How to help an ESL student who doesn't want to learn?
September 6, 2016 11:39 PM   Subscribe

I've been tutoring a new student from the beautiful land of Cuba. She is 14 and her parents want me to teach her English. I think she is going through the natural process of culture shock and is overwhelmed by the US in general. To complicate things even more, the high school she just started with has thrown her mercilessly into an advanced Speech & Debate class. The poor kid is so frustrated by everything at this point that she's just giving up on learning English. How can I help inspire her to learn?

My student is a 14 year old girl (I will call her "Maria") from Cuba. She has only been in the US for about 2 months now. She is living with her biological father and her stepmother, having left all of her friends and family in Cuba behind. Her folks, also Cuban and fluent in English, came to me in desperation, because she's now entering into a local high school. We have been meeting 3 days per week for an hour each.

My background is in ESL, Anthropology, and English. I've been a student/peer tutor since about 1995 and have been professionally tutoring for just over a year now. I understand how hard it is for newcomers to the US to learn English. The culture is overwhelming, and culture shock is in full swing. Add a language barrier to that challenge, and it is easy to see why so many people get frustrated. I take baby steps with my "absolute beginner" students, tell them to be patient, and that it's OK to make mistakes. There are no overnight miracles in ESL!

I started working with Maria slowly, introducing just a few words per day, with translations and pronunciation guides. She reads, writes, and understands Spanish very well, of course. For the first couple of sessions, Maria's mom sat with us, which was great, because my Spanish is pretty bad and she could translate. It also helped to have a parental figure present.

In the second week of sessions, Maria and I were left completely on our own during sessions. Her stepmom thought Maria needed the "full immersion" experience. I agree to a point; however, for the time being, both Maria and I need a translator. Right now, there is no way for us to ask each other questions or to converse. This is becoming more frustrating as time goes on. We have even tried using Google Translate during our sessions, and the words just aren't coming across correctly. Her stepmom is averse to having a translator. Maria's stepmom came to the US with no knowledge of English either, and she had an extremely difficult time and taught herself to speak fluently. I can't help but wonder if she wants Maria to share that same struggle.

I slowed the pace of our sessions considerably. We have a review using flash cards at every session, which she gets about 60% correct right now. On a couple of occasions, I have given an ungraded, open-book, no pressure "quiz". One is to translate the main question words of who/what/where/when/why/how, which she is still not getting after nearly three weeks.

I've tried introducing "fun" things like looking at picture books together, to help identify new words that way. My students have loved that in the past. I gave her an American magazine, which I tagged with sticky notes for all kinds of fun words, and told her just to take it home and enjoy it at her leisure. All of these things have failed miserably. To my surprise, she gets bored to the point of putting her head on the desk and practically falling asleep.

I originally thought that her dad and stepmom wanted to be involved (they wouldn't be paying for private tutoring lessons otherwise), but at the same time I am seeing some strange inconsistencies. I asked them to ID basic household objects with sticky notes (temporarily annoying, but well worth it when all those words start sinking in!), and they have not done that. I've sent Maria home with flash cards, and have asked them to quiz her; they haven't. I've asked them to speak as much English for one hour per day as they can with her; they haven't. I've asked her to watch one hour of American TV (anything she wants, preferably something fun); she hasn't. I've asked her to study her flash cards and word lists, and she is coming to our sessions unprepared. I spoke with her folks about the importance of studying at home, which seemed to help a bit. After going through all this, we had a great breakthrough session. There was progress, learning, and laughter. It was wonderful.

Then we all got hit with a bomb. Maria's high school placed her into a Speech & Debate class. They did it to fulfill her "elective" requirement for the year; all of the other elective courses that Maria could "feel" her way through were full. They sent her home with a persuasive speech writing assignment on her first day. We were stunned.

Her parents spoke with the teacher and the counselor, and they said "not to worry" about the assignments because they won't really "count". I'm under the impression that they're making an exception for Maria (I hope that doesn't mean just skirting her through the system, but that's perhaps an issue for another time.). I've tried to follow up regarding this class with her folks, and I've received some very vague responses ("Oh, it's OK"... "We need to meet the counselor again"... "Eh"... and even full-on "I don't know").

In the meantime, our tutoring sessions are back to square one. She isn't studying the material that we've covered over the course of the past three weeks, and it shows. In spite of my attempts to mix things up and offer fun and interesting exercises, she is disinterested and bored. Part of me is frustrated, but part of me doesn't blame her one bit. I think she's a great 14 year old girl who's in the throes of culture shock, amidst who-knows-what family dynamic, totally overwhelmed by this wondrous and crazy land of ours, and just wants to be a teenager. I am still committed to helping her, I just don't know how at this point.

