English Language Learners and the "Hidden Curriculum"

English Language Learners and the "Hidden Curriculum"

by Judie Haynes

Teachers of English language learners know the importance of teaching their students to use English in socially and culturally appropriate ways in a variety of situations.

The goal of teachers of ELLs is to help interact with adults and peers in both formal and informal settings. English language learners need to be specifically taught social skills such as how to greet people, to give and receive compliments, to apologize, and to make polite requests. They need to know when to use their native language and when this is not appropriate. Students need to understand nonverbal language and proxemics. They need to be able to discover the appropriate voice tones, volumes, and language for different school settings.

The need for teaching socially and culturally appropriate language in social situations is evident every day in our classes. We have all had students who use the same language when speaking to a teacher that they would use when talking to a peer. I once had a beginning ESL student who had learned how to say "yeah, yeah, yeah" to friends during recess. He couldn't say or understand much else in English. Whenever I gave him directions, he would reply, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." I had a difficult time making him comprehend that this was inappropriate language for a child to use to an adult. I finally taught him to say, "Yes, Mrs. Haynes" but I needed to have a translator explain why "yeah, yeah, yeah" was unsuitable for the classroom.

The same thing occurs when a second language speaker swears in class. An excited ESL student in my school recently used an "x-rated" expression in his third grade classroom. The teacher was understandably distressed and required that the student write an apology for homework. Even more upsetting to the teacher was that the student's parents did not take the infraction of school rules seriously. I explained to her that swearing does not have the same "shock" value in a person's second language as it does in their first. So the parents were not "shocked" by their child's use of this language. What is considered "shocking" or inappropriate language for the classroom must sometimes be directly taught.

Use role playing to teach good manners

I believe that teaching our ESL students what is considered good manners in the United States is very important. This is no way means that our ESL students are ill-mannered. Norms for social interchanges vary from culture to culture. What is expected of children also changes between cultures.

I spend a lot of time teaching students how to give and receive compliments, to thank someone for something, to answer the telephone, to ask directions, and to make small talk. Role playing, teacher modeling, peer modeling, and video are all good tools for teaching these social skills. Have students learn how to observe their peers for models of correct behavior. Use real incidents that come up in your class. Have students practice saying "good morning" and "good-by" to their teachers and classmates right from the beginning. Encourage classroom teachers to set expectations for these behaviors. Mainstream teachers need to receive special training so that they learn about some of the cultural differences in manners and behavior. You don't want teachers to over-react when a student won't make eye contact or relates to other children by touching them all the time, or smiles at inappropriate times.

Teaching students appropriate times to use native language and English is a lesson I also cover in my ESL class. I have students brainstorm when it is appropriate to speak native language during the school day. I am looking for responses such as "before school," "lunchtime," "on the playground," "in the bathroom," or " in the hallway." Then we look for occasions during the instructional day that students might need to speak native language: To ask a peer for help; to explain something urgent or complicated to the teacher and to give or receive an explanation of material that isn't understood in English; We then look for circumstances when it would be impolite or inappropriate to speak native language. An example of this would be when someone is being left out because they don't speak the native language.

Many educators believe that English language learners will acquire socially appropriate behavior and language simply by being with English-speaking natives. I don't think this should be left to chance.


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