English Language Learners

Supporting Newcomer English Learners as a General Education Teacher

Even without a dedicated specialist, there are steps that teachers can take to support the success of this growing group of students in school.

January 18, 2024
PixelsEffect / iStock

By 2025, one out of four children in U.S. schools will be an English language learner (ELL), and many educators are growing increasingly accustomed to having these students in their classrooms.

Yet there’s an imbalance in the amount of support that is typically given to this growing demographic and the professional training provided to general educators. It’s unlikely that there is an ELL specialist or bilingual educator in every classroom to support these students consistently throughout their school day. 

This presents a challenge. Newcomer ELLs, especially students with interrupted formal education (SIFEs), typically need one-on-one attention throughout their school day. Without such attention, general educators need to use alternate methods to address the needs of this special demographic. Here are some ideas.

Build a community

First, make it a community effort. Immediately partner ELLs with students who are friendly, personable, and willing to help. Before an ELL arrives, ask the class if there’s anyone who would be interested in volunteering. If an ELL shows up without notice, partner them with a student you think will be amenable to helping, and then check with them after class to see if they’re willing to be a guide for the rest of the week. This is mutually beneficial for both parties and can boost the confidence of all involved.

Depending on circumstances or how well the newcomer adjusts, you could also consider having a different “peer partner” every day or week until the newcomer becomes more comfortable and independent. In my experience, there’s usually at least one student who’s happy to take on this role voluntarily. It gives them a feeling of purpose and pride to be able to help a classmate. In a U.S. History class recently, I introduced a newcomer ELL, and after class, a peer, without prompting, introduced herself to the student and asked if she could help her find her next class. 

Make use of tools

Equip all students and staff with knowledge and access to a translation app on a computer or phone (Google Translate is most common). Such tools are more appropriate for upper-level elementary grades, as well as middle and high school. With the increase in ELLs in our schools, and also a push for multilingualism at the federal level, all students and staff should have a translation tool on their device and know how to use it. Students can utilize this through adulthood to help ease the inhibition of intercultural communication and facilitate dialogue when language is a barrier.

I find it fascinating to observe teenage native speakers of English interacting with a newcomer ELL for the first time, completely unaware of how to engage in a conversation using a translator, visuals, and gestures, and gradually developing the skills to communicate. 

Use actions and words

Another strategy is to model using physical movements linked with spoken language. Think of Simon Says but doing actions along with the ELL or for the ELL as you try to communicate. Enable and encourage classmates to use facial expressions, pointing, gestures, etc., when interacting with ELLs. 

Although this method of language exchange is limited, it can help develop a lifelong skill of being able to connect with people of varying linguistic backgrounds. In addition, using physical movements with language can help with remembering new words. 

Recruit volunteers

For grade 4 and above, solicit student volunteers for homework help and language tutoring. They can have the option to receive community service hours for this for a club or class requirement. Advertise this by posting signs around the school and outside your classroom door. Display sign-up sheets for volunteers to choose a day and time they can commit to, and also put this on the morning announcements. Welcome volunteers to stop by for whatever amount of time they’re available.

Collaborate with teachers who require their students to do community service hours. Publish a notice about this in the school paper or newsletter along with photos of peer tutors working with ELLs to encourage more students to participate. Ask a world language teacher if they’d be willing to give extra credit to students who volunteer. 

When student volunteers come to my classroom after school to tutor, I model teaching methods for them with the ELL student and guide them as they engage in conversation or discuss the homework so that the tutor can have an understanding of the language abilities of the ELL and a sensitivity to their feelings as language learners. 

If peer tutors are practicing English conversation and don’t know what to talk about with the ELL, I provide a list of topics and questions for reference. 

Engage ambassadors 

Seek multilingual students in the building who are interested in acting as a peer ambassador for newcomer ELLs. Introduce the newcomer ELL to peer ambassadors, and invite them to schedule a time when they can meet together to get oriented to the new school and have an opportunity to have discussion and ask questions. 

For example, there are two new Ukrainian students in my building who speak Ukrainian as well as Russian. Their counselor introduced them to students who speak Russian, and these students walked them to their classes on their first day.

Another student who speaks Russian was interested in meeting the new Ukrainians, so he stayed after school to practice speaking Russian. The newcomers appreciated this warm greeting. 

The above methods are a means for nurturing an environment that’s welcoming of linguistic and cultural diversity and cultivating a civic-minded community of students and staff alike.

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