I have discussed my concerns with Maria's folks a couple of times now. The very best I can get is that she needs to want to learn English. On more than one occasion, they have insinuated that Maria does not want to learn English. Maria's stepmom has suggested that perhaps I will have more success talking to the teacher(s)/counselor(s) than they did. I told them I am willing to meet with the teachers and counselors to work toward something positive.

I know I am frustrated, too. I'm committing at least 8-12 hours per week outside our sessions (for which I am not paid) to tailor lessons just for Maria's needs. If I simplify our sessions any further, I'm at risk for not having anything to present to her at all. I'm already struggling to fill time for just one hour each day for her (largely because she is not bringing the materials for our sessions that I am requesting, including flash cards, homework from school, etc.). As far as I can tell, Maria is extremely bright. She likes the sciences, has been a good student in Cuba, and does not have any form of autism or other learning disability.

Ideally, I would like to inspire Maria to learn English so she can have a successful experience in America. How can I inspire her to this end? Has she given up? Is it possible to instill knowledge into someone who may not want to learn? Should I meet with the teachers/counselors? What else can I do to be a good mentor to this young lady?
posted by Mistress of the Bunnies to Education (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is from my experience as a 15 year old high school student who moved to Germany for a year with no German whatsoever and who lived with a host family who only spoke English if absolutely necessary (like, with directions for me to get to school or safety reasons. And even then it was only the 16 year old and the Dad).

- do you or Maria have access to any little kids? Like 6/8 year olds? My host siblings and I had so much fun, they would go around the house telling me the words for everything and at that age, they are so close to having learned themselves that they are quite happy to lecture with a sense of superiority - they'd roll their eyes and correct me if I repeated the word wrong. It was a fabulous way to absorb a tonne of vocab. They spoke no english, I spoke no German and it was more fun than flashcards.

- movies. Even if she sits and veges out to english language TV and movies she will absorb a lot and it will be kind of immersion but more entertaining than being surrounded by people you don't understand. Especially if they are movies she knows.

It is amazingly exhausting being surrounded by language you can't understand. I was immersed pretty much 24/7, the only relief was reading english novels (I wasn't allowed to watch english tv). It really helped to take the occasional break and let my brain rest.

- with her interest in the sciences, is there any chance of getting Spanish language textbooks for the appropriate work she is doing in class? That is a way of including her and will stop her being so bored or falling behind. English is just the means of instruction, the fundamentals will be the same. My German school allowed me to write science tests in English because ultimately it wasn't my German composition being tested, it was whether the answer was oxygen, nitrogen whatever. It meant I had to study the text with a dictionary and my teacher had to mark my exams with a dictionary but he could see I was learning the content.

I wonder if reaching out to organisations or families that host exchange students would provide some ideas? May not be a possible but they are used to dealing with teens who have realised that this whole living in another country thing is really hard.
posted by kitten magic at 12:12 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Right now, Maria sounds like she has no motivation or incentive to learn English. This presents a huge roadblock to language learning. A relative of mine teaches ESL to teenagers and his approach has always been to try and find something that appeals to them personally.

What does Maria like? Does she like movies, tv shows, video games, music? I would try to identify something that her peers are into - an English language tv show would be ideal, because it would have multiple seasons and episodes. Choose one in the genre that appeals to her, and bonus if it features actors/actresses that she likes. However, and this is crucial - allow her to use subtitles. It would completely defeat the purpose if she can't understand enough to be hooked. At first, she would be completely reliant on the subtitles to understand, but the goal here is immersion and getting her to associate the language with something positive and exciting.

Ideally, she needs not just her family to be in on her efforts to learn English, but a peer group as well, however small. It would be great if she didn't feel that she was alone in this.

The decision to put her in Speech & Debate sounds terrible. The stress of it can only turn her even more against English and this unreasonable system she's been put in. Maybe tune her in to an interesting science-y show which debates/debunks issues in English, with Spanish subtitles? That might help mitigate some of the damage that the class does.
posted by satoshi at 1:39 AM on September 7, 2016

If she's into music, she may be interested in learning the lyrics to songs. Beyonce, Rhianna, Bieber, whoever - learning the words to fun pop songs is not so threatening and fun. Also, TV shows and commercials.
posted by shoesietart at 3:00 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I commend you for caring so much but I wonder if you're getting beyond yourself at this point. I assume you are ESL certified or trained and have the materials you need and that you're used to working with unmotivated teenagers. Just put those skills together.
Is she enrolled in the ESL course at her high school? That would be an important first step.
Her parents' lack of involvement is understandable. They have other things to do. If you think these tasks are important, you should do it with Maria.
And although it is really sweet of you, I don't think that you should get involved with her school schedule. It seems that all the other courses are full and they are merely expecting Maria to sit there for an hour a day. This is not a big deal.
posted by k8t at 3:39 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Can she do ESL homework during the speech and debate class?
posted by freethefeet at 5:41 AM on September 7, 2016

English is the language of science and math, and if she is interested in going into any STEM fields as an adult she is going to need a pretty big English vocabulary to converse with her peers. Since the more fluffy fun things you've given her like magazines and tv haven't taken hold, and she is expressing boredom in response to all the stress, maybe you could try some academic things?

