The rapid-fire Spanish coming through the mobile phone was incomprehensible. I responded with frustration, “Lo siento. No puedo entender. Por favor, habla más despacio.” (I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Please speak more slowly.) The person on the other end of the line simply repeated whatever he had said in the first place and I caught one word this time—reservación.

I was in the Dominican Republic this past spring to present to teachers at an international school on strategies for teaching language learners. I’ve been teaching language learners since 1988 and providing professional development for educators on strategies for working with language learners for over a decade. Despite my experience as an educator and consultant, this recent adventure as a language learner gave me the opportunity to truly what language learners really need to feel successful. At the end of this blog, you’ll find a link to a Google Document with supports, scaffolds, and activities that support language learners at every level of language acquisition based on the new book by Andrea Honigsfeld called Growing Language and Literacy. 

I arrived a day before my first day of work and planned to spend a relaxing day on the beach. I had booked a hotel room in advance and handed my taxi driver the paper with the hotel address. About 15 minutes into the drive, the driver made a phone call to the hotel and then told me something in rapid Dominican Spanish that I couldn’t understand. My Spanish is at a WIDA level 2 or low level 3. (In the Common European Framework that would be about an A2 or low B1.) That means I can speak in simple sentences mostly in present tense with basic social vocabulary. When the taxi driver handed me his mobile phone to talk to the man at my hotel, I couldn’t understand what was wrong with my reservation. Neither the taxi driver nor the man at the hotel could speak English or make the issue comprehensible to me. The taxi driver took the phone back, spoke quickly with the man on the phone again, and told me, “No problema, señora.”

As we began to drive away from the ocean and into town past bars and night clubs, I began to worry about our destination. This was clearly not the location on the beach I had booked. The taxi driver pulled up outside a hotel in a dilapidated part of town, got out, unloaded my suitcase, and escorted me to the hotel reception. There he proceeded to explain the situation to the unsuspecting receptionist at the hotel. Again, I could only understand the word reservación. I told the driver that this was not the hotel I had reserved and tried to ask questions about the situation, but he didn’t know how to make the situation clear to me. He wanted me to pay him for the ride, so he could leave, but I couldn’t even understand how much he wanted me to pay. I was also concerned about staying in that hotel without a reservation. My frustration mounted and he also seemed exasperated.

I took a deep breath and suddenly, I remembered that I actually teach others how to handle situations like this! I knew how to ask for the supports and scaffolds I needed to make this issue comprehensible. I asked the receptionist for a piece of paper. I requested that she write down the problem in simple sentences and write out the total amount for the taxi. Since I could read at a higher level than I could comprehend rapid spoken Dominican Spanish, I could finally understand the situation: my original hotel had given away my reservation and called ahead to this hotel for another room for me. After I paid the driver, I thanked the receptionist, followed the bell hop to my room, and collapsed on the bed.

This experience gave me empathy for all the language learners I work with and was a powerful reminder of the necessity of scaffolds and supports. As language educators, we have to provide multiple supports to ensure that all students can comprehend and actively participate in lessons. We can also teach them learning strategies they can transfer to other classes and real-world situations. Even beginning language learners can comprehend, communicate, and participate, if they are given enough support.

For more ideas on supports you can provide your language learners at each level of language acquisition based on Andrea Honigsfeld new book Growing Language and Literacy, check out this Google Document. Use it during planning sessions, or if you ever find yourself needing a little language support!

Beth Skelton

Author Beth Skelton

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