Help! I Have Newcomers...

I often get emails along the lines of: Help! I have students that don’t speak any English, what do I do? I've had 5 just this week! It can be scary, daunting, overwhelming even to encounter this scenario in your class, especially unprepared. So the first thing I do is tell them to breathe, it’s not the end of the world, and ensure them that I’ll be there to support them along the way. Then I start with my spiel.

1. Use lots of visuals, pictures, gestures, and quick sketches

If you only use words when talking to a newcomer they will likely become overwhelmed and frustrated by their lack of understanding, or bored because they don’t understand. Adding visuals of all kinds and gestures can help ELLs gain understanding of a topic, without knowing every word. I used to draw a lot on the board for my students, even with my limited art skills to emphasize that it isn’t about how well a picture is drawn, so that when students drew to show their understanding they would be less self-conscious.

2. Make use of Google: Images and Translate

There is power in being able to pull up images on the screen instantly of a variety of things. I might plan vocabulary words in advance, but my newcomer has questions about words I didn’t think even think of. I can instantly pull up many different things. Think about if I wanted to illustrate related words like the root “Tele” meaning far off, I might show a telescope, a telephone, telephoto, telegraph, and teleport. And then allow for some critical thinking about what the words have in common. Similarly Google Translate is not perfect, but there were many times in my classroom where a student and I needed to have a conversation beyond their understanding of English and we would sit back and forth with Google translate. Giving students a means to communicate and you showing a willingness to want to know what they are thinking and feeling, is powerful, especially with older students.

Another great resource is Read&Write for Google Chrome read more about it here!

3. Pair with a buddy

Preferably, pair a student with a buddy that speaks the same language as the student. Don’t be afraid of them speaking in their native languages if you don’t understand it. Be careful, having a student translate information is not a substitute for modifying instruction. If student A doesn’t understand it, and then translates that information to student B, now you have ever greater misunderstanding. Also, make sure the buddy is okay with being a buddy. Sometimes being a language buddy can feel like a burden to students, reward their extra work in class. I always say: Use them, don’t abuse them, or else you’ll lose them. Think about the power of letting your newcomer turn and talk about something in their native language before having to work with it in English. If a same language buddy isn’t available it’s okay, find a kind helpful English speaking student that you can ask to be their buddy.

4. Provide dual language dictionary

You newcomers may or may not have much literacy skills in their native language. If they can use a word to word dictionary, give them time to look up some unfamiliar words. Capitalize on the knowledge they already bring to the table.

5. Be aware of your own words

In English we use a lot of idioms. These can be very challenging for newcomers, even if they know what the words are they still might have trouble understanding what they mean. With newcomers, it might be best to avoid them, or if you find yourself using them, take a minute to explain what they mean.

Some common schools idioms are:
  • Brainstorm
  • Copycat
  • hold your horses
  • let the cat out of the bag
  • Learn (something) by heart
  • Pass with flying colors
  • Put on your thinking cap
  • draw a blank
  • think outside the box
  • go the extra mile
  • take a stand
  • see eye to eye
  • speak your mind
  • persevere in the face of adversity
  • actions speak louder than words
  • fill in the banks
  • show of hands
  • bookworm
  • hit the books
...and many more

Also, try to use consistent vocabulary. Think about all the different ways you might say a simple direction in class like, turn in your papers. Pass in your papers, hand in your papers, bring your papers here, pass your papers to the left, etc. try and pick one way to say directions, and use it consistently. This way your newcomer can learn to easily understand your directions. After they master something, try to ass in something new. They are trying to learn a lot, twice as much as all of their peers, help them out a bit.

6. Speak slowly and clearly

As teachers we tend to feel constantly rushed, or at least I did, so much to cover, so little time. I couldn’t help but talk fast just to make sure everything got said. With newcomers, slow down, they are struggling with this language. When all your words are just jumbled together it is hard for them to make sense of any of it, even words they might know. Chunk information for students, in general there is a 10:2 rule. For every 10 minutes of you talking and giving information to the students, they need a break, 2 minutes to process the information and work with it. This doesn’t mean they are doing nothing. You could have student turn and share with a partner what they just heard, stop and draw what they understood, list the 3 main points you just talked about, etc.

7. Respect the silent period

A silent period, where students are taking in a lot of language, but not producing it yet is normal. It can even last for many months. It is important to respect this silent period, and allow students ways to respond non-verbally. This way you can still monitor their understanding. Students can point, they can do matching, etc. Along these same lines, we want to give students opportunities to speak (where they aren’t on the spot in front of the class), and encourage them. Increase wait time, model words and correct grammar for them, respond positively to student attempts at speaking.

8. Don’t correct language errors

When a newcomer does make attempts to speak. Getting overly corrected, and told they are doing it wrong is not going to encourage them to continue speaking. Instead, praise the effort, respond positively, and model the correct language. If you ask a question like what did you do on Friday, and the student responds “me go store” a simple reply like “Ah! On Friday, you went to the store? Did you buy something?” (or some other follow-up that shows interest) can go a long way, not only in building confidence, but also in exposure to correct language usage and in building relationships.

9. Writing is a complex process, baby steps!

Remember you must crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Writing is a challenge, especially if your newcomer comes from somewhere that used a different alphabet. Copying is writing, labelling is writing. Provide word banks and provide sentence stems when you want a written response. Start small with simple sentences.

10. Adjust workload to meet proficiency level

Take a look at the newcomers language proficiency levels to see what they can do. Adjust their learning goals accordingly. This does not mean water down their content. If an objective is to identify and describe something, the newcomer can match the word with a picture that is representative of it. They can label diagrams, and sort words and pictures into categories, there are many ways to allow a newcomer to work on grade level content, and for you to accurately assess their understanding. Newcomers in your classroom are responsible for your standards. We have to teach language and content together, it takes a bit of up front effort to determine exactly what you want to teach them and how you will assess it.

You can find grade appropriate Can-Do Descriptors from WIDA here.

11. Celebrate successes

Learning a new language is challenging and frustrating. For many newcomers, school is overwhelming. I have lost count over the years of the number of student who have come to me crying about the stress of school, or telling me stories about going home and crying every night. Take time to celebrate a newcomers successes, no matter how small. Tell them how proud you are of their effort.

12. Keep a positive attitude

Newcomers can read body language, and facial expressions even if they don’t understand all your words. People know whether they are accepted or not, whether you are genuinely supportive or not. Smile, don’t let having a newcomer overwhelm you. You can have a big impact on their educational trajectory.

Video: Confession: New Teacher of Newcomers

I felt like sharing this video this morning, because it is something that is so relevant to teaching newcomers. It is Michelle Benegas at TEDxUMN. She discusses her own experiences as a new teacher of ELLs, and her own learning about culturally responsive teaching. 

This video resonated with me, it echoed my own thoughts about my first year teaching. Over and over I thought I was not prepared to meet the needs of the diverse learners sitting in front of me. There are gaps in this area in teacher preparation programs and, with a rapidly growing population, more and more teachers will have newcomers in their classes. 

I was just at a school yesterday day discussing this very thing with teachers. I recommended that they learn about his culture and his story; that they find ways to let him express himself. 

Video: The Danger of a Single Story

Now that things are finally starting to settle back down on my end. And school is under way, I thought I'd share a video that always resonates with me this time of year. 

A TED Talk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the dangers of a single story.

I love this video as a reminder of the impact of the words we choose, the examples we use, the stories we tell, and the questions we ask.

This is one of the reasons I don't ask the question at the beginning of the year: "What did you do this summer?"