Homeschooling ESL children

We’ve been a homeschooling family since 1995, which would lead some folks to call me a veteran and assume I have all the answers figured out.  Last week it mostly felt like I’m exceedingly tired of correcting math.  I’m scheming a bonfire of math answer keys on the day that I retire from homeschooling a decade or so from now. (Though it’s more likely that my practical side will kick in and I’ll try to sell the tattered things on ebay.)

Many moms have the hardest time during their first couple years of homeschooling as they get settled in and figure out what works for them.  But for me, the last 4 years have been far more challenging.  A fair bit of that challenge has been related to homeschooling older-adopted children for whom English is a second language.

We’re also homeschooling a whole lot of kids these days. This year we have one senior, one 9th grader, three kids in 8th, one in 4th and one in 1st grade. Several need personalized reading help each day. More than half of them are adrift in the land of algebra and most are not happy about that little adventure. Two younger ones also need frequent math help.  Not to mention the 180 or so problems of math I check every day. None of it is easy.

Last week, feeling worn, I decreed Thanksgiving week to be a week of holiday.  Sleeping late and pretending algebra does not exist sounds utterly lovely to me. This decision has given me a few guilt pangs. Especially when I think of our girls who came to America 4 years ago, I wonder if I should be more diligent and get in some more days of school.  But they are just as burned out on school as I am.  Hopefully a week off school will revive and refresh.

The longer I teach our older-adopted girls, the more I realize that my initial expectations were unrealistic.  They came home from Ethiopia at 9 and 11.  They are both smart girls and in general work hard. I honestly thought that within a year or two language would not be an issue, especially given the fact that they get lots of personal attention with homeschooling.

Certainly the girls have learned a tremendous amount since they arrived.  Homeschooling, though difficult, has been good for them.  And at this point their English is good enough that they can communicate very effectively. They’re both doing well in math. But things like spelling and grammar remain mysterious to them.  This difficulty is completely normal — after all, they both spent about a decade speaking an entirely different language.

I’ve read various language acquisition studies suggesting that it takes older kids 4-10 years to become fluent at a second language.  In that same time, their peers who have always spoken English are also learning new vocabulary words at a regular rate, making it unlikely that an ESL student will truly ‘catch up’ to their peers in an academic sense.

We are working systematically through a grammar book and a spelling book.  I am encouraging lots of reading, and lots of dictionary work when words are unknown. I will always be the type of mom to encourage my kids to do their very best, and I think that higher parental expectations in general lead to higher performance in a child.

But working to help the girls ‘catch up’ has opened my eyes to the down side of parental expectations.  A side that has the potential to leave kids feeling like failures if they can’t achieve to the level that their parents imagine. For the good of my children and for my own peace of mind, I’m having to adjust my expectations.  As much as it pains my writer-heart, good spelling and properly put-together written sentences may not happen for all my kids in the time that they have left in our home.

But here’s what I’ve also come to realize: my English-learning girls already possess (or are well on the road to having) a boatload of equally important skills. They  can read and follow instructions.  They notice when someone needs help and they’re not afraid to work hard. They can look up things they don’t know.  They can cook dinner and soothe babies. They know the difference between right and wrong. They can have a conversation about their faith and why they believe what they believe. They’re kind to people around them, and because of that, they are well respected and well liked wherever they go.

Much of my distress in recent years has come when I’ve been focused on areas of weakness. (And we all have them, don’t we?)  But to be a wise encourager of my kids I’m called to focus on them in a much more multidimensional way, to notice and praise the legitimately valuable skills that they already possess. Then they can approach adulthood with a degree of confidence instead of a vague feeling that they don’t measure up.

In allowing me to teach my children, it seems God is sneaking in some home education for me as well.