Computer programming is extremely useful and sneakily language oriented. If she's into robots and engineering, there are many small projects she could work on oriented for her age group - and she could be a kinetic learner and really benefit from being hands-on while learning terms and figuring out instructions. If she's into biology, have you tried going on nature walks and identifying plants and animals and rocks with her? An animal to care for, like a frog, or a tank of interesting water plants, might motivate her to read about how to care from them from English guides (with your help) and give her physical evidence of her ability every day. If she's great at math, would it be possible for her to buddy up with a kid who needs math help but can be an English conversation partner with her? Math is wonderful for trancending language barriers but explaining math to someone who doesn't understand it (maybe you to start with?) can be a new and interesting challenge, even if you all speak the same language. If she wants to try some chemistry experiments, work out the English notation styles for lab notes and have her compare and contrast to what she learned in Cuba.

Basically, have you tried getting reeeeaall nerdy?
posted by Mizu at 6:16 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Try fun, low pressure activities, a little at a time. Instead of giving her a whole magazine, go through one page together with her. Try some board games, play concentration and other card games, and give the flashcards a rest. Show her short engaging Youtube videos, with English subtitles, repeat them a few times and see what she did and didn't understand. Short simple picture books, picture dictionaries (one page at a time), comic panels are all good. A lot of picture books use very expressive language that can be too high level. Kizclub has some good printable activities under "topics" that I have used with a range of students.
posted by Sar at 6:18 AM on September 7, 2016

Best answer: So I've never been a straight up ESL teacher, but I've taught high school English to kids who were ELLs so take my comments with a grain of salt.

To my surprise, she gets bored to the point of putting her head on the desk and practically falling asleep

In my experience, this is kind of behavior isn't usually about boredom: it's more about feeling disengaged, discouraged and wanting to just shut things down.

Reading about her history, it's not surprising: she's been shipped off to a new country with a new culture and new language. Despite hiring a tutor, her parents aren't really doing anything to support her new language acquisition--the things you've been suggesting are great. Then she gets landed in a speech & debate class when she's in her earliest stages of learning English? That really, really pisses me off as a teacher. It's just one more place where she won't be able to participate and be completely shut out of things. I don't get why her parents and the counselors think this is acceptable. They should be putting her in an elective that's less language focused at this stage: studio art, music, etc. Immersion is only effective up to a point and that class is wildly inappropriate.

Refusing to learn English is pretty much the only power she has at the moment.

That said, as a tutor, there's only so much you can do. You've made your recommendations. I wouldn't do a ton of outside unpaid prep work, either: in the end, her parents who CAN help her need to step up by implementing the support activities and practices you've recommended.
posted by smirkette at 6:19 AM on September 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

There is much of this that I can't speak to, but I can enthusiastically recommend watching videos with her that are english audio, spanish subtitles. I have intermediate level Japanese ability, and having English subtitles to look at significantly improves my ability to process the Japanese audio - it lets me know what words to expect and then it's easier to parse them out.
posted by telepanda at 6:27 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

You keep mentioning Maria's father and stepmom --- where is her actual mother? Were her parents divorced, and did Maria want to stay with Mom but got over-ruled, and this is just her way of acting out her anger over having to live with the stepmother?

I hate to say it, but perhaps a Spanish-speaking family therapist is indicated.
posted by easily confused at 6:30 AM on September 7, 2016

Best answer: Isn't the school doing anything? They have to help her learn English. You're in Nevada? Here's one Nevada school district's policy: (Formatting screwed up in the paste)

English Language Learners (ELL Program)
What can be done for my child, who is learning English as a second language?
What about high school students?
What can I do to help my child learn English and succeed in school?

All CCSD campuses offer support for student learning English. The District believes that language and grade-level content should be taught together. Students new to the District will be initially assessed in their English language proficiency within 30 days of enrollment, and ELL students are tested annually to measure English language growth.

