Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The importance of teaching social skills to ELLs

In my experience, we should not assume that English language learners will acquire socially appropriate language simply by being with English-speaking natives. ELLs need to be specifically taught social skills such as how to greet people, to give and receive compliments, to apologize, and to make polite requests. Students need to understand nonverbal language and proxemics. They need to be able to discover the appropriate voice tones, volumes, and language for different school settings.

The need for teaching socially and culturally appropriate language in social situations is evident every day in our classes. We have all had students who use the same language when speaking to a teacher that they would use when talking to a peer. I once had a beginning English language learners who had learned how to say "yeah, yeah, yeah" to friends during recess. He couldn't say or understand much else in English. Whenever I gave him directions, he would reply, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." I had a difficult time making him comprehend that this was inappropriate language for a child to use to an adult. I finally taught him to say, "Yes, Mrs. Haynes" but I needed to have a translator explain why "yeah, yeah, yeah" was unsuitable for the classroom.

The same thing occurs when a second language speaker swears in class. An English language learners in my school used an "x-rated" expression in his third grade classroom. The teacher was understandably distressed and required that the student write an apology for homework. Even more upsetting to the teacher was that the student's parents did not take the infraction of school rules seriously. I explained to her that swearing does not have the same "shock" value in a person's second language as it does in their first. So the parents were not "shocked" by their child's use of this language. What is considered "shocking" or inappropriate language for the classroom must sometimes be directly taught.

Use role playing to demonstrate social English

I spend a lot of time teaching students how to give and receive compliments, to thank someone for something, to answer the telephone, to ask directions, and to make small talk. Role playing, teacher modeling, peer modeling, and video are all good tools for teaching these social skills. Have students learn how to observe their peers for models of correct behavior. Use real incidents that come up in your class. Have students practice saying "good morning" and "good-by" to their teachers and classmates right from the beginning. Encourage classroom teachers to set expectations for these behaviors. Classroom and subject area teachers need to learn about some of the cultural differences in manners and behavior. You don't want teachers to over-react when a student won't make eye contact or relates to other children by touching them all the time, or smiles at inappropriate times.


everythingESL said...

I'd like to invite you all to comment on this blog. Judie

Karen Nemeth said...

Judie - I think this is such an important point! Teachers might think social language is unimportant, but it really is critical to the newcomer's school success. Ells need to learn to make friends and impress teachers so they can have positive experiences every day. They already have plenty of challenges, so reducing social obstacles will enable them to focus on academics with ease and confidence. I wish this blog would appear in every teacher's mailbox tomorrow morning!

Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said...

Good points! This works on several levels. For example, international college students and grad students need to learn about writing e-mails to professors. I read a study somewhere that found that international students got help slower than American students, even though they sometimes needed the help more acutely, because they asked for help in ways the professors weren't expecting. The professors also sometimes perceived their requests as rude. (Of course, the non-TESOL professors could use some training, too!) Sometimes the students are using the politeness skills they've been taught, but those aren't complex enough for the situation; other times they've bought into myths such as "English doesn't have politeness." (I heard an international student say that once, and it's about as true as the statement I heard an English major say once about Chinese: "Chinese doesn't have grammar!" Argh!)

Anyway, college students will really benefit from some time spent on topics such as

- not using abbreviations such as "u" and "wanna" (a friend was so pleased to learn that these were used by native speakers in chat that she started using them in all of her e-mails)
- learning to use forms such as "Is there any way I could possibly..."
- including little rituals such as apologizing for taking the teacher's time
- streamlining the communication process by requesting specific meeting times
- adhering to social norms by giving reasons/making acceptable excuses (which is really frowned upon in Japan, for example, but essential if you want a favor or need to apologize for a misstep in American academia)
- etc.