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  1. You know….I was wondering something. Perhaps you’ve thought of this or perhaps not. Does Rosetta Stone have English? My thoughts are this….and I realize your girls have been here for a while now and can converse easily enough…..but what about instead of regular grammar/writing/spelling like we would teach our children of whom English is their first language, you use Rosetta Stone? I mean, after all, they are learning a “foreign” language and trying to become fluent in it. This is just a thought of mine and it might be totally off base. It just makes me wonder if regular language arts lessons for English as a first language students is too ambitious for a child who is still trying to learn the language.

    Again, this might be way off base, but it was a thought. 🙂

    • Great idea, Beth! And yes, there is….

    • Beth, I totally agree that standard language arts is too much for just-arrived kids. Rosetta Stone English would be a nice way to get kids some basic vocab in their first year or two home. I kinda wished I’d paid the bucks and purchased the English program during our girls’ first year home.

      However, Erika (my daughter who is a semester away from degrees in Spanish and linguistics) did Rosetta Stone Spanish during her high school career and found it quite lacking in the grammar department. Because of her feedback, I’m opting to plug away at standard grammar instruction now that the girls have decent comprehension… We’re doing a book called “Our Mother Tongue” for grammar (ironic title, eh?) and one called ‘The Writing Road To Reading’ for spelling, and these books are chipping away, teaching them little by little.

      But the real takeaway lesson for me during this whole process has been that I just need to be faithful in instructing them, praising their improvement and their areas of strength, without getting too bound up in how I think the final result should look.

      • Ah gotcha. I’m sure what you came up with for your girls is amazing. 🙂

      • Another thought–I’m sure you have already thought of this, but a huge way small kids become fluent and naturally “get” proper grammar/syntax is through listening to good books being read to them. Kids can listen and comprehend far above their reading level, so audio books can be a moms best friend! My late reader/dyslexic son has listened to probably 50 books, FAR above his reading level, so his vocab and grammar has progressed even though reading and writing is slower. It seems like that would be a fun tool for esl kids, too.

  2. I feel your pain! While I don’t yet have an older English language learner (probably in March), I understand the whole math piece. I just recently found a manipulative for algebra that I’m really hoping will help my algebra-challenged daughter visualize what is going on. I’m sure you’ve heard of it… it’s Hand’s On Equations. (I did do a short blog post about it and how it works. It’s listed on my sidebar under the title, “We interrupt this blog for a brief commercial message”)

  3. “But to be a wise encourager of my kids I’m called to focus on them in a much more multi-dimensional way, to notice and praise the legitimately valuable skills that they already possess.”

    This is exactly what I needed to be reminded of. Thank you.

  4. I think all Homeschooling Moms learn as we go. What a blessing, that certainly comes with its challenges as all blessings do.

  5. I’m just nodding my head as I’m reading this, thankful for your wisdom and insight. It’s easy to look for the weaknesses while forgetting to encourage the strengths. I’m going to tuck this blog post away into my heart and try to remember it on the days where I feel like I have to measure up to something as a home school mom. Because for me, it’s sometimes more about what other people might think than what is best for my kids.

  6. I’ve been reading your blog for ages but never commented, I don’t think. I’m an ESL teacher (or was, before baby) and taught in an IEC here in Australia for a few years. It is SUCH a good programme! The kids come for one to two years (depending on how much schooling they’ve had previously) and do a complete immersion course in English with kids who are from all over the world. I taught mostly the refugee kids, with limited schooling, so they got basic primary level education in English, covering all subjects.

    I suggest a range of grammar books. Given the amount of school your girls have had they may be up to the level of the Oxford or Cambridge Grammar books. They are very good. I would not stick to one or two, though. Lots of drilling is good.

    I also recommend lots of ‘natural’ grammar lessons; reading, reading, reading, movies, conversations etc. I’m sure you do all this, though! As much real life application as you can manage will solidify their skills.

    I have read it can take fifteen years for language fluency. Amazing.

    All the best,


  7. The fact that you’re teaching them how LEARN — especially that it’s okay to look things up and the methods for finding unknown information — will go such a long way!

