Simple Ways to Teach English to Young Learners

Other adoptive parents had warned us the language barrier was an issue when adopting older children from a foreign country. These strategies helped.

There was a heat wave in Northwest Poland while my husband and I sat clammy and glowing in the adoption center. I was taking furious notes in the Vera Bradley journal I brought, trying to look organized and qualified, but aware every few seconds that I was neither. The social workers were describing our children to us, explaining their behavior at school, what was known about their birth parents, and what the kids wanted to forget.
That’s when I heard them. Just outside the door, little voices were laughing, little hands were pushing, and little feet were flying. I am a teacher and those noises are in the hallways of my life at 8 a.m. every morning, but this time it was different. Those were my children, and they were real people.
John and I watched through a one-way mirror as the kids tossed a soft ball around a Polish Gymboree-style play space, with blue cheese-wedge slides and crimson mats.
“That one’s Krystian, and that one’s Woitek,” I explained to him in case he was too excited to remember which one of our sons was older. Wictoria’s hair was combed perfectly and tied in a sweet bow, but she sat very close to her foster mother.
I’m still not sure if my kids were certain that we were their new parents when we were introduced to them, though Wictoria did color us a picture of a bending flower that said Wictoria i Mama i Tato – Wictoria and Mom and Dad – which we still have. What I do know is that as John joined the boys for a game of catch and I got Wictoria interested in the dollhouse, we struggled to talk about anything. I remembered some color names I learned from the Polish Rosetta Stone software, and kept saying them as we moved the dolls up and down the stairs. I knew the Polish happy birthday song “Sto Lat” from my childhood, and we sang it right there even though there was no reason to. But besides that, I could not communicate with my new family, and it was frustrating for everyone.
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Other adoptive parents had warned us that the language barrier was an issue when adopting older children from a foreign country. I was prepared for some hindrance, but I was not ready for how deeply it would vex my kids. I was also surprised by their aggressive display at my not being able to understand them, stomping their feet and even throwing things when I looked at them quizzically in response to a request. The good news was that underneath it was a desire for a trusting relationship with parents who would meet their needs, and the bad news was that I couldn’t always respond because I didn’t understand them.
My children were able to communicate in English after we were home for only three months. Now, they speak in full sentences and even use phrases such as “well, actually” that sound adorable from the mouth of a seven-year-old. What I understood from other adoptive parents was that this was not uncommon, since children are such fast learners, but we did employ some strategies in the beginning that helped to make the transition easier:

1 | Speak slowly and repeat often

I know there were people who looked at me sideways when we first came home from Poland. I would be standing in Stop-N-Shop with my kids and give a direction like “we can put the watermelon in the cart now.” Then, sweeping my arms in a theatrical pantomime, I would show them what they had to do, reiterating “we” (pointing to all of us) “can put the watermelon” (pointing to the watermelon) “in the cart” (pretending to put something in the cart) “now” (indicating immediacy by tapping my foot). I’m sure the onlookers thought I hadn’t been allowed out of the house in awhile, or maybe had too many good-time brownies in college. But my kids learned quickly what each word meant, and when and how to use them.

2 | Expose them to lots of English-speaking resources

We came home in the summer, and there was a Rec program at my school where the kids could go for half days and do crafts, dramatics, and sports. They were terrified at first, but quickly learned to trust their teachers and make friends who wanted to make jokes and enjoy their company in English. And, while we steer clear of it now, TV was a big support that first summer. The kids watched the same episodes of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” in English that they had seen in Polish, learning what lots of nouns and adjectives meant by matching the actions with the words.

3 | Let them choose books with big letters

My kids learned so much from simple Level-1 books where vowel sounds were repeated and reinforced throughout. At first, I only had them read three-letter words while I read the rest. Gradually, they were able to begin sounding out words, and I was careful to praise any successful efforts. Every child is different and learns at his or her own rate, and it is important that they know you are happy with any progress they are making.

4 | Be selective with parenting advice

Your child is unique as a fingerprint.  There are times when what someone else says will be exactly what you needed to hear, and times when the input of others will only discourage you. If it lifts you up, motivates you, and makes you think, hang on to it, type it into your parenting GPS, and be on your way. Do the best you can and forgive yourself all day long – you are doing great!