Abington professor supports teachers who instruct displaced Ukrainian children

Abington education Anne Frank elementary school

Roxanna Senyshyn, associate professor of applied linguistics and communication arts and sciences at Penn State Abington, provided strategies to teachers of English language learners at Anne Frank Elementary School in Philadelphia. 

Credit: Regina Broscius

ABINGTON, Pa. — A Penn State Abington professor led professional development sessions for teachers at a Philadelphia public elementary school to help them refine their instruction of Ukrainian students who are in the United States due to the war with Russia. 

Roxanna Senyshyn, associate professor of applied linguistics and communication arts and sciences, worked with teachers at Anne Frank Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia, a group that includes students from Abington’s elementary and early childhood education major who are completing their student teaching requirement at the school.  

“It is critical to the success of the children from Ukraine that we provide equity in language and content learning in math, language arts, and social studies as well as social and emotional support,” Senyshyn, who was born and raised in Ukraine, said. 

She brought her expertise in teaching English as a second language to life through the story of her 8-year-old niece who arrived in the United States last spring from Ukraine. The child’s positive academic experience here served as the centerpiece for the professional development sessions.  

Senyshyn acknowledged that accommodating assorted English language learner (ELL) levels in the classroom is challenging due to the students’ varying experiences, noting that some displaced Ukrainian children may have been out of school since the war began in early 2022. She suggested developing lessons for students who are most proficient and then making the lessons accessible to all by modifying the assignments. 

“Some newcomers might have had some English in Ukraine, but it’s still very challenging because they didn’t have to use the language all day, every day. They need time to respond and the more they hear English, the more they will begin to engage in the classroom,” she said. 

Senyshyn said learning about the ELL's prior content knowledge is critical to their success since language-rich subjects such as social studies are often a challenge. 

“With math, Europe is one level up from the United States, so my niece, for example, had the content knowledge and all she needed was the math-related language to accompany it,” she said. 

Senyshyn reinforced the level of stress ELLs experience by telling the story of her niece crying in school and the teacher who was concerned it was due to trauma from the war in Ukraine.  

“It turns out my niece was frustrated in school and overwhelmed, but she could not communicate it to her teacher,” she said, noting it took the 8-year-old about eight weeks to settle into the academic environment. 

Senyshyn highlighted 10 ways all teachers can support English language learners: 

  • Provide a welcoming attitude and social-emotional support by staying positive and offering guidance and a safe space for students to share their stories when they are ready.  

  • Build collaboration and engagement by pairing ELLs with conversation buddies, ideally a speaker of their home language. Teachers and counselors should work in tandem to support newcomers. 

  • Ask the ELLs to teach you and other students some words in their home language.  

  • Explicitly teach the daily routine to the ELLs by making them familiar with common classroom phrases and places in the school. 

  • Have the ELLs work in small groups with other students because it doesn’t require as much confidence as large group interaction. 

  • Make inputs (what ELLs hear and read) comprehensible by making them visual and interactive and by using body language and modeling. 

  • Honor the “silent period.” Do not force ELLs to talk but make sure to include them in activities. Trauma may impact the length of the silent period so allow time for them to think about the question before expecting a response 

  • Use sentence frames to teach academic language (for example: I agree with....). 

  • Use bilingual assessments. 

  • Communicate with parents frequently in their home language using a translation app or, if in English, using basic sentences. 

Several of the 15 Abington student teachers at Anne Frank are working toward the ESL certification for education majors that Senyshyn coordinates. 

“The ESL certification is an additional endorsement for education majors as they complete their degrees. These students are a little better prepared to work with ELLs, and they are getting practical experience at Anne Frank,” she said. 

Other Abington student teachers have enrolled in a course Senyshyn teaches that offers an overview of English language learners, providing them with background information and strategies to support ELLs. 

"We want to support Abington students beyond the classroom so when they are practicing teachers, they have strategies to fall back on. It’s like being a doctor - no one does surgery right away. Students shouldn’t feel alone because they have us supporting them,” she said. 

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,100 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 25 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.