By: Leah Qiu
“I made a rainbow,” 4-year-old Sana said, pointing at the swift streaks of blue, pink, purple, brown and green across her paper.
Molly Winship, graduate student intern and Kindergarten Prep teacher, stops what she’s doing- head in a swivel and her mouth drops to the floor. “That’s the first full English sentence she’s said!” Molly exclaims, “This is amazing.”
Molly Winship, Kindergarten Prep Teacher
Molly has been teaching kids ages 3-5 for the past six years but this is her first time ever teaching an English Language Learner (ELL) class. “My previous students had a pretty good grasp on English already. Cultural context is one thing that they were really familiar with.” Molly said, “So [at RMWC] I can’t really explain what’s going on to these kids, they have to intuit what’s happening. I have to be way more methodical about how I communicate non-verbally with these kids. I make a big effort to demonstrate things in a consistent and predictable way.”
Twice a week, 9 kids are part of the Kindergarten Prep class while their parents are learning English upstairs. Legos, a play kitchen, baby dolls, water, paint, crayons, blocks, books, snacks (an all-around group favorite) are incorporated into the class. Language is taught through books, games and puzzles. “They’re cognitively capable of understanding more complicated books but the language that goes along with the stories isn’t necessarily what they need reinforced at the current moment,” Molly said, “I try to keep it at their cognitive level.”
Burnout among students is an unfortunate but realistic thing to see from kids learning English as a second language. “They have language – they speak in their first language fluently, so they’re kind of going back a step,” Molly said,” I think that they burn out quickly because of that. I feel like it can be really frustrating for them.” Forcing language or demanding a kid repeat a word in English has been found by Molly to be non-beneficial. As educators, fostering a sense of joy in learning English should come from meeting kids where they’re at and letting them learn it on their own terms. “I am even learning some of their language along the way,” Molly said, “Sana and Asmar both speak Farsi and can talk to each other. When one of them says something the other tries to translate it to English the best way they can, it's super cute.”
Repetition and positive reinforcement when kids speak English are what Molly has found that works for getting kids excited about responding in English. “I use language as a reinforcer way more so [than with US students],” Moly said, “I’m narrating things they do and saying things back to them multiple times, which I would do in a US preschool setting but I do so a lot more here.” When children are seeing educators excited about their progress, they are more willing to use English. Negative reinforcement only increases stress and promotes the idea of shame or failure.
Sana Painting during the morning Kindergarten Prep class
Before Sana came to the Rocky Mountain Welcome Center, she spoke no English. Immigrating from Afghanistan with her mother, father and brother, Sana’s parents came for the reason many other immigrant parents do- to build a safer life for their children.
“When Sana first started, she could not speak any English at all. She was just pointing at things. Last week she made a whole sentence in English. This is a huge achievement,” Diana Higuera, executive director at RMWC said, “Even when looking at her personality, she is growing. Last week she made a joke! From the social-emotional perspective she has evolved a lot, and very fast.”
Social-emotional learning is also a large part of what Molly incorporates into her classroom. “A large focus is surrounding social-emotional learning,” Molly said, “I want them to be able to integrate into an English school and know how to interact with other kids, on top of learning English.”
Supporting dual language learner (DLL) success is a priority of the Kindergarten Prep class. In a study reviewed by “The Migration Policy Institute”, it was stated that “Much work has gone into defining overall good practice and quality conditions ... but with little focus on the unique needs of children whose families do not speak English at home.” (Hurwitzs & Olsen, 2018) Our goal at RMWC is to tailor education in order to benefit this overlooked niche of kids before they are sent into the US education system. Having classrooms of students from multiple backgrounds is beneficial because there is the possibility of fostering cross-cultural and metalinguistic awareness. The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model SEAL model was created through evidence-based research on how to meet the needs of children whose families do not speak English at home. The SEAL model has four main concepts…
(1) a focus on the development of powerful, precise, academic language
(2) the creation of content- and language-rich and affirming environments
(3) articulation across grades and alignment of the preschool and K-3 systems
(4) strong partnerships between families and schools.
(Hurwitzs & Olsen, 2018)
Meeting kids where they are at and honoring their cultural and family systems is a focus of SEAL and how the RMWC Kindergarten Prep class is run.
For most of these kids, if they do not attend a US preschool, their sense of community will be within the community they know. Kindergarten will be the first time some immigrant children will interact with US children and US culture in general. As they go off into the public-school system, it is critical that educators receive them with an understanding of cultural values and holistic view of human experience. It is vital that these children are supported and that educators are aware of stressors or external factors that might be affecting immigrant children that are different than other US children. At RMWC, we also have services to educate parents/guardians about the US public school system to better integrate them into the process as well.
Link to register:
Hurwitz, Anya and Laurie Olsen. 2018. Supporting Dual Language Learner Success in Superdiverse PreK-3 Classrooms: The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.