for ELL students in middle school and high school these coping strategies come at a high cost because the ELLs miss the content they need to maintain grade-level learning and continue their cognitive development. Knowing the number of ELLs is increasing, the importance of making their classroom time count, and the dearth of models available to preservice teachers in their practicum and student teaching, how can we effectively prepare teacher education students who will teach ELLs in secondary schools?

Language Shock Class

As the ESL teacher educator in my college, I was invited to discuss teaching ELL students with undergraduate education students before they began their initial teaching practicum. Because of the complex nature of second language acquisition and the range of issues and attitudes, this is not easy. However, an experiential learning activity develops empathy and can stimulate thinking about strategies for improving communication across the language barriers. Therefore, I gave them a language shock class in Chinese. They tried to learn to read numbers in Chinese, using a level-one textbook for Chinese children. The task is cognitively undemanding, but the experience was still meaningful, as evidenced by student reactions.

After the Chinese reading lesson the class broke into groups to write down what they understood, how they felt during the lesson, and how the lesson could have been made more comprehensible to them. No one understood much of the lesson's content, with the exception of a few words. In terms of their reactions, all groups responded that they were confused. They also reported being frustrated, feeling lost, feeling stupid or dumb, and being overwhelmed. Some also reported being bored or tuning out the lesson, which lasted about ten minutes. The most surprising response, which eight of the ten groups reported, was that they felt left out, out of place, excluded, or alone. The single positive response came when they understood something: One group wrote, "We understood Beijing and it made us happy." Where do these feelings come from and what can classroom teachers do to avoid or lessen the negative feelings in their students?

Confusion is a natural response to a new system when people do not know how they are supposed to act or what they are expected to do. As in most classrooms in the United States, I gave my instructions and the lesson's objectives in the language of instruction: Chinese. Those who could not understand Chinese (virtually everyone) had to figure out what to do from previous experience, by watching others, or by guessing. Confusion also arose over the lesson's content. The lesson had pictures that went with the text; however, not knowing the lesson's objectives or the text's meaning made it almost impossible for the illustrations to be useful. On one level students knew they were in a class and reading the text, but what it meant or how to read it was a mystery.

Although they knew there were no consequences for not learning or not understanding, they reported being nervous, as shown by their occasional nervous laughter. The experience made them so uncomfortable they "couldn't wait for it to be finished." This level of frustration is unproductive in students at any level, leading only to self-blame (I must be stupid not to understand), hopelessness (There is no sense in continuing to try), or boredom (It does not concern or interest me). These responses will not help a student's language acquisition or content learning and may inculcate long-term negative attitudes toward schooling.

I was surprised by the response that the students felt alone. They were in a room with about fifty-five classmates with whom they were acquainted and shared the same native language, who also did not understand Chinese and were undergoing the same experience, yet many felt excluded, out of place, left out, and alone. A student in a setting in which he or she is the linguistic minority must feel so much more alone and excluded.

The undergraduate education students had many suggestions for how the lesson could be conducted to make the learning experience easier and more effective. Students wanted more or better pictures. They realized I was using body language to teach them, but they thought it could be improved. The students suggested teaching more slowly and providing translations. These responses illustrate how subjective the learning experience is; whether such supports (body language, pictures, pace) are sufficient depends on what the learner already knows about the language, the context, and the subject area. Pictures, for example, are an abstraction of a thing and not necessarily recognizable by others outside the specific culture. Does Barney really look like a dinosaur? What does a loaf of bread look like: Wonder Bread, a baguette, or pita bread? Do people in the specific culture eat bread regularly? For a picture to be useful, it has to be recognizable to the viewer. The text's illustration of a typical Chinese National Day celebration, complete with Chinese children dressed in various national minority costumes, did not remind these U.S. students of the date of that celebration (October 1). It was just a picture of a bunch of children. In body language, I used the Chinese gestures for the numbers, which any Chinese child would know, but which are not the same as those we use in the United States. As a result, none of the students realized I was gesturing the numbers. In terms of pace, I felt the lesson was excruciatingly slow. We covered ten numbers in ten minutes. To someone trying to repeat and understand strange combinations of sounds, it was too fast. The call for translations is interesting in view of the general reluctance in the United States to support bilingual or foreign language education. Translation would have made these students more comfortable, yet classroom teachers protest that they do not know the various languages that ELLs bring to the classroom and should not be expected to learn them.

What can teachers do to make ELLs welcome in their classrooms and to make them learners, not just children standing in the wings waiting to learn? Judging by the reactions of the preservice teachers in the language shock class, avoiding confusion, frustration, and alienation are the first steps. Teachers should focus on making ELLs feel they belong and ensuring that students understand most of what is going on. Addressing ELLs' Needs


The preservice teachers in the language shock class felt alone, despite knowing their classmates were in the same situation. ELLs, who are often part of a minority group, may feel even more isolated and alienated from their classmates. To benefit and learn in the classroom, students of all ages need to feel they belong, have a place, and know their environment. They need to feel they are unique, are recognized as themselves, and belong socially and have the rights and duties of membership in a given society. In middle schools, some ways we might develop this feeling are through the advisory program, teaming, and exploratory curriculum.

