How can international and new immigrant students succeed in American schools?
International students and new immigrants starting school in the United States face unique challenges, from learning how to use a second language fluently to adapting to a new culture. In my years of experience, I've met many students who have come from China to continue their education in the United States, whether they are starting in elementary, middle, or high school. Their parents, and sometimes the students themselves, will come to me to ask: "what is the best way to adapt? How do I not only keep up with my native-language peers but also get ahead to get into a good college?" To answer these questions, let's break down these different challenges and questions to guide the students to success.
Challenges for international students and new immigrants
The biggest challenge, undoubtedly, is the language barrier. With more and more Chinese students coming to the United States, it may be comfortable for international and new immigrant students to stick with the people they feel the most comfortable with. This generally means that these students will naturally stick with other new immigrant or international students from China. Although this is a natural and comfortable reaction to living in a new place, the problem with this approach is that this kind of self-segregation reinforces their isolation from the greater American society and does not force the student to learn and use the kind of English necessary to be successful in the United States.
In the short term, a student who does not leave his or her comfort zone then will not be compelled to improve his or her English. This lack of motivation will negatively impact future measures of English proficiency such as TOEFL tests, SAT or ACT reading and writing test, and the most-important college essay--usually the only spot in the college application where the student is free to express him or herself. To counter this problem, I strongly encourage students to make friends with native English speakers to become comfortable with using English and know the often inconsistent rules of English grammar. This is not to say that new immigrant and international students should not have friends with backgrounds similar to theirs, but they cannot exclude native speakers from their circle of friends because this results in negative consequences both in their English ability but also ability to work within an English-speaking American society.
Students are actively encouraged to join clubs, teams, and other study groups so they can be constantly interacting with native English speaking students in and outside of school. Just being immersed in this English speaking culture, it can greatly help students in adapting and picking up certain details and nuances of the English language and American culture that they may not learn from a textbook. Beyond that, Bridge Education offers Oral English Classes and Public Speech tutoring here. Students will learn how to communicate effectively as well as with confidence. Click HERE for more information.
Keeping pace with peers
Due to the language barrier, many students often start behind their native-speaker peers of the same year, often starting their school year in English as a Second Language classes, also known as ESL, ELD, or Shelter. Now, how can students from so far behind their peers catch up? The answer is practice. The student must read more, write more, and converse more in English to become more confident in using this new language. Occasionally this may mean buying two versions of a classic literature book, one in its original English and one in a Chinese translation just to make sure that the student understands what is happening in the book and isn't just glossing over difficult words. I also recommend students to circle any words in books that they don't know and look them up in a dictionary, and get them used to seeing and using these words.
In my experience, many students are afraid to make mistakes with a language that they are not familiar with, so they end up not using it at all. This is the true mistake. Having the fear of making mistakes stopping the student means that the student does not get used to using the language. Students must be prepared to make mistakes if they wish to improve their English.
Another reason why students must improve their English is because universities require at least three years of regular English in addition to a student's ESL classes to gain admission. If a student is in ESL, ELD, or Shelter for all four years, the college will not recognize these credits as being acceptable English classes. Therefore, the student must show progress and proficiency in English to jump out of these classes and be placed in proper English classes to have the credits that universities will recognize.
High schools generally will have placement tests at the end or beginning of an academic year (and occasionally halfway through the year) to see if the student has made enough progress to jump into the next level of classes. However, this process can be slow, especially if the school system has ELD levels all the way up to ELD 4. Oftentimes we also recommend students to study for the TOEFL to prove their proficiency if the high school itself does not offer sufficient opportunity for a student to prove him or herself. To test out of ELD, we recommend that the student to be able to test at least a score of 80 on the TOEFL iBT.
Now, I do consider flashcards and test-prep vocabulary books to be useful tools as well, but they are just tools. A student can learn the definition of a word, but if s/he never learns how to use it in a sentence, this may still present a challenge when s/he is asked to answer questions in the SAT/ACT or use the right words in writing a college application essay.
Adapting to the culture
As I've stated previously in this article, I strongly encourage students to get involved in after school activities and join school or community clubs. This isn't just to help them improve their English. This is also an important way for students to become more involved in American culture.
The United States has a long history of self-organizing societal groups, from churches to book clubs to bowling leagues. Because of American society's self-organizing nature, leadership is highly valued in American culture, much more so than in traditional Chinese culture. The large number of community service organizations in the United States comes from the national belief that problems are solved by people acting together and not delegated to the government.
Americans value self-motivation, immersion, and leadership, which also become factors in the college admissions process as well. Colleges are not just looking for who studies the best, but also who will contribute the most to their community, who they *want* to be in their community. A student who tests well but does not get along well with teachers or other students will not be a strong candidate for a top-tier university. Because these school are not just looking for the next Nobel-prize winning PhD but also future leaders and contributors to American society and the world, it is very important for students to be engaged with the world and have a broad perspective. Therefore, grooming a student to not only be a good test-taker but also self-motivated leader is important not only to the future of the student, but hopefully also to the future of society as well.
Many Students may also shy away from joining group organizations/after school activities. Not only that, they might not even know where or how to start/join a student club. Here at Bridge Education, we help students achieve their goals in starting a club and maintaining it. By encouraging their entrepreneurial skills, our students get to create their own club, as well as plan and execute its entire process. Click HERE if you want to join a student club!