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Helping an ELL student at square one

New York Teacher

Antonio didn’t speak any English. It’s not just that he spoke haltingly or made frequent mistakes — he was a genuine, square-one beginner when I met him in my English as a new language class in September. He was on time, seated up straight in the front row, smiling. He was a high school freshman, he’d been in this country for just weeks and he was clearly ready to learn.

Great! But was I ready to teach him?

This has been my first year as a public school teacher in New York City. My school is located in one of Brooklyn’s notoriously rough neighborhoods. It’s a place gentrification hasn’t touched — no artisanal cheese shops in sight. More than one of my school’s students caught a bullet over the summer (and survived).

But I was ready for that; it’s what I signed up for. What I wasn’t ready for, I quickly realized, was the challenge of bringing an absolute beginner up to academic speed so he could excel in school like one of his native-English-speaking peers. Where was I even supposed to begin?

Although the ability to speak Spanish helped me to bridge some of the barriers to establishing rapport with Antonio, the fact remained that this kid had four years until he would be expected to pass the same ELA Regents as everyone else. I felt for him.

In addition to beginning my class with some basic present-tense verbs and sentence structure, I introduced some academic vocabulary right away. I wanted Antonio and the others to immediately have at least a sense of what they were being asked to do in their other classes. I tried to pick some high-impact words, the kinds of words that appear in almost every class: analyze, annotate, prove, summarize, review, etc. I drilled those words, practicing them in dialogues, in choral responses, in reading and writing.

Sometime later, I was sitting with Antonio and a few other English languages learners as they took a science test. It was obvious that much of the material was impenetrable for them. But then, in the middle of puzzling his way through a question, Antonio turned and looked at me. He had recognized a word, and he said it out loud to me, wearing that smile I remembered from his first day of class: “Summarize,” he said proudly.

I almost laughed out loud. “Yeah,” I smiled back at him. “Good.”

Antonio failed the test. And he failed many, many more throughout the year. Yet his recognizing that word was a start for both of us. He’d learned something and felt good about it — and I’d figured out, maybe, how to teach something. I felt pretty good about that, too.

I won’t lie: I’ve had more failures than successes this year. What I’ve learned more than anything as a new teacher is what doesn’t work. I’ve worn out the soles of my shoes running up so many blind alleys and down so many dead ends. But you know what? That just gets me excited to do it all again next year and do it better.

Antonio isn’t ready to take the English Regents yet — not by a long shot. But he’s a little closer. In September, we get back to work.