Linguistic diversity and classroom management

Linguistic diversity and classroom management

Mary Elizabeth Curran

In spite of the growing linguistic diversity in U.S. classrooms, many teachers are not being adequately prepared to work with English language learners (ELLs). One area of particular concern for teachers is how to manage today’s linguistically diverse classrooms. This article suggests ways educators can reflect on English language learners” needs and consider the implications for classroom management. The author focuses on the need to (a) understand the perspective of ELLs and the natural responses to being immersed in a second language, (b) use pedagogical strategies that aid in second language acquisition, and (c) create a classroom climate that affirms linguistic diversity.

MANY GRADE-LEVEL TEACHERS feel at a loss when it comes to teaching their English language learners (ELLs). In spite of the growing linguistic diversity in U.S. classrooms, teachers in general are not being adequately prepared to work with students from diverse linguistic backgrounds. Reagan (1997) and Zeichner (2002), among others, discuss the urgency of providing some training in applied linguistics in teacher education programs. Several scholars have responded to this need, sharing their knowledge and offering advice regarding working with ELLs. For example, Fillmore and Snow (2000) and Reagan (1997) outline the background knowledge teachers need in areas such as language and linguistics, language development, second language acquisition, cultural diversity, and sociolinguistics. On a more practical level, Cary (2000) has written, Working With Second Language Learners: Answers to Teachers’ Top Ten Questions. This article adds to the body of literature of what teachers need to know about working with ELLs with a specific focus on the implications of linguistic diversity for classroom management.

Classroom management is of paramount concern for both new and veteran teachers. A teacher’s management decision-making process becomes even more complex when she or he doesn’t speak the first language of students who are new to U.S. classrooms. The usual tried-and-true techniques that function for English-speaking students familiar with the culture of U.S. classrooms may not always work with this new population of students. However, this does not mean that a teacher will not be successful. It simply requires reflection on the specific needs of ELLs and the implications for management decisions. This will reduce the likelihood for linguistic and cultural miscommunication and conflict. It will also help ensure a successful educational experience that does not discriminate against these learners because of their English language abilities.

To aid in my discussion, I draw upon my experiences when I’ve conducted workshops about working with ELLs to mostly monolingual English-speaking pre- and in-service teachers. In particular, I will focus on the need to (a) understand the perspective of ELLs and the natural responses to being immersed in a second language, (b) use pedagogical strategies that aid in second language acquisition, and (c) create a classroom climate that affirms linguistic diversity.

Consciousness Raising: What It’s Like to Be an ELL

When I’m invited to talk to pre- and in-service teachers about working with ELLs in U.S. classrooms, I start my workshops in Spanish. I speak only Spanish as I introduce myself and write my name on the chalkboard. As I begin, I notice that some participants have blank stares, some look tentatively at me and one another, others giggle nervously, while others nod along in comprehension. After a brief description of my background and my plan for the workshop, I (still speaking in Spanish) ask the participants to take out a sheet of paper and number it from 1 to 10. When they give me puzzled looks, I hold up a sheet of paper, and they pull out sheets of paper. I count, “uno, dos, tres,” and they number their pages from uno a diez. Then I ask them to answer the question: “?Quien eres?” I write this on the chalkboard and use myself as an example:

1. mujer

2. madre

3. esposa

4. blanca

5. maestra, etc.

When students seem confused, I ask a participant who does understand to translate the assignment to the others. “She wants you to write who you are.” After they begin writing, I ask the students if they are finished, tell them to work rapidamente, and, after they’ve written their responses (although some students write nothing and others stare at me angrily), I finally switch to English, asking, “Would you mind if I speak English now?” This question is usually greeted with sighs of relief and laughter.

It’s clear to the participants why I have chosen to begin in Spanish: “You want to give us the feeling that some of our students have everyday.” “Yes,” I reply. And I ask, “What did it feel like?” The participants begin to call out comments:

I couldn’t understand you, so I just tuned out until you spoke English.

I was angry; it seemed like a waste of my time.

I thought I was in the wrong workshop, that this was going to be completely in Spanish.

It was tiring. I had to strain to catch bits and pieces of what you said.

I liked it. I could understand you.

I ask them to reflect on the behavior in the group while I spoke in Spanish. They make comments such as:

We were laughing; we were off task.

We spoke English together.