Schools assist students in their learning of subject matter and English through support in the general classroom. The ELL Division provides professional development for teachers and additional funding which can be used by schools for before or after school instruction, specialized classes for additional language focus within the school day, Saturday school sessions, summer school or inter-session for year round schools.

In April 2016, the CCSD Board of Trustees approved the Master Plan for ELL Student Success.

Transfer credit may be available for high school students who are new to the District. Students turn in a copy of their school transcript to the high school's registrar. The registrar will send the transcripts to be translated by the ELL Division and evaluated to ensure appropriate high school credit is being given. Concerns may be directed to ELL Division directly.

Families are encouraged to continue to strengthen their native language at home and to work collaboratively with their student's teachers in order to efficiently build on what students already know.

Here's the link, scroll down to find the part I copied.

My point is you should not be alone in doing this. Your tutoring should be a supplement to what she gets in school. The school is supposed to be providing the services, and helping to family to support her progress. Is it possible her parents don't know this? Or is she in some flaky private school?

I commend you for putting so much effort into this!
posted by mareli at 6:31 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maria's stepmom has suggested that perhaps I will have more success talking to the teacher(s)/counselor(s) than they did.

Oh no... Are they being effectively shut out of discussions with teaching staff at the school, just railroaded? Wouldn't be the first time it happened to immigrant parents with no experience of a local school system... They may feel (and be!) powerless. It can be hard enough for American-born Americans to get their kids' interests addressed, even when they know how to fight for them... Certain approaches work, others don't - cultural knowledge matters so much here...

I don't know what scope or authority you have in this context... Perhaps a letter would help? Maybe put Maria's parents in touch with a PTA (if something like that exists)? Or a community organization for Spanish-speaking parents, or parents of Cuban origin?

(I don't know about Cuba, but in many countries, teachers are highly respected, you just don't question their authority. If admin & teaching staff are putting their foot down on this speech & debate class, Maria's parents may feel they have no choice but to comply.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:40 AM on September 7, 2016

It's hard to know what might (or might not) be happening between the parents and the school and what resources are available to support the child and her family without knowing more non-anonymizing details: public, private, or charter school; district (if public school); socioeconomic status of parents, etc. They could be intimidated/shut out of school due to systemic social issues, or they could just be very hands-off when it comes to schools, or a bit of both.

They really should be doing everything they can to get her out of that speech class, though. At most school's only been in for a few weeks so should be possible to reschedule her and wasting a semester in a class like this could be detrimental to her academically, emotionally, and socially. (And it won't support her language acquisition at all unless it's specifically designed as an ELL speech class or has an ELL para to assist. The gen ed requirement is a red herring: if she's at the most beginning stages, there's no way she's going to pass this class unless the teacher is providing some very significantly differentiated instruction and supports.)

Do you know if she has any made any friends yet? Might be worth seeing if her parents might be amenable to one or two of them joining your tutoring sessions? That might make them feel more like a social occasion and less like this thing her parents are making her do. If they speak English at a higher level, then they could be lower stakes and more authentic conversation partners and if not, then they'd provide peer emotional support.
posted by smirkette at 7:17 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ugh. I've tutored (though in maths/science) and learnt a language by immersion, and this sounds like a bit of an unwinnable situation. You can't teach someone who doesn't want to learn, and learning a language requires serious effort.

I'd shift the focus from trying to teach her new words. Her brain's probably on overload from starting school. Here are some other suggestions:

- Reading out loud. Work on her pronunciation. Song lyrics from singers she likes for example, or words that are essentially the same in spanish and english but are pronounced differently. Having a good accent will help her to be understood, it's a very valid thing to focus on.
- Comic books, bonus points if it is one she's already read.
- Do word puzzles.
- Bribe her with chocolate. Use m&m's to learn colours and numbers.
- Work on comprehension. Instead of demanding that she tell you the English word (super hard when your brain's in overload), say or write the English word and ask her to pick the picture. Particularly focus on words that are similar in spanish, as they will be easiest for her to work out.
- Make it physical. Give her instructions in English that she has to do. e.g. sit, stand, jump, 'hands on head', 'turn left', 'turn right', hop. Or, write the options down for her, and have her give you directions on what to do. Do the same for body parts and furniture.

Also, see if you can hunt down an english grammar book, english as a second language book or a book about learning another language written in spanish. I would read just about anything in English when I was in Germany, and it might make her feel more in control.

