Reluctant Learners On Our Hands?

Reluctant Learners On Our Hands?

When English Language Learners (ELLs) seemingly communicate just fine with friends and peers (in English) but rarely participate in discourse pertaining to the learning at hand, it might be easy to think that they are intentionally non-compliant or in some way deficient. When this is the case, however, there are likely a couple of things in play. First, social language tends to be picked up very quickly, as opposed to academic language that may take years to acquire because of its complexity and/or its applications. Second, people who are new to a language, and to the environment in which they encounter it, tend to go through a kind of “incubation period”. For some this silent stretch is relatively short-lived, for others it may last a long time. The upside is that during this time they may be actually processing new language. However, they may also be experiencing culture shock, having difficulty connecting any of their new experiences with their prior experience. It is also entirely possible that they feel too inadequate or embarrassed to try communicating in front of classmates in an academic setting. Forcing the issue with them won’t help either. Simply telling ELLs that they must “speak English” is somewhat like expecting to see a second moon orbiting the planet because you wished really hard that there would be one. Sorry, “that just ain’t gonna happen!” These students truly need time to adjust and to acquire new academic language, without additional pressure, and this requires our patience.

There are also divergent cultural forces at work. As with all students, an ELL’s values, background, and life experiences do impact what and how they learn as well as their interactions with others. In some cultures, for example, everybody has an equal say in things, and students may unknowingly, therefore, come across to us as brash and disrespectful. In other cultures, a young person doesn’t dare confront his/her elders and certainly not in a public setting. Hence, a lively Q&A session conducted between students and teacher may seem irreverent, or uncomfortable at the least. Respect, as understood by the student, would dictate that he or she refrain from posing questions in this context. Until such time as students in either of the above scenarios experience a shift in understanding, this type of inquiry may inadvertently send the wrong message about the other students, and even about the teacher. Combine these kinds of variables with a student’s silent attempt to “soak in” a new language, and it might just seem like we have a very reluctant learner on our hands. However, if we simply default to that perspective we may never know otherwise, which is a disservice to the student. Alternately, we may well find that displaying patience and giving the benefit of the doubt results in revealing something entirely different to us about such students and their ways.


Postscript humor: