English Language Learner

I am an ESL certified teacher. What this means is that I am certified by the State in data-proven methods to instruct students who are learning English as a second language.

What I learn, on a regular basis, is that I know very little. And to be an effective facilitator of learning, I must be willing to be taught as well.


Ollie couldn’t sleep tonight. I came home from the store to a cacophony of sounds and scripts spewing forth.

Mama, are you feewing oh-be-kay? 

Yes, Ollie, are you feeling okay? (Or, as I like to think of it, “And also with you.”)

I good. Fank you fo’ asking.

It became apparent that a change of environment was the best solution. We first left the house itself, stepping into the humid night air.

Wook at stars! It’s so bee-yoo-tee-ful! 

He says the last phrase the same every time something is pronounced beautiful, with the exact ups and downs in tone and pauses between syllables with which he takes great poetic license. But always the same choices. Because they aren’t choices at all for him. They are the script.

We sit down on the first step and look up, practicing our WH questions. Where is the cloud, what color is the cloud (blue – nice try), etc. We then agree that we should go for a ride.

As we pull into Chick-Fil-A, I silently thank whatever parents contributed to sweet young folks who don’t judge me when I order a cookie sundae with extra cookie (mine) and a small fry (Ollie’s). Who don’t bat an eyelash at the toddler in the back seat, wired beyond belief, singing “OW-SIDE VOY. BEE AN WOUD” (outside voice, big and loud) at the top of his small lungs.

Nothing to see here.

We drive, and I continue my conversation with Ollie, asking him this and that. The answers are, of course, of questionable validity.

But then, it hits me.

Are the fries good? I ask.

Yes, it is. 

It dawns on me. O is an English Language Learner. At nearly five, he is learning the basics of a language that is not his chosen method of communication, but he realizes that words have power and purpose. So he agrees to play by the rules.


Ollie spent ESY this summer in an ESL Pre-K program, which may seem strange to some folks, but it was an amazing blessing for him. The intensive focus on language coupled with the volume of typical peer models was nothing short of miraculous for him. And since ESY ended, he’s become noticeably frazzled. But he continues to push forward with words. Real ones, and scripted ones, and both have their place for him. The real ones are steps into the darkness of communication that he isn’t yet comfortable with; they are brave, and we reward even failed attempts with praise. The scripts and repetitive sounds offer comfort when there isn’t structure; they are like a blanket of sound for times of stress.

Ollie is an English Language Learner. He belongs in an ESL program, because spoken word is not his primary language. And I’m not sure that English is, either. And that’s totally acceptable. Because I can be a learner of whatever language he speaks.

I can cross that bridge.

I can learn, too.



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