As for the school stuff, it sounds like they aren't doing a good job. Tell the parents to keep pushing for better solutions.
posted by kjs4 at 7:42 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The 2-3 month mark is the point of maximum homesickness too in my experiences travelling & moving. The excitement has gone & the realization that this is her life now is hitting her. Get her talking about her life back home, when I first moved to the USA I loved nothing more than talking about "home". Have conversations with her, ask her what she would find interesting to learn? Right now she has no investment in learning she's being told she has to do it.
posted by wwax at 8:10 AM on September 7, 2016

watching videos with her that are english audio, spanish subtitles

Came to suggest this, specifically watching these videos just the two of you. I moved to France and even with a few years of lazy American public school French language classes I was stunned at how unmoored I felt for a few weeks. I had a host family who spoke no English, there were no English language resources at hand, and this was when using the internet meant paying 7 francs for thirty minutes at the dial-up speed internet café. I totally locked up on more than one occasion in school, unable to respond to simple questions because my mind simply couldn't find the word or talk around the word I was looking for.

My host mom took the genius step of renting the French-dubbed, English-subtitled "Le Monde selon Garp." I'd told her before that it was one of my favorite movies, so she knew that I'd be able to follow the dialogue unconsciously to some degree. It was a huge success! We made it a trend after that -- she'd ask me which movies I liked, find a French-dubbed, English-subtitled version (or even vice versa, in original English with French subtitles) and we'd focus on the language more than the plot. She'd stop the tape from time to time and get me talking about a particular idiom, or a conjugation, or otherwise quiz me on what I was hearing. Eventually, we'd put tape over the subtitles and see how well I'd do.

Fun side effect: I can still quote Monty Python in French, 20-ish years later.

It was so, so incredibly helpful. Thank you, Marie-Andrée!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:49 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

What math class is she in? That's mostly the same across languages. Make sure this is difficult enough that she doesn't feel insulted, especially if she considered herself a smart kid / good at school previously. The shock of being considered stupid due to simply not knowing the local language is huge.

My cousin came to the US into 9th grade public school, and while the school was sympathetic and her starting level of English was adequate, was still pretty depressed. I observed this as the younger cousin (by 4 years), and I'm happy to talk more if you think it'll be useful.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:36 AM on September 7, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you everyone so much for your fabulous responses! I'm going to take up these suggestions and rework my sessions.

I was completely livid when I found out that they put her into that Speech & Debate class. I've never felt so dejected on behalf of one of my students before, and it's really exposed me first-hand to the frustrations of so many immigrants to this country, as well as the failings of the education system. I can't help but wonder if she's being set up to fail. It's wrong on so many levels.

I'm not sure if Maria's biological mother is still alive, still in Cuba, or somewhere else. We're not really at the point where we can broach personal issues.

I've wondered if I'm in a bit over my head, too, but I am committed to helping as best I can until the universe gives the sign that something else needs to happen. You're all so incredibly helpful. Thank you.
posted by Mistress of the Bunnies at 9:55 AM on September 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Maybe someone who went to school in Cuba will chime in, but... I think you might try being more Traditional Teacher with her. Yes, she's obviously an unhappy teenager, for a number of reasons, but I wonder if trying to be so sensitive and understanding is working against you at this point.

You're the teacher, you're the boss. You tell her what you are going to do every class and what she will be tested on for the first 5 minutes of every session. I would try being a bit more authoritative with her, and focus on production, be it repetition or even memorizing paragraphs or short poems, but make it be something you can do in one hour, and don't worry about getting the parents involved or having her do homework.

I say keep it really structured and focus on very traditional teaching techniques (dictation,memorization, repetition, translation). Give her a number grade from 1 to 10 for each session (not a letter grade), create a rubric to define what adds up to a 10, a 9, etc and tell her if she keeps her average to an 8 over the next 6 sessions, the 7th class you can watch a movie in English with Spanish subtitles JUST FOR FUN (no quiz or comp questions). Or anything she wants to do, where she is exposed to English but doesn't have to produce or be evaluated.

Also, I brush up on your English as a second language methodology - the formulas and rules for teaching English from scratch may be more familiar to her, and provide her a structure that is easier to measure.

She has no internal motivation to learn or improve her English, which is especially common in ESL contexts, so ... you be the motivation. I don't give my unmotivated students much of a choice - they can be unhappy or disinterested, but they know I'm going to firmly insist that they participate and work and try.

I've never taught in the US, but I've spent the past 7 year teaching ESL to high school and jr. high students in Mexico City (and before that 7 years teaching to adults that came out of the education system here). I don't mean to suggest that you be mean or insensitive to her - I just mean take charge of her learning from a more traditional role. I suspect that's why her parents aren't doing much - in their mind, you're the teacher, that's what they are paying you for. I'm not really sure how similar Cuba's educational system is, but I suspect it is still fairly teacher centered.

Oh yeah, and music. Get some music in there.
posted by Locochona at 4:51 PM on September 7, 2016

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