Happy September! In Canada, September is the official start of the school year, and for many teachers like myself, it is another chance to experiment with new teaching and learning ideas.
As we begin a new school year, I am inspired to write about a topic that is near and dear to my heart – the experiences of English Language Learners and newcomer children in early childhood education institutions.
As a young child, I spent the first few years of my childhood living in India with my family. There, I played with my friends and cousins, explored the beautiful medieval buildings in our town, and fed peacocks with my aunt. Those years are some of my most precious (and favourite!) memories of growing up, and I feel so lucky to have had those experiences.
A few years later, I moved to Toronto with my family and began learning English as a second language. I distinctly remember being aware of the fact that I could not communicate with others, and often describe this experience as feeling “like a mime in a box”. There was no way for me to communicate all of my wonderful memories and interests to my teachers – and as a result, there was no way for my teachers to really get to know me. As an early childhood educator, this experience has shaped my awareness of, and interest in the experiences of English Language Learners, newcomer children, and their families.
In this quick blog post, I am sharing three things to keep in mind when working with newcomer children or those who are learning English as a second language. The start of a new school year can be scary for many children, and especially for those who may not be able to express themselves or are new to Canada.
- According to Kirova and Henning (2013), newcomer children are faced with the task of developing competencies that are appropriate to both their home and host cultures as well as forming bicultural and bilingual identities. Speaking from my experience as an English Langauge Learner, it is important for educators to keep in mind that home and host cultures can be different in their expectations of young children, cultural beliefs, and understanding of the young child. It is, therefore, very difficult for children to navigate between the two, especially when it is hard for them to communicate their experiences in a school setting.
2. Children’s abilities and preferences of communication methods are unique and varied. Newcomer and English Language Learners have different learning and communication styles than English speaking students. They rely primarily on non-verbal gestures, eye contact, and body language (Harvey, N., & Myint, H. H., 2014; Kirova and Henning, 2013). I can’t stress this enough! Strategies such as wait time, including non-verbal gestures and body language, go such a long way in helping English Langauge Learner children not only communicate, but understand what is going on in the classroom.
Making use of our classroom windows to encourage wondering and noticing. We scribed for children so that they felt free to express themselves without worrying about their writing.
3. English Language Learners and newcomer children have unique strengths which include the ability to navigate between two cultures and languages, resourcefulness (doing more with less, for example, toys, communication skills), the ability to learn by observing the learning environment, an awareness of tone, gestures, and eye contact, and the ability to understand two different languages (Kirova and Henning, 2013). It is important for early childhood educators to recognize and build on these strengths in the classroom, as well as speak to these strengths when communicating with families. Skills such as observing the learning environment, the ability to understand different languages and a heightened awareness of tone, gesture, and eye contact are great things to celebrate in children’s learning.
I hope these three simple ideas resonate with you and your interactions with newcomer or English Langauge Learner children in your early years learning environment. Surprisingly, as an adult who can now speak fluent English, my memory of feeling “like a mime in a box” is still something I can remember clearly. It is this memory that inspires me to do my best to try and meet the needs of young children who are transitioning to the dominant culture, new to Canada, and are at school for the first time.
This year, one of my professional goals is to continue to encourage family involvement in our classroom program by going beyond photographs and activities and really learning about the cultures and traditions the children participate in at home. I’m really interested in creating culturally responsive programmings – something I can’t wait to learn more about and share with you in future blog posts!
In the meantime, happy ‘new school year’!
Harvey, N., & Myint, H. H. (2014). Our language is like food: Can children feed on home languages to thrive, belong and achieve in early childhood education and care?. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(2), 42.
Hennig, K., & Kirova, A. (2012). The role of cultural artefacts in play as tools to mediate learning in an intercultural preschool programme. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 13(3), 226-241.
Kirova, A., & Hennig, K. (2013). Culturally responsive assessment practices: Examples from an intercultural multilingual early learning program for newcomer children. Power and Education, 5(2), 106-119.