At the beginning of each term, one of my biggest challenges is always determining which students are still learning English or are speaking English as a second language. Students bring a diverse range of backgrounds and needs to the classroom, yet because of their diversity, the support each individual student needs can be dramatically different. The NCTE Position Paper on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners (ELLs) explains:
Bilingual students differ in various ways, including level of oral English proficiency, literacy ability in both the heritage language and English, and cultural backgrounds. English language learners born in the United States often develop conversational language abilities in English but lack academic language proficiency. Newcomers, on the other hand, need to develop both conversational and academic English. Education previous to entering U.S. schools helps determine students’ literacy levels in their native language. Some learners may have age-/grade-level skills, while others have limited or no literacy because of the quality of previous schooling, interrupted schooling due to wars or migration, and other circumstances (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). Given the wide range of English language learners and their backgrounds, it is important that all teachers take the time to learn about their students, particularly in terms of their literacy histories.As a teacher, I have to use whatever resources I can to determine students previous experience with the English language and the support that each student needs. Short of interviewing students and their families, however, it can be difficult to obtain detailed information on students’ backgrounds. Perhaps the best place to start is with what students themselves can tell us about their language and educational background—and even more specifically, with students names.
Names are crucial to our identity, which makes them a great starting point for investigations of who we are. Students from middle to college levels can investigate the meanings and origins of their own names in order to establish their own personal histories and to explore cultural significance of naming traditions with the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Investigating Names to Explore Personal History and Cultural Traditions. Using an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street as a model, students can write their own short papers that reveal who they are and how their names connect to their linguistic heritage.
Younger students can complete similar explorations of their names, based on picture books such as The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (Dragonfly, 2003) or My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recorvits (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).
Once I explore students names, I move on to deeper literacy narratives and language exploration that gives me more details on the best ways to support students (such as shown in the ReadWriteThink lesson Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” and Beyond), but what better way to get started learning about students than asking “Who are you?”