What To Do When I Don’t Know What To Do: New Arrivals

Originally posted on ellstudents.com

by Kerry Shelke, experienced ESL/Bilingual educator in the US and internationally, is passionate about working with new arrivals.  In this blog, she shares her tips for ensuring these Newcomer ELLs have access to quality education and equity in the classroom.  


As an educator, I have spent so many years teaching English as a new language that typically one of the first questions I am asked is how many languages I speak followed by what I do when I don’t share a common language with a student, particularly a newcomer. It’s a tough scenario to be immersed in, but there are tips and strategies that can help both student and those who are part of the child’s educational path.

Here are several situations where newcomers have arrived and have been placed into mainstream classrooms.

Luis, a second grader from Mexico, arrived mid-year and was plopped down into a very typical sink or swim approach classroom. His only language was Spanish where he spoke, read and wrote at grade level. However, in his mainstream classroom his teacher often referred to him as a distraction and regularly the teacher would complain about his behavior and low performance. She often came to me asking what his “problem’’ was. I explained to her that he is not misbehaving because he’s a bad kid or trying to be disruptive. Rather, he is sitting in an environment for multiple hours a day that is extraordinarily different from his norm. In addition, he does not have the verbal capacity yet in English to communicate with peers or his teacher. Further, because his mainstream classroom teacher is not ESL trained the only time he was able to communicate with a teacher was through direct contact with me (I share his heritage language or L1). Throughout the day, he would be attentive but not be able to create output, written or verbal. As time passed, he understood the routine and became more adapted to his surroundings, but continuously struggled with transitions and academic vocabulary.

Muhammad, a Muslim boy from Iraq, arrived with a very low English Language Proficiency (ELP). He understood basic commands and simple phrases but struggled to keep up in his fourth grade class. His peers often tried to encourage him but due to his PTSD, socialization remained difficult for him. His mainstream classroom teachers worked with him one-on-one but too, found teaching him grade level material a constant challenge. Additionally, his knowledge of written Arabic, (his L1) was low since most of his elementary years were spent in a refugee camp without educational services. His frustration level, along with that of his educators’ increased and left him feeling isolated.  Muhammad is what we could refer to as a Student with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education, or SLIFE or SIFE student.

Ariana, an American born teenager, returned to the United States after having lived with her father in Central America for many of her elementary and junior high years. She spoke without an accent and often her teachers believed she was “faking” not understanding material or instructions.  She began schooling in the United States where she learned how to physically write and read, yet moved to Central America during her early elementary years. Despite what others thought, she was considered a newcomer as her English was minimal and academic language was quite low. She, too, struggled with day-to-day coursework which was often above her academic level. Too often her core subject teachers assumed her knowledge of the English language was much deeper than her reality.

Victoria, a teenage daughter of migrant farm workers, has been educated entirely in the United States, predominantly in English. Yet, she has attended multiple schools having changed schools an average of three times per year. Her sporadic educational background has resulted in lower academic testing, knowledge and overall grades and self esteem. Her emotional state appears standoffish as she has difficulty forming friendships and trusting relationships. Her teachers and peers do not see her as an ELL as she speaks English. Thus, she is not a textbook definition of a newcomer, it could be argued that each time she moves and readjusts to curriculum, surroundings, transitions and staff she is thrust into a newcomer situation, not just once, but repetitively. As such, Victoria is considered to be a Long-Term English Learner (LTEL).

Each of these scenarios present unique situations. Perhaps you and those in your district have faced similarities. We owe these kids an education, right? As they enter through our doors they become our kids and deserve every opportunity possible. Yet, many times administration and teachers are left to the unknown.

So now what? What, then, do educators do with a newcomer child in a mainstream classroom with whom there is no shared common language?

Understand that silence is normal, along with just about everything else. Anyone who has ever experienced learning another language most likely understands that to be able to produce verbal communication takes time. Just as babies process (acquire, not learn) language, so do our newcomers. Babies take time, years in many cases, to produce comprehensible language (output). They process and input language and produce when their brains are capable. Thankfully, by the time our kiddos enter our world, they are physically able to produce language which allows them to immediately reproduce heard sounds. Attaching meaning to the sounds and words leads to comprehension and a foundation for increased learning. Think of their silence as processing time and offer alternative outlets, which leads me to my next suggestion. 

