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Do you assume your child can’t really participate in class because she’s just learning English? You’re not alone. That’s an assumption that a lot of adults make — maybe even your child’s teacher. The problem is that it’s also an assumption that keeps many children who are English-language learners from getting the most out of their education.

It’s a vicious cycle. Children who are learning English in U.S. schools often don’t participate because they can’t process oral language as quickly. Teachers, knowing that they are already struggling, don’t tend to call on them as much. In large group settings, the most verbally skilled or outgoing children regularly raise their hands. It just reinforces the pattern: kids who are shy, introverted, and learning English tend to stay silent, which may prevent them from engaging as much or learning as much from the material.

Some teachers who are well-trained in dealing with different types of learners have ways to involve all students in oral conversations. But this is not the norm. In many American classrooms, a few highly assertive children still dominate verbal discussions.

So what’s a parent to do if you have a child who is just learning English and is tentative about class participation? Start a two-part campaign: one with the teacher and the second with your child.

Tell the teacher you expect your child to speak in class even though her English isn’t perfect. Ask the teacher to try to create opportunities for your child to speak in small groups or with just one other student. You can also request that your teacher look for opportunities where your child can answer a question correctly in front of the class. The point is to start making your child feel confident enough to raise her hand and ask a question, answer a question, or make a comment. Tell the teacher you read an article that shows that opportunities for oral classroom participation are really important for the academic success of English language learners.

Then ask your child when she participates in class discussions or raises her hands. Tell her the goals is for her to try to participate in class a little bit each day. To make this easier in the beginning, have your child approach the teacher privately to talk about something they care about. This will help your child practice speaking to her teacher.

Next, ask your child if she can raise her hand to ask a question that she has memorized and practiced at home: “Can I hand in my homework?” “Can I play with the hamster?”

Next, ask your child to raise her hand to answer a question that the teacher poses for a small group of students.

Each day, ask your child how she participated verbally in class and praise her for her courage and persistence. It’s not easy, but with practice your child will gain confidence. Plus, your child needs to learn that her school success depends on speaking English as well as reading and writing it. By breaking this into baby steps, you and the teacher can make this process easier for your child so that she can improve a little bit everyday.

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