8 Tips for Teaching Newcomers

piece of cake

English is no piece of cake for new learners

Having a newcomer student that doesn’t know a word of English placed in your classroom can be a shock, even to an ELD teacher. The current paradigm in our field is to assume that students have familiarity with the majority language but need special attention developing academic language. But when students are truly brand new to English, it’s hard to know where to start. Holly Hansen-Thomas outlines some key considerations when newcomers arrive in mainstream classrooms, and the tips are equally applicable for ELD teachers.

Most striking is how clearly some of the tips feed into meeting the needs on Maslow’s hierarchy (1954), so when in doubt, that’s a good place to start!

From Day #1, ADVOCATE for your newcomers.

A – Activity and interaction. Connect physical movement to learning as much as possible. We’ve talked about how learning can be strengthened by physical associations before, and incorporating activities that allow all students to participate without a lot of pressure keeps affective filters low.

D – Direct focus on language. Incidental learning can and will happen, but early learners need overt exposure to the language they need most. Curriculum like ours are perfect for maintaining a linguistic focus that isn’t overwhelming.

V – Vulnerability. On your part. Every student brings a story to your classroom, and newcomers might have especially poignant tales, whether of home countries that do not welcome them, or journeys that were travelled on foot, or alone, or both. It may take time to earn the trust of new students, but their best learning and healing will happen when you have a meaningful relationship with them.

O – Orchestrate your classroom well. Is yours a student-centered classroom? Does it have an inviting environment, and is the routine steady and reassuring? Clear expectations and an organized space help meet deficit needs and allow students to focus on meeting growth needs.

C – Cultural relevance. A lack of background knowledge makes learning significantly harder for newcomers. What is cake, and why do you have a piece of it when something is easy? What is pie, and what does it have to do with the circle you’ve drawn on the board during the math lesson? It’s not always easy to stay conscious of our own language use, but it will vastly help our newest ELs.

A – Academics. Keep them of high quality. If you’ve ever been in a country where you don’t speak the language, you know how maddening it can be when your vocabulary of a 2-year-old makes people look at you with pity, and misjudge your intelligence. Give your students the benefit of the doubt! They may be excellent students, but that darn language barrier makes it hard for them to express their capabilities.

T – Translanguaging happens. There’s a lot of debate on if, and how much, the native language should be used in the classroom (depending on your local political flavor). But forbidding students from connecting their new language (L2) to their first language (L1) is a disservice, especially as they are starting out. Some language lessons can be brief when the L1 is accessible – for example, it took me years to understand the difference between suficiente and bastante. Once I realized that suficiente = enough and bastante = plenty, my learning was instantaneous. Getting an explanation on the difference in Spanish was a confusing waste of time, considering how clearly the words mapped onto my native English. Of course, our philosophy at Lingual Learning is that students need to use the new language to learn it, but that doesn’t mean they should ignore the linguistic resources at their disposal!

E – Expectations must be high. ELs are nearly always capable of more than may be expected of them. They just may need corresponding high scaffolds when they start out.

S – Standards must be met. Like Academics and Expectations, Standards remain high for our ELs. It can be intimidating to work with students who know barely enough language to get through the lunch line when they start, but their linguistic growth is also the fastest and carries the most visible punch.

So what do you think? Are you an ADVOCATE? Is there any area that comes easier, or harder for you as a teacher?

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