Susan translated it into English for us.

It took us a long time to do the assignment.

Then I ask what this brief experience might mean for those who teach and manage classrooms with ELLs present. Our discussions have brought up the following key points and their ramifications for classroom management.

Implications for Classroom Management We need to understand, expect, and feel comfortable with the natural responses (e.g., laughter, first language use, silence, and fatigue) that occur when our students participate in interactions in which they are not completely proficient in the language.

The participants discussed how the initial activity had made many of them feel nervous and uncomfortable. Their responses (laughter, speaking in English, and expressions of anger) are often the types of behaviors for which we reprimand our ELLs. When we hear our students laugh, we may be quick to respond with a request for silence. However, this laughter may have a very natural and therapeutic function for ELLs who feel out of their element. Moreover, a request for silence may not allow students of similar language background the opportunity to support each other through quick translations of classroom instructions. When we hear students speak their first languages, we often demand that they speak only English in the classroom. Our simulation showed how first language use can serve as a vehicle for the students to negotiate an assignment and actually help them stay on task. The results of this simulation coincide with research that shows that when students’ first languages are valued and fostered–either through bilingual education or other first language support–they are actually more successful academically because they are allowed to draw on a richer and larger source of background schemata (Cummins, 1980, 1981; Hakuta, 1986).

Often teachers become nervous when students speak their first language, thinking, “They’re talking about me.” If a teacher acts threatened by or displays resentment for the first language, it’s possible that students will speak about him or her. However, it is more likely that if a teacher demonstrates his or her respect and understanding for the support that occasional first language use provides, students will have little motivation to speak behind a teacher’s back. It is when a teacher appears insensitive or uncompromising that students respond with anger. A good approach is for a teacher to discuss his or her reasons for allowing students to use their first language in class with the students. For example, teachers can explain how they understand that native language use can be helpful in their learning process. At the same time, they can also question students who are busily speaking in their first language, asking if they are on- or off-task.

Some participants commented on how tiring it was to try to understand the Spanish used in the simulation. They discussed the enormous amount of energy it must take for their ELLs to sit and decipher hours of classroom discourse and activities. This drain on students leads to a recommendation to increase wait time to allow for the processing of input and the formulation of responses. Teachers need to be especially patient and comfortable with a few moments of silence as they give their ELLs extra time. Similarly, student workloads, course assignments, and due dates may need to be adjusted to ease the demands made on ELLs. Teachers need to be sensitive to the increased cognitive and affective demands when one operates in a second language and plan their classroom management accordingly.

We need to structure classroom activities and use

strategies to support language acquisition and comprehension

of classroom activities for ELLs.

In response to the simulation, some participants reacted by tuning out and not paying attention until I began to speak in English. This reminds us how we need to acknowledge that students’ behavior we interpret as bored, inattentive, or lazy may very well be simply a natural response to an inability to comprehend classroom input. Instead of responding with a disciplinary measure or a change of attitude toward the student, we can focus our energy on structuring our classroom activities to support language acquisition. It is essential to find ways to engage these students. A Chicago public school teacher mentioned to me how her middle school ELLs, who as recent immigrants are quiet and no trouble in class, can become troublemakers, the students she needs to worry about, after they have been forgotten or ignored. These students, bored and idle, may turn to making trouble to gain attention and keep interested in what’s happening around them.

After the simulation, some participants said they were able to follow best when I used gestures and visual representations (e.g., holding up a piece of paper and writing my example answers to the “Who are you?” question on the chalkboard). Clearly, visual support is essential to help contextualize classroom discourse for the ELLs. Teachers can provide this support by using the chalkboard, realia, and other visual aids. In addition, teachers should provide models for classroom procedures and practices for their ELLs. They can either provide this model themselves or call on students to model exercises and activities before beginning.

In the same way, routines are especially helpful to ELLs, as they reduce the likelihood that a learner will become lost in unexpected transitions. Because many ELLs come to the United States with experience in different classroom cultures, predictable routines are more easily learned and understood and can help anchor them in the new culture. In addition, these new routines “may be the first stable feature some students have experienced in a long time, especially if they have recently immigrated under adverse circumstances” (Peregoy & Boyle, 2000, p. 16).