A strong advisory program ensures that new ELLs know their schedule and know how it changes during the week. When we belong in a place, we know our way around; make sure students know important places: the cafeteria, library, restrooms, and emergency exits. Help ELLs feel they belong by knowing their name and being able to say it correctly. Assign them or help them find a partner who can help them throughout the term. The teaching team can pool their knowledge about the ELLs to find connections in the various subject areas to the ELLs' backgrounds. Relating classwork to their home country when appropriate acknowledges the presence of the ELLs and gives them a familiar connection. For example, if an ELL is from Japan, in geology the teacher might use the mountains and geological formations of Japan to exemplify a process; in language arts, the teacher might incorporate an additional Japanese story relating to the appropriate theme; in math, word problems might include statistics from Japan; and in social sciences, examples from Japan help the ELL and his or her classmates compare and contrast systems. Teaming also gives the ELL and his or her classmates more time to get to know each other and work collaboratively. Teachers should plan an exploratory curriculum to give ELLs the chance to find compatible friends and to shine. Maybe a student plays soccer well, is a whiz at chess or the violin, or is an avid reader of manga (Japanese comics). Give ELLs opportunities through these exploratory classes to find things they share with classmates. Let them teach their classmates something simple, such as a greeting in their native language or counting, so they are not the only ones learning a new language. This also gives them a chance to be the expert.


Students in the Chinese shock class were confused and frustrated because they could not understand what they were supposed to be learning or what the content meant. Comprehension is key to avoiding making students feel stupid or frustrated. Check what the students know. In some subject areas, ELLs may be at a more advanced level than U.S. students. If you have an ELL who is not ready to or does not want to speak, you can ask him or her to point to the objects identified by the other students, helping as needed. For example, a student might point to various events on a timeline that another student names or describes; in science, an ELL might point to various stages of the life cycle of an insect. Use multiple representations of key items where possible-for example, a photo of a bear and a toy bear to supplement the illustration of a bear. If you anticipate some key terms will be difficult, look up a translation ahead of time. There are many good dictionaries online. You might give ELLs the list of key terms ahead of time. When you speak, pause between phrases rather than speaking slowly. If the ELL does not respond, give him or her more time. If he or she still does not respond, then repeat what you said. Repeat rather than paraphrase. When comprehending a foreign language, we need more time to process what we have heard, and when people switch to a new structure, we often lose what we have already understood in the maze of the new structure.

Make sure your body language is visible and noticed by the ELLs and that it is congruent with what you are talking about; in the chemistry lab, do not hold the test tube while you are talking about how to use the Bunsen burner. Say everything at least three of several ways: speech; written words, drawings, diagrams on the board, or photos; actual objects; or action. Do not rely solely on the students' listening comprehension. Many students who come to the United States after having studied some English in school have better reading comprehension than aural comprehension. You might give them notes to follow as you speak, rather than asking them to rely only on their ear. You could also ask them to review an outline of the topic the day before. Use manipulatives to illustrate what you mean, and, when possible, let the students manipulate them. Check comprehension by watching their actions and asking them to do or say something, not just nod yes. Let them use single words or phrases to answer, if necessary; draw pictures or point to pictures or drawings; or manipulate objects. Scaffold their responses and affirm what they know. In scaffolding, the teacher poses questions suitable to the student's linguistic ability (yes or no questions and one-word questions for beginners) and takes into consideration their content knowledge. Affirm their knowledge by restructuring their short answers into longer sentences (recasting the answer so it is correct in content and grammar) and affirming what they already know. If you are discussing immigration, ask them about their experience or opinion. If you are discussing earthquakes and have students from Japan, ask them if they have felt an earthquake. Do not let them drift to the edge of the classroom. Give them an active role, even if their understanding is not complete.


As an ESL teacher and linguist, I often wish all teachers were required to study a foreign language, not so much to achieve a high level of proficiency (although that would be good) but because the study of a foreign language reduces us all, on occasion, to the often frustrated and confused state that ELLs experience. Such an occurrence can develop empathy and a willingness to try various strategies to help ELLs in the classroom. It may encourage us to be more patient, look for extra materials, try harder to pronounce a strange name, wait a minute longer for a student to comprehend and formulate an answer, or take an extra five minutes to look up a word in another language. As the education students learned from trying to read in Chinese, being unable to comprehend the language of instruction in school often leads to strong negative emotions. Language is tied to how we see ourselves and how others see us. In schools, language is the most basic tool of learning. With ELLs in middle school and high school, we cannot take this tool for granted. It is imperative that all teachers think carefully about how they support and supplement second language development.


Herrera, S., and K. Murry. 2005. Mastering ESL and bilingual methods. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Kindler, A. 2002. Survey of the states' limited English proficient students and available educational programs and services. (accessed June 10, 2008).

National Center for Education Statistics. 2002. Schools and staffing survey, 1999-2000: Overview of the data for public, private, public charter, and Bureau of Indian Affairs elementary and secondary schools (NCES 2002-313). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. 2005. The growing numbers of limited English proficient students 1993/94-2003/04. http:// GrowingLEP_0304_Dec05.pdf (accessed June 10, 2008).

Gay N. Washburn, PhD, teaches in the College of Education and Human Services, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights, Kentucky.

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