It’s never easy being a newcomer, especially in the classroom. According to the U.S. Department of Education, newcomers include foreign-born students and their families who have recently arrived in the U.S. “Newcomer” is an umbrella term that covers immigrants, asylees, refugees, students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), and more.

During my years in the classroom teaching English learners (ELs), newcomers were my favorite group! Carrying with them incredible resilience, heart-moving stories, and numerous admirable qualities, newcomers have easily won my heart and proven to be assets to the classroom.

Teachers play an important role in helping newcomers transition smoothly and integrate into American society. Here are 5 practical tips to support the newcomers in your classroom.

1. Respect their silent period

The “silent period,” also known as the pre-production period, is the first stage observed in second-language acquisition during which the learner is not doing much talking yet. Though newcomers at this phase may not be actively producing, they are still actively processing the second language. Instead of forcing ELs to speak in class during this period, there are other ways to help them demonstrate learning:

  • Incorporate more partner work with those who speak the same language 
  • Physically interact with the language by using movement (TPR: Total Physical Response)
  • Draw to show understanding
  • Provide manipulatives and hands-on activities

See my post on digital manipulatives based on SIOP® Feature 20, which highlights the importance of providing “hands-on materials and/or manipulatives for students to practice using new content knowledge.”

  • Use hand signals for quick formative assessment.

This finger scale is a fun way to monitor progress and gauge levels of understanding.

Make a copy of this template.

2. Leverage their cultural assets and prior knowledge 

The culture, home language, and prior knowledge of newcomers could act as a strong bridge to make new content in the classroom more meaningful and comprehensible. Teachers should make an effort to learn about their newcomer EL students’ cultures and find opportunities for them to share their stories in class. According to SIOP® Feature 16, it is essential to “provide frequent opportunities for interaction and discussion between teacher/student and among students, which encourage elaborated responses.”

This bilingual KWL template is a useful tool to help newcomers make connections between prior knowledge and new content, as well as to engage in meaningful interaction with their teachers and peers. KWL is an acronym for what students already Know, what they Want to know, and then what they ultimately Learn.The key is allowing students to write in their home language and/or use drawings in order to engage with the content!

Make a copy of this template.

3. Focus on vocabulary 

Vocabulary is the currency of any classroom but especially of the content classroom. It is vital for teachers to review key vocabulary explicitly and frequently so that students have ample opportunities to interact with the words to retain them. SIOP® Feature 27 underscores the importance of a comprehensive review of vocabulary. One helpful resource that incorporates this feature is my Word Detective’s Notebook, which allows ELs to investigate, examine, and practice using new “detected” words. In just one activity, newcomers are able to connect with content vocabulary in at least four different ways.

Make a copy of this template. 

Make a copy of the Spanish version.

4. Use images to draw out language  

Images are a universal language and highly effective in the classroom. The Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM), developed by Emily Calhoun in 1998, is a research-based method of vocabulary instruction using pictures containing familiar objects that help students draw out words. This model helps students add words to sight. Personally, PWIM is my favorite instructional technique for teaching newcomers. Here is how you can implement PWIM in the classroom:

  • Step 1: Start with an image with white space around it.
  • Step 2: Label the objects together. (The teacher can say the word, write the word, spell the word aloud, and repeat as many times as needed.)
  • Step 3: Categorize the generated words into groups such as parts of speech or beginning consonants.
  • Step 4: Use the words in complete sentences.
  • Step 5: Provide a cloze paragraph using the sentences.

Make a copy of an example PWIM template

5. Create an inclusive environment

A classroom with newcomers can benefit from activities that celebrate their differences. One such activity is “Where did your story begin?” which allows students to share the various places from which they have come. This activity allows students to not only visualize each other’s journey but also empathize with one another, promoting both diversity and inclusion.

Make a copy of this template.

As teachers of multilingual students, we proudly stand at the forefront of supporting newcomer students and their families. Our classrooms serve as a welcome mat to a new educational system as newcomers adapt to U.S. schools, society, and culture. 

Is your welcome mat ready for your newcomers? 

Learn more about the SIOP® Model for your School District Today >

About the author: Esther Park is a ENL/ELA teacher with 15 years of experience teaching high school English language learners. She now works as an instructional designer and learning experience developer in Northern Virginia creating innovative and engaging elearning activities and course content for K-12 and adult learners. Esther earned her B.A. from the University of California Irvine, and an M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Biola University.

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Esther Park

Esther Park

ENL/ELA teacher

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.