In many urban areas, over 25% of students speak a language other than English as their first language. It’s possible and probable that you will encounter speakers of other languages in your tutoring groups. While in many ways “kids are kids” and tutoring can be universal, but here are some tips you may find helpful when working with youth from diverse backgrounds.
1. Never assume a child has learned a basic skill in a previous year. Many children from refugee backgrounds may have had interrupted schooling and may have missed some or all of elementary or middle school years. For example, this may mean that a child in Algebra 1 never learned to add and subtract positive and negative numbers. Make sure you look carefully at the mistakes students are making to determine what specific error they are making.
2. Form a positive relationship with their parents. If you are in the position to, it can really help a child’s learning if you form a good relationship with their parent(s). If there is a language barrier, try simple words and phrases (even learn some in their language!) to communicate that you intend to help their child succeed here. Mistrust of strangers and being in a very new culture can make it hard for both students and parents alike to adapt to the system. Maintaining a professional, friendly relationship can be extremely helpful when issues do arise.
3. Watch out for complex English. Bilingual education specialists have determined that it takes approximately 7 years to become fluent in a language, yet most ESL programs have bilingual youth for only a couple years before students are ‘mainstreamed’. This results in students sounding fluent (having developed strong oral skills) and lacking some of the complex writing skills needed for higher level English classes. They may be perpetually low performing throughout high school as a result. Even in other subjects, English may still be an obstacle.
4. You can always ask. If you are curious about a cultural difference or want to know why they are responding in a certain way, the best approach is usually to ask, not assume. Some traditions, such as fasting for Ramadan, can impact students’ studying and performance and should be noted by a good tutor. You may also find your assumptions disproved when asking, so it’s always good to make sure you understand the situation for an individual.
5. Finally, understand that you can never fully understand the pressure and struggles of a young immigrant student if you are someone who has not had to go through the same experience. The pressure to be true to their home culture and the desire to excel and fit in with the American culture is a complex issue that can manifest entirely different in different youth. The first step is knowing that you cannot know exactly what that feels like. From there, you can open up to asking questions that will help you learn about your student and their individual needs.
Every student is unique. This is just a simple guide to approaching these students with an open heart and mind in order to create a healthy learning environment for them.