Use visuals as much as you can, as consistently as you can, and for as many topics as you can think of. This sounds daunting, but I believe it doesn’t have to be. As educators we typically stockpile materials. If you don’t have what you need, someone out there does. In the off chance that no one has what you need, our friend Google images can help with this!  Throughout the many years I taught, I would keep anything with relevant images/imagery. Interject visuals consistently throughout your lessons, pointing out images of relevant vocabulary, especially when reading. You can also fill your room and lessons with what is referred to as realia, which really means the “real stuff.” One year I worked with a group of newcomers from all over the world. Many of them had not ever seen moss which happened to be part of our story. I brought in a patch of moss to immerse them in their new vocabulary word. Each student used their five senses to fully grasp the meaning. Will this strategy work with each lesson? No, but including this technique consistently will pay off for all involved.

Use the Picture Word Inductive Model (PWIM). Huh?? Similar to using visuals, the PWIM approach takes learning and production a bit further allowing students across many ELPs to perform and produce at their appropriate levels. If you are unfamiliar with this approach, check out this page about the stages of PWIM. I particularly like to use this technique (which is easily adaptable) with groups with mixed ELPs. You again are meeting the child where they are in their knowledge and having them have students engage in high complex no matter their ELP.  

Get Moving! TPR!! Another tool to use is incorporating TPR-Total Physical Response into your day. Not only is this an awesome tool to use with ELLs, it’s beneficial for everyone! This strategy incorporates so many benefits to all learners and transcends language limitations. Kids love it and educators who consistently use it say they love it too because of its interactive nature. While teaching in Chile, I trained teachers on how to use TPR. We read the story Little Red Riding Hood, using realia and TPR. We had everyone in stitches by the end of the story. I guarantee those teachers will always remember the vocabulary we used from that book. 

Idioms and Figurative Language, Oh My! Take it easy because time will tell if this one will be a bad apple or a diamond in the rough! Certainly don’t beat around the bush and be tongue tied, just get to the point and we’ll all be on cloud nine! As native English speakers we understand the meanings of each of those sentences, yet quite the opposite is true if you are trying to learn English. As native speakers we interject both idioms and figurative language constantly and unless we have a trained ear to recognize this, many times our ELLs are left confused. I, by no means, am suggesting not to use either, but would suggest first to be aware of using idioms and figurative language and then explain them as you use them.

Phrasal verbs I once did a professional development training and used the term phrasal verbs. My audience, including high school English teachers, looked at me as if I had spoken a foreign language. I was taken aback that most of my audience was unfamiliar with this term. “What about throw out (two separate meanings!), throw up, throw back?” for example, I asked. Each of these has a same word in the expression yet each pair of words has an entirely different meaning. Phrasal verbs, like idioms and figurative language are inherent to English. Simply, it’s the use of a verb in combination with another word or words that must remain together in order for their meaning to be understood as in the above example of Frazz. As native speakers we also split our phrasal verbs, often confusing an ELL further. Again, simply break this down for your students (anyone catch that? Bonus points and lots of kudos if you did!).

Do not expect children to perform at the same levels as their peers. It’s absolutely ok to allow children alternative “assessments” of progress. For example, offer visual and/or oral output for assessment. If you have been studying the states and capitals for instance, allow your English Language Learner (ELL) to match state with a picture of the state or the state with its capital. Rather than relying on only one type of output (written, oral, etc.) meet the student where they are with their ability. Instead of focusing on what is not known, allow the student to show you what they do know and have learned. It’s an awesome sight to witness when the child before you is able to express their knowledge, no matter what form it is displayed.

Finally, a smile is universal and goes miles beyond what the child has already experienced before seeing your face. Your empathy, warmth and patience provide a safe landing spot for your ELL. You will not move mountains overnight; please don’t expect yourself too. Work closely with your ELL team, reach out to those who are trained to help and eventually you may find yourself in search of an ESL certification as well.

Remember, progress is progress and will increase with time, dedication and appropriate differentiation.

To Further Your Learning

from EverythingESL The Stages of Second Language Acquisition 

To learn ways to honor students’ languages in the classroom, check out Confianza’s Integrating L1 Tool.

Additionally, here is a link to how teachers and administrators can support newcomer students from Day 1 by offering a Welcome Kit for students and their families as they navigate unchartered territory from Colorin Colorado. It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day transitions and scheduling but taking the time to develop, continually update and offer this kit to new ELL families is a simple step to ensuring their comfort level, acceptance and expectations into the new school.

We also recommend exploring the high school academy, ENLACE, as featured here.

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