Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Cohen, Kulik, & Kulik, 1982; Cook & Urzúa, 1993; Hakuta, 1987; Heath & Mangiola, 1991; Rumptz, Lucas, & McEmrys, 2001; Tucker, 1990.

Strategy 3.15: Facilitate Students’ Participation in College and Career Planning. Teachers integrate information about postsecondary education and career possibilities into their classes, helping students to better understand the range of opportunities available to them and to take the steps needed for access.


Immigrant students often dream of going to college, but even those who succeed academically may have little understanding of how to achieve that dream, or may even believe it is impossible for them. High school exit exam requirements may hinder or discourage altogether immigrants’ desire to go to college. Their experiences in their home countries may have led them to think that college is available only to the wealthy or that options for women are restricted. They may be unaware of the variety of colleges available, the possibility of combining work with school, or sources of financial assistance. They may be expected to work to help support their families or even to increase the number of hours they work after graduation. If they are the first in their family to consider college, they are quite likely to have a limited awareness of college requirements and the application process (Crandall & Greenblatt, 1999; Hutner, 1996; Hadlock, 1994). Federal law requires K-12 enrollment for all children, regardless of legal status. However, undocumented students may encounter residency, tuition, or financial aid-related requirements when applying to college that they were unprepared for (Biswas, 2005). An estimated 7,000 to 13,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools and enroll in college each year (Passel, 2003).

It is easy to forget the difficulty of the college application process. Horn and Carroll (1997) found that only a few of the students considered at risk in their study completed all of the steps necessary for college participation: aspiring to a college degree, taking appropriate courses, passing entrance exams, completing an application, and enrolling in college. English-speaking students born in the United States find this process difficult to negotiate; it is even more difficult for ELLs who may not even be aware of the steps involved.

Teachers and guidance counselors often overlook students who are still receiving ESL instruction as possible candidates for college, confusing limited English proficiency with limited academic ability. In addition, teachers and administrators are seldom aware of the test requirements for immigrant students seeking higher education—these tests and policies governing entrance examinations vary widely (Bunch, 1995). Changing federal policies concerning immigration status further complicate the situation because these policies determine who is eligible for federal financial aid (federally funded scholarships).

Students need support structures to complete the application process and role models to help envision themselves as potential college students; they also need to have information presented in language they can understand. Role models can help students sort through the many types of colleges available: two-year or four-year, public or private, coeducational or single gender, large or small, and liberal arts, technical or trade. Students’ choices are often limited to schools where friends or older siblings have enrolled or colleges in the immediate vicinity. Without visits to other colleges or opportunities to discuss options with peers or alumni, students are likely to rely on those institutions with which they’re most familiar.

Support structures and modeling are also important in career planning. Students may not understand the economic value of postsecondary education or the fact that higher education correlates with higher earnings and more stable employment. Without opportunities to talk with or shadow potential role models, or to visit workplaces with diverse employees, they may focus on areas of work limited by their experiences. Most secondary schools have career planning facilities, often involving sophisticated job interest surveys or computer-assisted career planning programs; however, these instruments are not usually available in languages other than English, and the level of English may be beyond the proficiency of English learners. Even when appropriate materials are available, immigrant students may not be aware of them or know how to access them.

It is possible to address both college preparation and career planning through specific courses for immigrant students. In college preparation classes, focus on selecting colleges and filling out applications, developing a résumé and the student essay required in the application, preparing for the variety of tests that will be required (e.g., the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language ( TOEFL), or American College Testing Program (ACT), and doing financial planning (identifying and accessing sources of financial assistance). In a career preparation class, the focus might be on identifying personal interests and strengths, analyzing potential jobs that use these strengths, reviewing required course work and ensuring that students’ schedules are appropriate, identifying postsecondary education that might be needed, and helping identify potential postsecondary institutions.

It is not sufficient, however, to relegate career and college planning to separate courses. As one teacher put it, “We need every teacher to help with the college and career process.” Teachers across the curriculum need to relate their course work to the world outside the classroom and help students to see the interrelationships between what is taught in class and further education and employment. Classroom activities can be augmented by guest speakers who can serve as role models and motivators and provide information on how they chose their own college or career. Inviting prominent bilingual community members communicates the importance of bilingualism and biculturalism as a job asset to all students, not just ELLs. Former students who attend local colleges or are home on vacation can also be invited to talk to classes or to dialogue with students through e-mail or letters, serving as valuable sources of encouragement and information.

Classroom Examples

Mr. Elson (an ESL teacher) and Ms. Sing (a social studies teacher) are on the same middle school team, including both ELLs and native English speakers. They coordinate their instruction, sometimes including the math or science teachers. They routinely weave career and college information into their teaching.

For example, a unit on U.S. history dealing with slavery and the Civil War also included a visit to a former slave home (the site was an archaeological dig in the middle of an apartment complex). Students visited the dig, saw archaeologists at work, and interviewed college students at the site about their work. Though the middle schoolers may be too young to choose a career, they became aware of career possibilities and of the role that postsecondary education plays in these careers. Units emphasizing the importance of college and career planning are also developed for students to take with them when they are called back to their home countries for extended periods of time, which helps students maintain their English proficiency.

At the high school level, Ms.Vaznaugh teaches college and career planning in her intermediate ESL classes; she incorporates job interest surveys, college and career field trips, and test preparation. The latter is especially important, as students will have to demonstrate their proficiency in English for admission to college and successfully complete standardized tests.

Using a variety of test-preparation materials, students analyze individual items for test-taking strategies. Students also take simulated tests, analyze the results, and share their experiences with students who have taken the test. These activities help reduce students’ anxiety about the tests and reinforce the importance of planning for the experience. As Ms. Vaznaugh says, “Kids know less about college than we think they do. They need direct information, guidance, and support.”

Another teacher incorporates college applications into her English class, focusing on the personal essay in the application form. Yet another teacher, Ms. Haynes, includes an introduction to keyboarding and word processing, using résumé development and essay writing for college and career planning as the basis of instruction. These classes introduce students to the college and financial assistance available through the Internet or local software. Usually students work in pairs or small groups when using the Internet or the software programs, freeing Ms. Haynes to answer specific questions or to provide assistance to groups of students.

Special career and college visits are planned for ELLs and those who have recently exited the ESL program. During these visits, students can meet with other immigrant students to see what kinds of career paths they are pursuing. Some teachers pair career visits with planning as a means of meeting the school’s community service requirement. Thus a visit to a nursing home or hospital not only makes students aware of the wide array of jobs available in the health and nursing care fields, but also provides potential sites at which students can perform community service required for graduation.

Much of what is introduced in these classes is reinforced through after-school programs or clubs such as the Honors Council, an extracurricular activity focused on college and career planning (Hadlock, 1994). When the council began, only high-achieving senior students (those with a 3.0 grade-point average or above) were included; over time, however, students with a 2.0 or above have been added, and a second council—for freshmen, sophomores, and juniors—has also been initiated (Hutner, 1996). The councils encourage an earlier focus on postsecondary planning and provide for the development of peer mentors; students in the upper-level council can earn community service credits by helping those in the lower council. A similar set of courses, one for juniors and another for seniors, has been added to the school’s curriculum, though the after-school activities and the emphasis on postsecondary options in ESL and other courses continue.

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