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December 9, 2013

When bullies pick on the ESL kids

I always knew that my grandfather was referred to by the nickname “Dopey” by some very old friends and acquaintances in the rural Illinois town in which I grew up. What I didn’t learn until into my adulthood was how he came to acquire that name.

He got that name because he didn’t speak English when he started school at age 10. His parents where immigrants from Belgium, and he was raised on a farm. When he finally was enrolled in school, the other kids called him “Dopey” because he couldn’t understand anything. The name stuck his whole life.

We all know that bullying has severely evolved from name calling to the sometimes severe harassment that occurs too often today. For ESL teachers who witness their students being made fun of for trying to use their newly acquired vocabulary, this can be excruciatingly frustrating, not just because we care about our students, but we cringe when we watch an English language learner close up linguistically – too self-conscience to open their mouth and practice their new skills.

So, what can we do as English Language teachers to ensure our students linguistic achievements aren’t hampered by a few bullies?

1) Cultivate a culture a mistakes. This sounds funny, but we have to let our students know that it’s okay to make mistakes. This means we don’t need to correct every little language error (which can shut students down just as fast as the bullies do). And we celebrate the “thought process”. So, when Fernando says, “I drawed a helicopter,” when you are discussing forms of transportation, we may praise him in front of the class, “Wow – Fernando drew a train – no one has thought of that one yet!”

2) Train other students to celebrate successes. This is especially effective if you teach a class of native English speakers with just a few students who are learning English. Seek out the “leaders” in the class and ask for their help. Tell them you want their help in encouraging others who are learning English, and give them some examples of how to do that. Perhaps they’ll ask them to join in on some playground games or partner with them during a group activity. When native speaking students understand that they are an important part of their peers’ learning, they’ll positively direct their behavior to serve that purpose.

3) Praise your ESL students – a lot. We all know that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement. These students are handling a tremendous amount of inputs. Not only are they learning new content like all the other students (math, science, etc.), but they are learning a new language, and often a new culture. Add that to the stress of a possible recent move to a new school, it’s not hard to see that these kids are pretty spectacular. So, look for any chance to praise and encourage them.

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Until next time!

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About the author:
Barbara Dangond is the Executive Director of the D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition.
For more on Barbara and the Language Program please visit the website. You can get in touch with her at

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