  8. Oh yes! This post was so encouraging to me! I am a nerd, love school and learning, and have set high standards for our homeschool. God has been showing me, though, that all the academic success in the world is fruitless if my 4 kids are weary and beaten down and having to earn my love and approval. I have started focusing my praise and I Love Yous on the quiet moments when they are near me, or when they are struggling, not only when they get something right or excel. Thank God HE meets us where we are and does not demand the exact same service and skill from us all. 🙂
    Thank you for the encouragement your blog always is!!!

  9. Great post Mary. I enjoy following your blog so much! I completely agreed with what you said about focusing not only on encouraging improvement on weak areas but praising your children strenghts. I couldn’t help but comment on this post, as it really hit close home here. As a woman who learned English as second language as an adult, I would humbly suggest that you don’t only praise their strenghts, but build up on it. If I’m not mistaken your daughters came to the U.S with the ability to communicate in their language, which then makes them now bilingual right? Bilingual children are extremely smart people, so they should get a lot of credit for that. That thought has been very encouraging for me thru my language learning journey, specially when going thru rough patches and even today when I still make a few mistakes.. So I wonder if there is a way for you to preserve their mother tongue? I know it may sound tough given the size of your family, but I would suggest the idea maybe worthy to look into when you think about how much it would add to your daughters’ self-worth and life enrichment (You probably already looked into this idea, but just in case you have not, maybe the people from “Nanduti” or “spanglishbaby” can give you some pointers)

    Also, immersion is absolutely the best way to learn a language. I don’t recommend Rosetta Stone either, nor to put your children on an ESL class with other ESL students. The more you can facilitate interaction, practice, experience and fun with the the target language in a natural and meaningful but of course consistent way the better. (Just a caveat, if any of your daughters have a shy personality, you should specially try to work with her uniqueness, but still find ways to get her to speak, speak, practice, practice) I think homeschooling allows you to personalize this beautifully. I don’t think you should be concerned with your daughters leaving home without reaching proficiency. In my 11 years in the U.S I have witnessed a bunch of children who have developed proficiendy in much less than a decade and some of them have happily finished their college degree and reached professional/personal fulfillment. My sister and I, coming at age 14 and 22 respectively, are just an example of it.

    So knowing that God’s writing each of our own stories, and that He will redeem our mistakes in the journey and have equipped us with our own strenghts and weaknesses to be uniquely be part of his glorious plans, rest assure that your daughters have significantly high probablities (Actually almost guaranteed) of conquering their second language. 😉

    Wishing you the very best in your journey,
    Paola Bush
    Merritt Island, FL

  10. He is so good at that ;D

    • Thanks for this! I have been homeschooling for 9 yrs and this is our first year with our 6 yr old daughter from China. We have been home 8 months with her and learning to read has proved daunting. What I used in the past does not work. I would love to know what you used.

      • Hi Dona,
        We use an ancient Abeka phonics program and lots of ‘Bob’ books– look for them on Amazon. Another great reading assistant is the book “Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” also on amazon. You are an experienced momma, so maybe you already know this. But just in case you haven’t experienced this with your older kids, there are quite a few kids who aren’t developmentally ready to read well til age 9 or 10. My 20 year old bio son did not take off reading til age 10. Then he went on to be a National Merit Scholar. He was a very active physical child and just wasn’t interested in reading mastery til he gained a bit more maturity.

        Also, newly adopted kids are often not able to learn well til attachment builds– everything grows together, and they really need to develop an attachment to mom before they become motivated to work hard, and become able to learn well. I know that with my older-adopted girls, for awhile I was really hot to get them ‘caught up’ whatever that is. But they HAD to get the bonding down before they could really feel happy enough in their lives to learn other things well. I’d really encourage you to be very patient, read to her lots, do lots of bonding activities, and don’t even worry about her reading development for at least another year or two.

        All the best,


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