These routines are also excellent opportunities to provide comprehensible input, as students repeatedly hear messages such as “Please hand your homework to the front,” “Take out your daily calendar,” and “Friday is library day.” These regular messages, combined with the actions that accompany them, constitute powerful language learning opportunities (as they hear and see the language in context) for the students. ELLs may rely heavily on these routines, so when there are transitions or changes to the plan, we need to provide clear instructions (ideally with visual support). These instructions should be given before students are divided into groups to help eliminate distractions and increased noise level.

Peregoy and Boyle (2000) suggest that teachers can also ease new immigrant students into classroom routines by assigning them a personal buddy. Ideally, this buddy would be a student who knows the newcomers’ language. His or her job would be to accompany the new student through the day, providing a model for appropriate behavior and a resource for support. For example, this student could explain classroom procedures (e.g., how to line up for the bus, pay for lunch, etc.) and provide an up-close language model as the ELL observes his or her interactions with other students and the teacher.

It is important to point out that all of the above, the use of gestures and visuals, modeling, routines, careful instructions, and partnering, will not be helpful if ELLs are not considered active members of the classroom community. This means that they must be included in classroom activities (not given other projects–a worksheet, for example–to work on while the other students engage in group activities). To signal ELLs’ full membership in the classroom community, these students should be seated toward the middle and in front of the classroom. That way they will be immersed within the various interactions between the students and teacher. They will have the opportunity to observe their more experienced classmates, while the teacher will also be able to observe and assess their level of comprehension and adaptation.

Another way to include ELLs in classroom activities is to plan collaborative learning and pair-work projects in which students work together in both their first and/or second languages. Allowing students to work in groups provides learning opportunities through social interaction. Second language acquisition specialists have discussed the importance of this social interaction (Krashen, 1982; Long & Porter, 1985; Fillmore, 1982, 1985), which provides students with large amounts of comprehensible input. Input becomes comprehensible to language learners when language is used in meaningful ways within authentic contexts. Group projects, unlike abstract teacher talk, may provide rich learning opportunities for language learners as the students observe and engage in communication with a purpose. Moreover, working in small groups with classmates also provides ELLs the opportunity to produce language. The opportunity for speech production is also an important part of the language acquisition process (Swain, 1985). As students turn to one another to ask or provide assistance, share information, and check comprehension, their interactions provide the authentic fodder for language acquisition to occur.

We need to build a strong sense of community and

affirmation of linguistic diversity.

We would all agree that it is of utmost importance to build a strong sense of community among students. Creating a classroom environment where students feel safe, secure, and a sense of belonging will help reduce fear and anxiety. This is especially important for ELLs who may have recently immigrated under very stressful or traumatic conditions. Krashen and Terrell (1983) discuss the importance of lowering what he has called the affective filter (the level of fear and anxiety), which can be a barrier to language acquisition. Even when a teacher doesn’t speak the first language of his or her students, small details, such as learning to pronounce students’ names correctly, displaying welcome signs in many languages, and making eye contact with students, can help convey to ELLs that they are important members of the classroom community. Allowing students to work in cooperative groups (especially groupings that remain unchanged for long periods of time) may be another way to help create a sense of belonging.

Making an effort to connect with parents or guardians of ELLs will also send the message that ELLs belong and are an important part of the school community. Because there may be difficulties communicating with ELLs’ family members, it is helpful to draw on support offered through schools (in the ESL, bilingual, or guidance programs, for example) that help direct teachers to appropriate parent liaisons or translation services to aid in communications. If a school does not provide institutional support for communication with the families of ELLs, a teacher may need to assume an advocate role and lobby for this support on their behalf. The existence of these programs causes students’ languages and cultures to gain status and, as such, increases the ELLs’ and their families’ sense of belonging and the likelihood for academic success.

Most importantly, teachers need to learn about their students. Because learning is built on previous learning, it is essential that teachers make an effort to learn about and build on the cultural and linguistic backgrounds their students bring from home. Often these different backgrounds are seen as deficits or problematic (McKay & Wong, 1996), while ironically, it is these students who have the potential to leave our school systems as bilingual and bicultural. When teachers learn to see the diverse backgrounds of their students as resources, these students’ experiences can serve to promote the multilingualism and multiculturalism of all the students and the teacher.

