A Day in the Life of an Emerging Bilingual Student

Build empathy for the experience of being an English Learner
3 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

This activity was developed as a way to help English-dominant educators reflect on the classroom experiences of students who are English Learners (ELs).  The activity pairs two participants together, then asks them to share specific information about themselves while placing specific, alphabetic restrictions on the words they communicate with. The mental and expressive challenges of thinking through the restrictive components in the moment simulates the think-time and translation-time English Learners require every moment of every day. When participants reflect on this experience and the challenge of having to express themselves with a restriction placed on the language itself, they are able to better understand the difference between a knowledge gap and a gap in language proficiency. Participants also gain empathy for students who are English Learners and understand the need to differentiate materials, lessons, and classroom and school protocols.

Implementation Steps

  1. During a staff meeting or PLC meeting, ask participants to pair up and self-select who will be Partner A and who will be Partner B.

  2. Explain that you are going to give Partner A some instructions. Partner B's job is to listen to Partner A and point out any errors they hear.

  3. Say aloud the following instructions for Partner A:

    • "Please listen carefully to all of the instructions. I will tell you when to begin:

      • Using complete sentences please state your full name, where you were born, and what you ate for breakfast. However, you may NOT use any words containing the letters N or T. I do not mean that words cannot begin with N or T, I mean the letters N or T cannot be anywhere in any of the words you use. Partner B will listen to you, and will stop and correct you each time you break the language rule. You will have 30 seconds. Reminder, state your name, where you were born, and what you ate for breakfast, no words containing N or T. Begin."

      • 30 second timer. "Stop."

  4. Explain that now you are going to give Partner B some instructions. Partner A's job is to listen to Partner B and point out any errors they hear.

  5. Say aloud, "Please listen carefully to all of the instructions. I will tell you when to begin:

    • Using complete sentences please state your full name, your favorite flavor of ice cream, and what you plan to do after school. However, you may NOT use any words containing the letters F or R. I do not mean that words cannot begin with F or R, I mean the letters F or R cannot be anywhere in any of the words you use. Partner B will listen to you, and will stop and correct you each time you break the language rule. You will have 30 seconds. Reminder, state your full name, your favorite flavor of ice cream and what you are going to do after school, no words containing F or R. Begin."

    • 30 second timer. "Stop."

  6. After the activity, have each pair discuss what challenges they faced during these conversations with another pair.

  7. The facilitator should make a T-chart on a blank chart paper labeled challenges and solutions,  and scribes challenges from the whole group onto the chart paper.

  8. The facilitator should ask probing questions based on what they observed or overheard when pairs were conversing to ensure experiences are satisfactorily debriefed. Some potential questions could be: 

    • What might you do differently when interacting with students who are English Learners after this experience? (e.g. increase wait time; provide time to write ideas before sharing them; write questions and/or instructions in addition to saying them; draw/sketch pictures to accompany explanations)

    • What were some of the challenges you or your partner encountered in following the instructions? (e.g. I couldn't say my name [or had to modify/change my name] because my name contained letters I wasn't allowed to use.)

    • Consider that you were asked questions about a topic you know better than anyone else - yourself. Yet, what made it difficult to express your knowledge? Consider the challenge of expressing academic knowledge you have mastered, but are required to express in the dominant language (English) of school. How does this challenge your perspective about the knowledge base of students who are English Learners?

  9. The facilitator should share the essential question of this exercise with the participants and have participants reflect on the essential question in writing: How does what you experienced transfer to your understanding of what students who are English Learners experience in English-dominant classrooms?

Teacher Tips

  • This activity does not lend itself to triads. If an uneven number of participants exist, it is better to have the facilitator/teacher participate in a pair-up.

  • Be sure to read the instructions aloud. Do not write or project the partner instructions because it reduces the challenge of the tasks.

  • Be sure to give permission for the listening partner to "call out" (kindly) the speaking partner for any infractions to the language rule applied to their role in the conversation. This contributes to the classroom experience of students who are English Learners.