The Many Benefits of Using a Strengths-Based Approach with English Learners

The Many Benefits of Using a Strengths-Based Approach with English Learners

Rochester, Minnesota-based teacher Laura Lenz works with English Learners (ELs) at a center for students who are immigrants and refugees. In a blog post on the website Cult of Pedagogy, Lenz posited the following: Imagine a school where we focused on the strengths of English language learners. What if these students’ cultures, languages, countries of origin, unique skills, and life experiences were held up as assets? … What brilliance might be unleashed? What confidence might be built?

With the aim of shifting the collective thinking toward a positive, skills-focused view and away from a deficit mindset, Lenz implored her fellow teachers to consider adopting a strengths-based approach to working with EL students. After all, positioning ELs as having worthwhile attributes to share with their native English-speaking peers could make all the difference.

The whys and hows of zeroing in on ELs' strengths

Although Lenz acknowledged that testing and the data that comes from it can be valuable in terms of helping teachers understand “where students are struggling” and guiding lesson plans and interventions that offer the best path forward, she insisted that “we can also stimulate growth by capitalizing on existing strengths.”

Here is an overview of Lenz’s suggestions for how to nurture and identify the assets ELs often bring to the classroom:

  • Look for surprising skills: Lenz’s post included a touching anecdote about a student who would sometimes interpret when students had conflicts and a bilingual specialist wasn’t available. He was a refugee from Africa, already fairly proficient in oral English and also spoke the two most dominant languages in the classroom. The unexpected joy was realizing that he was also a natural peacemaker with a very keen sensibility for justice and fairness, also possessing a charming sense of humor and sweetness that would make kids laugh and get over things quickly. “My teaching partner and I made sure to tell him that he had something special—the three languages, of course, but even more than that, his natural diplomacy skills. I told him he was going to do something great in his life—be a diplomat or a community organizer.”

  • Build community: Make EL students feel welcome and valued not just by observing their skills and strengths, but by openly appreciating them. Lenz recommended encouraging students to praise one another at least once per week because, when it comes down to it, “we all need validation.” More specifically, she suggested having native English-speakers help ELs with school and language-related issues and then providing a way for that dynamic to get flipped; this way, ELs have the opportunity to help native English-speaking students with something as well.

  • Appreciate resilience: Lenz reminded readers to keep ELs' life experiences front and center, noting, “It takes courage and strength to move to a new country and adapt to a new culture, language, and way of life.” She went on to point out that ELs who are also refugees may well be “forging ahead despite experiencing loss, grief, danger, and trauma”—and becoming resilient along the way.

Working around trauma and stress 

In an article on the EL advocacy group Colorin Colorado's website, educators Debbie Zacarian, Lourdes Álvarez-Ortiz, and Judie Haynes offered their perspective on how to work with ELs using a strengths-based approach. While the overarching topic of their piece is similar to that of Lenz's, it is important to note that the trio's work is more tightly focused on addressing the needs of EL students dealing with chronic stress as a result of witnessing or experiencing trauma and violence. They led with a striking point:

One in every two of the total student population in the [United States] come to our schools having experienced or still experiencing some type of trauma, violence, or chronic stress—many of them at a very young age.

This reality amounts to what the authors described as a “challenge” for educators, particularly those working with EL students who may have recent experience with war in addition to encountering the poverty, isolation, and chronic fear that affect millions of undocumented families in the U.S. According to Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, and Haynes, the fact that most teachers have not been trained to deal with this aspect of working with EL students has “almost forced many teachers to look at students and their families as ‘broken’ instead of as individuals who already possess inherent strengths and who can make great contributions to their classrooms, their communities, and the world.”

To counteract the tendency to heavily focus on the problems exhibited by EL students and families, the authors provided examples of how to reinterpret or work through troubling classroom behavior. For instance, students who have experienced trauma may have a higher need for control, and providing choice in the classroom can be an effective way to accommodate this. Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, and Haynes provided more details:

Some groups of students may wish to work at their desks in the corner of a room, others may prefer to work on the floor, and others may want to stand at the white board. What's key is co-creating a space where students have a voice in arranging their desks, tables, and chairs and displaying (e.g., on classroom walls or tablemats) their shared ideas, opinions, and concepts to demonstrate a shared ownership of learning. 

The advice offered by the Cult of Pedagogy and Colorin Colorado pieces is worth taking to heart. After all, as Lenz noted, the benefits of a shift in thinking can be significant and tangible:

When you point out kids’ strengths to them and to others, they grow in confidence. They know you see them. You see the whole individual, not just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with your knowledge. Not just a kid who doesn’t know English. But a human who already has many unique strengths and assets. Your belief in their value and potential will help their confidence grow. This confidence will enable them to build upon the skills they already have and to be brave enough to learn all the essential things they need to know in this country in order to succeed.

For teachers seeking practical ways to embrace students’ strengths and help them access the language and academic skills they will need to move forward successfully, Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, and Haynes provided some additional examples and information—because no matter what hardships students face outside the classroom, they deserve to blossom within it.


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