Enhancing the Communication Skills of Newly-Arrived
Asian American Students. ERIC Digest.
by Cheng, Li-Rong Lilly
The number of Asian/Pacific Americans (APAs) in the United States has
increased significantly in recent decades, largely resulting from the exodus
of millions of Southeast Asians to this country. APAs continue to arrive
through sponsorships and business visas, despite tightened immigration
policies and other restrictions. They now number eight million.
One motivating factor for APA immigration is the quality and flexibility
of education in the U.S. Indeed, the Confucian tradition emphasizes the
importance of education, and new immigrants work hard to overcome linguistic
and cultural challenges to obtain a good one. Traditional Asian families
expect their children to do well in school, and may feel ashamed and responsible
if a child does poorly or needs special attention. In addition to regular
schooling, many Asian American parents take their children to community
language schools on weekends, expecting them to increase their home language
skills and maintain their native culture.
The new APA immigrants vary greatly in their time of arrival, prior
education, economic status, and immigration history, among other factors.
Some are unaccompanied minors; others are graduate students with broader
experiences and exposure to their own culture and language. The younger
students seem to adjust more quickly. The cultural and historical backgrounds
of APAs also affect adjustment. Southeast Asians who were not prepared
for their immigration have often found the adjustment process frustrating
and frightening. Conversely, other Asian immigrants, including East Indians,
Pakistanis, and those from Asian Pacific areas, grew up bilingually and
do not find the English language too much of a challenge, yet their cultural
differences can still be difficult to negotiate.
This digest focuses on meeting the educational needs of recently immigrated
children. It offers educators some suggestions for understanding, motivating,
and empowering students, and for working with their parents.
CHALLENGES FOR ASIAN/PACIFIC AMERICAN CHILDREN AND THEIR TEACHERS
Making learning an exciting and meaningful process is challenging for
teachers of newcomer students, for they must find creative ways to make
connections with them (Moss-Kanter, 1995). The newcomers usually have various
levels of English language proficiency, and may have limited opportunities
to practice the language outside the school setting. Moreover, school discourse
is generally more formal than other communication, and it is guided by
a set of linguistic and social rules that are conveyed through oral and
written, and nonverbal, messages and interaction. Many newcomer students
find the rules incomprehensible because they differ so widely from their
experiences in Asian classrooms. APA children who live in "ethnic enclaves"
(such as Flushing, New York, and Little Saigon in southern California)
experience particular difficulty in gaining both basic interpersonal communicative
skills (BICS) and cognitive academic linguistic proficiency (CALP) in English
(Cummins, 1981). So, while some APA students actively engage in verbal
discourse with their teachers, others are disenfranchised during classroom
discussions and risk school failure.
Further, American teachers expect students to be interactive, creative,
and participatory, while APA parents teach their children to be quiet and
obedient, and not to question teachers (Cheng, 1991, 1994). APA children
are used to learning through listening, observing, reading, and imitating;
responding to teachers' questions based on lectures and textbooks; and
taking tests that require only the recall of factual information. Thus
typical American classroom activities leave students feeling ambivalent
and confused. American teachers may misinterpret students' resulting behavior
as a sign of deficiency:
*DELAY OR HESITATION IN RESPONSE: Students may be unsure of an answer
or unfamiliar with the discourse style, or they may simply feel disengaged
*FREQUENT TOPIC SHIFTS AND POOR TOPIC MAINTENANCE: Students may not
have sufficient knowledge to maintain the topic, not be familiar with the
rules for gaining the floor of the classroom, or simply fear and avoid
interactions. *INAPPROPRIATE NONVERBAL EXPRESSIONS: Students may avoid
eye contact with adults (a sign of respect in Asian culture), frown (in
concentration, as opposed to displeasure), or giggle (from embarrassment
or lack of understanding, not in response to something perceived as humorous).
*SHORT RESPONSES: Students may not be proficient enough to reply in
long, cohesive utterances, or they may be too shy to respond.
*USE OF A SOFT-SPOKEN VOICE: A loud voice may signal disrespect in some
*TAKING FEW RISKS: Students may fear being embarrassed or ridiculed
by saying something foolish.
*LACK OF PARTICIPATION AND FAILURE TO OFFER INFORMATION: In Asian classrooms
volunteering information may be considered bold.
*EMBARRASSMENT OVER PRAISE: Students' native culture may regard humility
and self-criticism highly.
*ATYPICAL GREETING RITUALS: Students may appear impolite or unfriendly
because they look down (out of respect or fear) when the teacher approaches
instead of offering a greeting.
