4 Effective Strategies for Supporting Newcomer English Learners
These techniques for creating a positive learning environment help students adapt to a new culture and acquire a new language.
Each year, teachers across the country open their doors to new students at the start of the new academic year. Being a new student is overwhelming when it’s your first year, but can you imagine the added fear and anxiety that goes with being an English language (ELL) or multilingual learner (MLL)? On top of designing interactive bulletin boards and planning lessons, teachers who are new to working with ELLs/MLLs also wrestle with the concern of how to appropriately support their newcomer students both linguistically and culturally while also delivering content that’s meaningful.
Over the years, I’ve turned to simple strategies to encourage my students and help them to become better acclimated with our new school culture. For me, the best way to do this was to begin by acknowledging theirs first.
1. Make a Good First Impression
Introductions matter. Learn students’ names and nicknames. Learning how to pronounce your students’ names or using their preferred names shows them that you value their identity. Using icebreakers or name games is a fun way to learn students’ names. Be sure to model the instructions for the class before you begin. When I did this, I could visibly see my students becoming more comfortable with one another by making eye contact and smiling when they spoke and giving a thumbs-up or high five to encourage their peers.
A friendly greeting and a smile is a simple way to acknowledge newcomer students. Smiling is a universal language, which directly sends a message that you’re there for your students. It’s one way to give a warm welcome and invite them to feel relaxed and ready to learn.
2. Cultivate a Supportive and Caring Environment
As a teacher, I found that an easy way to support my high school students with classroom vocabulary was to use signage. Posters with sentence stems and labels of classroom supplies are one way in which students can internalize the English language through visuals and real objects.
Clear and consistent classroom routines also help newcomers to understand what is expected. Whether they are presented on a classroom agenda or introduced through modeling, predictable classroom routines help students feel safe. For example, introducing students to common classroom expressions accompanied by a visual can reinforce routines and give students the opportunity to practice the target language. Teaching students to ask and answer questions about classroom actions, such as finding the page number or asking for a writing utensil, supports newcomers in expressing their needs to others. When their questions are answered, their needs are met because they know they were heard.
Creating a caring climate means that care is used to prepare the physical space and contents within the classroom that make it easier for newcomers to transition into school. Preparing a welcome folder with access to important information such as Google Classroom codes or codes and passwords to websites that are used throughout the year says “We’ve been expecting you” to your new student and fosters a sense of belonging.
3. Use Effective Language Strategies for Newcomers
I frequently use the following strategies with my students to build their vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and strengthen the use of their receptive and expressive language skills.
Choral repetition: This is a technique whereby the teacher models reading fluency, pace, and pronunciation. Choral repetition creates a low affective filter or safe low-risk environment where newcomers can participate in whole-class reading.
Wait time: Newcomers need time to translate the question they’re given, think about a response, translate the answer into English, and then verbalize the response. I like to silently count to 15 seconds when I ask one-word-or-longer phrased questions based on vocabulary or to check my students’ understanding. If I notice that more time or clarification is needed, then I begin to repeat or sometimes rephrase the question to assist my students. Usually activities with text-based or inferential questions require the use of a timer for seven minutes or more, depending on the length or complexity of the activity.
Visual representations: These provide another way for students to express their thoughts and ideas. Accompanying these drawings with short sentences validates students’ perspectives and encourages them to share their stories. It’s vitally important that students feel seen and heard. Illustrations and artistic projects allow newcomers experiencing a silent period to express themselves without the fear of presenting to the whole class. Language researcher Stephen Krashen described the silent period as the first stage of language acquisition, where the language learner is silent for several weeks or more as they begin to adjust and acquire the new language.
4. Use Tech and Peer Support to Help Students Take Risks
This is where technology comes in handy. Newcomers are often uncomfortable with speaking or reading aloud. Our class has enjoyed the use of Flip, Classkick, and Book Creator to record their presentations or answer questions. While technological apps have made it easier for students to create and record their presentations, newcomers may need additional time to work on projects and presentations.
Some students may need an extra class day or an extra week. I use discretion based on my students’ needs as they strive to complete the assignment and on the demands of the activity itself. The truth is that a tech-friendly environment can help learners take language risks in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
To facilitate collaboration and communication, clock buddies or map buddies is a buddy system where students are paired up to support newcomers by translating for teachers or helping them to acclimate to their new school environment. Whether it’s a buddy or small group collaboration, these interpersonal activities equip newcomers to decipher language and content. Online translators, dictionaries, and visual dictionaries allow students to access the definition, image, and pronunciation of words in the target language. Students can also create their own glossaries using Quizlet.
Teachers can practice these simple strategies with the intention of constructing a safe and inclusive environment so that newcomer learners know that they are cared for and valued. The classroom becomes a space where all learners feel self-acceptance and a sense of belonging. It’s a place of purpose where all learners can fearlessly be who they are and confidently take on challenges together.