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Understanding English Language Learners: Lessons from Honduras

Trudy Knowles

Understanding English Language Learners: Lessons from Honduras“The best way to understand how to teach second language learners is to try to learn a second language yourself.” That’s what the speaker at the meeting said.


And so I embarked on a journey. I was going to learn Spanish. I had taken three years of the language more than 30 years ago, but this time I was motivated and determined. I listened to CDs in my car, bought Spanish instruction books at Barnes and Noble, ordered more from Amazon, borrowed some from the college language department, watched Spanish t.v., listened to Sunday morning church services in Spanish, listened to Spanish talk-shows on the radio, and watched 52 episodes of Destinos. Every night I studied for an hour before I went to sleep.


After a year of intensive self-study, I was ready. I searched for possibilities on the Internet in order to try my new skills and learn more about teaching English as a second language. I found a small bilingual school in Honduras that was always looking for volunteers so bought a plane ticket and headed out on my adventure.

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The speaker was right. I learned some valuable lessons in Honduras that I will translate into my work with future teachers, helping them understand the frustrations of the second language students. The lessons had less to do with how to teach than with how to get into the minds and hearts of those you are working with.


First:  It is frightening, demoralizing and, at times, humiliating to not understand. The kind, wonderful people of Honduras would talk to me, ask me questions. And I would respond: Huh? ¿Qué? ¿Cómo? What in the world are you talking about? Despacio, por favor. Slowly, please. Habla con palabras fáciles, por favor. Speak with easy words, please. The children in the school would ask me questions and my face would be blank (unless of course they were asking for permission to go to the bathroom – that I do understand). About 4,000 more vocabulary words and I might be there.


Second: It is frightening, demoralizing and, at times, humiliating to not be understood. I would try to have conversations with teachers or try to explain something to students. But why bother? Try as I might, often they could not understand me. Eventually at school and in stores and restaurants I could make myself be understood through my few words combined with body and arm gestures (except try as hard as I could, ‘pequeña carta blanca’ does not translate into ‘notecard’). But, I understand what it feels like to not be understood.


Third: It’s hard and sometimes frightening to live in a different culture. I have traveled a lot and love meeting new people and interacting with different cultures. But it can be scary. What are the values, mores, traditions? How do I excuse myself from the table? What do I do when I encounter someone on the street? Why do I only get water every other day? What happens at night? Where is the best place to get food? Where can I get drinking water? School can be equally confusing. In this small school, kids didn’t raise their hands, they interrupted, they left their desks whenever they wanted, and they copied words endlessly in their notebooks as a sign of learning. That’s not the way school works – or so I thought.


Now I understand ELL students so much better.


I understand Alvero, Ivan, Valeria, and Jonhy - the blank looks on their faces when I would ask them something in English. Where is your book? Who is the teacher? Is this a pencil? Where is the desk? I understand the not-understanding.


I understand Daniela Maria. I have a blank stare on my face as she asks me something. She looks at me frustrated and says, “No entiende – you don’t understand.” Off she goes to find someone who can.


A child has just moved into your school from Russia or Puerto Rico or Iraq. When can I sharpen my pencil? Where do I put my lunch? How do I greet the principal? What if I’m sick? They need something – the bathroom, a pencil, a bit of compassion – and you just don’t understand. Imagine the terror, the humiliation, the just not knowing.


And imagine having to learn not just English but Science, Math, History, or Geography in English. Just imagine not knowing the context for the math problems (there were three clowns in a circus . . ., a young boy is at summer camp . . ., on the snow day two boys . . .). Imagine not knowing the context for the history reading – never having heard of George Washington, the Fourth of July, or the Boston Tea Party. Imagine not having that yet having to sit in class every day anyway.


In the two weeks I was in Honduras, I learned more from my students than they learned from me. They taught me the fear, the humiliation, and the frustration of not knowing and that will make me a better teacher.


We can do better with our ELLs. We have to do better. These students, too, are the future of the world and the hope of tomorrow.


But wait, first they have to pass that high-stakes test designed for English speakers.


Oh well – I understand. I really, really understand.


What experiences have helped you better understand your students and their struggles as learners? Share in the comments section!