Jan 19, 2023

The 7 Personal Finance Topics Most Relevant for English Language Learners

Courtney Poquette has been teaching personal finance at Winooski H.S. in Vermont for more than 17 years. Her school is in a refugee settlement area with over 800 students pre-k to grade 12 speaking around 27 different languages! During that time, she's picked up many insights regarding NGPF curriculum adaptation for English Language Learners, or multilingual learners (MLs). Here is the first in a series of posts with her advice for other teachers of ELLs. 


1. Credit Cards vs Debit Cards


Why is this important?

Many cultures are cash-based.  For students new to the U.S. banking system, the difference between credit cards and debit cards can be confusing.


Recommended NGPF resources:

Credit vs Debit in the ELL Video Series Playlist.

I also appreciate this video, but instead of the Edpuzzle, students create a three column chart and watch the video first. Then at a slower speed (with captions on - this was a tip from one of our ML teachers, since students benefit from being able to read the words while learning English), we break down each of the cards and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

I am a BIG fan of the Fine Print activities. While the questions are above many of my students’ reading levels (sometimes I will modify them in advance), students tell me that these are very helpful to them as they are most like the documents they see when translating for their families. We work in teams to answer questions about the Schumer Box and then break down it means when we review the answers.

We play CatInsanity, but instead of having students complete the worksheet (which for some students could take a whole class period), we play as a whole class. I circulate and try to connect with each student of their understanding of the game and feelings while the cats are multiplying.


2. Setting up a bank account


Why is this important?

There is mistrust and misinformation for many students who are used to holding onto cash.


Recommended NGPF resources:

It is important to understand why we save and FDIC Insurance, but the biggest misconception is that “banks take their money.” This is where the Fine Print activities come into play again. 

Fine Print: Checking Account Agreement and Fine Print: Checking Account Statement are something I use in back to back classes. Again, this is a time where we go over the answers as class and have a bigger discussion on why it’s so important to understand the rules of their accounts. In addition to group work, I usually leave the final reflection questions as a challenge for those who finish early, as that helps those who are struggling with reading and writing.

When reading articles in class, I will often use Nearpod collaborate boards as a way to differentiate and make the work accessible for everyone. For example, in the article “7 Reasons Why We Save,” I use this as a starter to our banking unit. Usually two students are assigned to each of the seven points to find something to add to the board. Then students who finish quickly add more or read the whole article.


3. Online Banking


Why is this important?

We know that online banking is an integrative part of the U.S. banking system at this point, which may differ from other countries.


Recommended NGPF resources:

When it comes to online banking, I share with students my personal mishaps (typically each class I have personal finance stories and examples to share). I tell the students how convenient it is to use online bill payment to pay my monthly expenses, but explain you’re responsible for knowing which payments you sent out before you close your accounts. Here is where we tackle understanding how to reconcile your account through the Fine Print Activity.


4. Credit Score / Checking Your Credit


Why is this important?

The idea of credit and having a credit score is unique to the United States.  As a totally new system, it can be hard to understand and navigate.


Recommended NGPF resources:

In my opinion, the two most eye-opening activities NGPF offers are FICO Credit Scores and Calculate the Impact on Loans. Every high school student should be exposed to these as it paints the picture of why credit scores matter.

I model Sam’s choices as a whole class and then we complete this as table groups. It is important that students who are learning English are also practicing the vocabulary.  

As a class, students are always shocked and assume there is a mistake with the amount of money that goes towards interest on mortgages. It is an excellent transition to my upcoming lessons on renting an apartment vs buying a home and the pros and cons of each. We also add in understanding Amortization and the benefit of making extra payments towards principal on any type of loan.


5. Budgeting


Why is this important?

It is hard to understand how the value of the U.S. dollar compares to the prices of different necessities. In addition, a basic understanding of the cost of living and expenses is necessary to be able to plan a budget in the U.S. It can be beneficial to spend more time on basics like average salaries, frequency of pay, etc.


Recommended NGPF resources:

In my class, we cover budgeting as the final unit. I created a modified version of the Salary-Based Budget for our final project. Throughout my course, I have students research careers, cars, apartments, and houses that they are interested in and calculate the monthly payments. Those numbers all come into play in this final project where students put together all the decisions they made through class to figure out if their plans will work. This year, they are each turning this into a presentation to share out to one another, teachers and community members of their “financial life after high school.”


6. Taxes


Why is this important?

Not everyone understands that when you buy something, there is a sales tax applied. Additionally, the importance of filing a tax return and understanding how tax deductions work when you get a job is also a new system for many ELL students.

Taxes are the one thing students tell me they love the most in the class, which is not what I anticipated. I think they feel empowered when learning how taxes work and how to file their returns. I discovered many have not filed returns when they would get a refund and many others overpaid someone to file for them.


Recommended NGPF resources:
We spend time understanding why we pay taxes and the different forms, but wrap it up with CALCULATE: Completing a 1040. For this one, I again have students work in groups and we do everything on paper. I model the first 1040 for them as a class to complete together. Then I print out a stack of blank 1040s and I print out all the W2 forms students will need in advance. I even print out a completed 1040 for each individual. This class works like magic!

For 90 minutes students are completely engaged. They work as teams, complete each tax form then use my answer key to check their answers. Then, they grab the next W2 and complete another form. As a way to differentiate, I expect my students to complete three forms with their groups, but offer extra credit for students who finish all five.


7. Investing


Why is this important?

Students who are not in my class often ask me: “What’s the easiest way to get rich quick?”


Recommended NGPF resources:

Many of my students are over 18 and have downloaded investment accounts based on advice from friends or family. Many are paying monthly fees for these accounts. Many are watching TikTok videos about cryptocurrency. I love playing PLAY: The Bitcoin Rollercoaster. It was exciting to look at the price of Bitcoin now after playing the game. 

We also loved following that up with the timely FinCap Friday: Questioning Cryptocurrency, which led to a great discussion. Students look forward to hearing what Yanely has to say about the topics, particularly after watching her story in the documentary, The Most Important Class You Never Had.  We also keep a scoreboard for the semester. Every time someone in the class wins a FinCap Friday, they get a checkmark on the board.



Like these tips? Listen to a recent NGPF Podcast episode: Courtney Poquette, Jeanette Albert and Elena Indman on teaching personal finance to refugee populations




About the Author

Courtney Poquette

Courtney Poquette has been teaching personal finance at Winooski H.S. in Vermont for more than 17 years. Her school is in a refugee settlement area with over 800 students pre-k to grade 12 speaking around 27 different languages! During that time, she's picked up many insights regarding NGPF curriculum adaptation for English Language Learners, or multilingual learners (MLs).

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