Adding to communication problems between teachers and APA students are
the personal challenges that many newcomers face, some of which affect
their ability to learn. They include: an impoverished background; crowded
living quarters with no place to study; a poor education in their native
land (a particular problem for older children); parents who do not feel
comfortable getting involved in the school system; and a lack self-esteem
and feeling different from the other students, which can be exacerbated
by the segregation of students with limited English proficiency (Posnick-Goodwin,
STRATEGIES FOR OVERCOMING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EDUCATORS
To communicate effectively, and to accurately determine the children's
communicative competence, administrators, teachers, and counselors need
to understand students' home culture and discourse rules, and the similarities
and differences between Asian and American schools. When problems arise
with a student, they have to consider a combination of explanations, including
linguistic, cultural, traumatic, or neuro-physical (Cheng & Chang,
1995). They also need to examine the cultural dimensions of interaction
between themselves and their students, and guard against stereotyping children
or generalizing by relying on catalogs of cultural patterns. To help themselves
overcome cultural differences, educators can do the following (Cheng, Chen,
Tsubo, Sekandari, & Alfafara-Killacky, 1997):
*Explore their own background to better understand their attitudes about
their own culture and other cultures.
*Learn about all aspects the students' various cultures, and develop
an appreciation for their cultural beliefs, perceptions, and values.
*Understand and act on the fact that the most effective interventions
take account of students' backgrounds.
*Consider the individual first. While it is important to incorporate
the student's culture in an effective manner, focusing on the individual
rather than a group is key to improving the quality of service in school
*Place newcomer students in programs, classrooms, and situations that
are appropriate to their level of English language proficiency and cultural
acclimation, monitor their ability to function in all aspects of school
life, and be aware of changes in the settings that can affect their ability
to function in them.
CLASSROOM STRATEGIES FOR IMPROVING APA STUDENT DISCOURSE SKILLS
The following suggestions can help create an optimal language learning
environment for newcomer students (Cheng, 1989, 1996):
*Make no assumptions about what students know or do not know, and anticipate
their needs and greatest challenges.
*Expect frustration and possible misunderstandings.
*Encourage students to join social organizations (such as student clubs)
to increase their exposure to language as a social tool and to different
types of discourse.
*Facilitate students' transition into mainstream culture through activities
like discussions of culturally unique experiences and celebrations, such
as birthday parties and Thanksgiving.
*Nurture the students' bicultural identity by infusing all aspects of
the curriculum with multicultural elements and telling stories of famous
people from both Asian and other ethnic groups; for example, children who
speak Chinese at home and practice Buddhism can share information about
their lives and also learn about Christian holidays.
Teachers can also use specific learning activities to promote newcomers'
English language development and comfort with American school culture.
For example, they can do the following:
*Provide explicit comparisons between languages (i.e., Chinese is tonal
and non-inflectional, while English is intonational and inflectional; Japanese
has two writing systems, kanji and kana).
*Explicitly explain school discourse rules, and the written and unwritten
rules that govern writing styles. Model them repeatedly.
*Role play, practice colloquialisms, and create skits with scripts loaded
with school discourse rules for the students: "Teacher: 'Hi! Su-Ming.'
Su-Ming: 'Good morning, Mrs. Douglass.' Teacher: 'I like your shoes, they
are very pretty.' Su-Ming: 'Oh, thank you very much.'"
*Read to students to increase their vocabulary, and expose them to various
narrative styles (i.e., letters, stories, newspapers, magazines, biographies,
STRATEGIES FOR MAKING CONNECTIONS WITH NEWCOMER FAMILIES
Parents who are having their own difficulties in adapting to a new language
and culture may feel inadequate to help their children with schoolwork
or socialization. Also, because of homeland traditions, many Asian American
parents do not believe that it is important to become involved in their
children's schools or education.
Students benefit significantly from their parents' involvement, however;
they feel less marginalized as they view themselves and their families
as constructive members of the school community. Even more significant,
families can play an important role in their children's social, language,
and literacy development by involving themselves in their education (Chang,
Lai, & Shimizu, 1995). In addition, parents can aid teachers by informing
them about their children's use of home and school language, the educational
resources available at home, and the community resources available to their
Thus, schools need to work hard to encourage the involvement of newcomer
parents in both school activities and literacy learning at home; they need
to reach into the community and establish a partnership with their students'
families. Community members should also actively encourage parents to become
involved in school activities. Mentors can explain about American education
expectations and schools. PTA members can serve as models for APA newcomer
parents and can encourage them to become active in the organization.
Some specific suggestions for parent involvement in school include:
volunteering for school activities, such as field trips; helping in the
office, the library, or the classroom; preparing food for bake sales and
student social events; and participating in multicultural fairs.
Given the complexity of the Asian/Pacific American student population,
educators can find it difficult to learn about every student's language,
culture, and social background. However, the ability to communicate effectively
across cultures can be developed, and educators can establish mutually
beneficial partnerships with immigrant families. Integrating cross-cultural
competence into a school's culture, and designing teaching strategies specifically
to meet the educational needs of newcomers, can significantly improve both
the academic achievement and social acclimation of immigrant students.
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