Teachers can find many creative ways to learn about their students. They can foster relationships with community mentors who are willing to share information about their communities. They can watch videos or read literature written by or about the communities of their students (see WatkinsGoffman, 2001, for a helpful list). Teachers can familiarize themselves about the countries from which their students immigrate, making it a point to learn where the countries are, which languages are spoken, and other important information about the students’ backgrounds. Teachers may have students from many different countries, so they can choose to concentrate on one area at a time.

Taking the steps to promote ELLs’ positive experiences with regard to their social relations and self-esteem will lay an important foundation for their English language acquisition (Peregoy & Boyle, 2000). As we know, if students’ social and emotional needs are not met, it is very unlikely that they will be able to turn their attention to the intellectual demands made of them in our classrooms. This necessitates making the inclusion of ELLs a deliberate priority in the curriculum.

In addition to fostering a sense of community, it is important for all teachers to promote the affirmation of diversity in their classrooms. This topic is covered in depth in the multicultural education literature (see Nieto, 2000), so I will focus on it only in terms of linguistic diversity for this article. Teachers need to model a respect for all languages. One of the most powerful ways a teacher can do this is by learning and using a second language. This will both demonstrate the teacher’s respect and openness for languages other than English and provide the teacher the opportunity to undergo the process of learning another language. This may move the teacher beyond seeing linguistic diversity as a threat or problem to be avoided or feared in the classroom and sensitize the teacher to the needs of language learners. The hope, as a result, is that teachers will not make their classroom management decisions based on fear or ignorance with regard to teaching their ELLs; instead, the goal is that they will choose to funnel their classroom decision-making through a culturally responsive classroom management model, like the one proposed in Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke and Curran (in press). This will reduce the chances that management decisions are guilty of perpetuating linguicism, or discrimination on account of language. Linguicism (lesser known than its cohorts, racism, sexism, classism, etc.) refers to “ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, regulate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language” (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1988, p. 13).

There are many cases of what I mean by linguicism. For example, a middle-school Spanish teacher told me about a conversation at one of his faculty meetings. A monolingual English-speaking teacher had complained about the use of Spanish in their school, citing an occasion when a group of boys had been teasing a girl in Spanish. The teacher feared that something inappropriate had been said to the girl. She told her colleagues that she hadn’t known how to handle the situation and suggested that the school ban the speaking of Spanish.

If the teasing had occurred in English, I feel fairly confident that the penalty contemplated would not have been to ban the speaking of English for these students. Why then would a disciplinary measure be appropriate for Spanish-speaking students, but not English-speaking students? Moreover, this differential treatment appears to punish students for speaking Spanish, instead of for teasing.

We also see linguicism in action when we hear of teachers who ignore their newly emigrated students, seating them in the back of the room to fill out worksheet after worksheet “because they just don’t understand,” while the rest of the class engages in cooperative learning activities. We see it when notes to parents go home only in English when many students come from communities largely populated with Spanish, Hmong, or Chinese speakers. These examples show how classroom management decisions can discriminate and reduce the likelihood of inclusion, learning, and achievement because of students’ language backgrounds.

To counter linguicism, teachers and schools need to take an active role in implementing antiracist pedagogy in the curriculum. We know that “substantive changes in attitudes, behaviors, and achievement occur only when the entire school environment changes to demonstrate a multicultural atmosphere” (Diaz-Rico & Weed, 2002, p. 214). We need to be aware that ELLs, especially post-September 11, may meet racism or anti-immigrant sentiments in the classroom and elsewhere.

Educational administration can support the achievement of their ELLs through their support of linguistic diversity as well. For example, a school district can engage in affirmative action to promote the hiring of a linguistically diverse faculty. They can ensure the translation of important documents into the students’ home languages. They can offer programs that support first and second language maintenance and growth. And, they can foster their relationships with communities for whom English is an additional language.


In conclusion, it is possible that teachers may encounter learning and behavior difficulties among their ELLs. In this article, I’ve shown that this can be expected as part of the normal linguistic, cultural, and academic learning process required of ELLs. This article suggests that being aware of students’ natural responses to this process, using strategies to make classroom activities more comprehensible, and creating a linguistically affirmative classroom climate are ways we can successfully manage students’ learning environment. When I speak on these issues in workshops for pre- and in-service teachers, someone in the audience usually comments on the obvious: the suggestions made here for managing classrooms of linguistically diverse students hold for all students as well.


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Mary Elizabeth Curran is an assistant professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

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