Starting Newcomers on the Right Foot

If you’ve ever had newcomer English learners in your class, you know the feeling.  They look at you with confused, helpless eyes and you give them the same look right back. Many teachers struggle with the best ways to make a newcomer English learner feel comfortable and successful in class.  Here are some tips to start the year off right for both you and your new students.

smile Smile!   Building a positive relationship from Day One is the most important thing you can do for your Newcomers.   You do not need to speak the same language for students to know that you care about them and that they are welcome in your class.   Check in with students often.  A simple smile and “Doing OK?” shows you are approachable and care.  Help your Newcomers “see themselves” in your classroom by displaying books and posters that reflect their culture. This will help them understand that they were welcome even before they arrived.

Teach all of your students to be classroom guides.  Make it clear to your students that you expect them partnerto welcome newcomer English learners as they would any new student, and that sharing a smile or just saying “Hi!” is a good start. Teach your students a few strategies for helping. For example, share that they can point out important papers, words, images, etc. to new students.  Encourage your students to invite Newcomers to join in and talk to them even if they don’t understand.  Try a few activities like charades that show how much can be communicated without words.  It’s the thought that counts!


Know what you can reasonably expect your Newcomers to do during instruction.   Newcomers can point, match, and use single words as they acquire them.  What activities will allow them to show what they know? Check student files or check in with your ESL specialist to ask for their latest English proficiency levels.  There are many resources online to refer to when determining what should be expected of students at the various proficiency levels.  The WIDA CAN-DO Descriptors and Performance Definitions provide you with the information you need to plan lessons and activities that will include your newcomers. 

IMG_4869Have visuals and labels posted around your classroom and during instruction. Write important words and phrases on the board AS you talk.  Incorporating pictures, manipulatives, multi-media presentations, videos, etc. will make content more understandable to a Newcomer, even though he may not know English.  Point to visuals and labels as you speak, to help students make connections between the spoken words and objects. This approach will also be appreciated by non-English learner students who are visual learners.

Plan hands-on, collaborative activities that Newcomers can participate in with their classmates.  All students, not just Newcomers, will  retain information better when a variety of senses are used.  Hearing language while handling materials and watching a classmate will help Newcomers make connections between what they already know and the students’ native language. They will gain confidence as they realize that they perhaps already know something about the topic.

Allow for an occasional break.  Processing in two languages can be exhausting.  Breaks on the computer, skimming through books, drawing, etc. are necessary in the beginning and as the day wears on, Newcomers may feel as if they have just “run out of English” and shut down.  Use caution though.  You don’t want a student to miss important opportunities for acquiring language and building relationships.  Keep the breaks short and only as needed.

In many diverse classrooms, there is another student who may speak the Newcomer’s language.  It is 3acceptable to have students who speak the Newcomer’s language translate from time to time, especially the first day, to help the student acclimate. HOWEVER, it is important that you first  ask the veteran student’s permission, and if he or she really wants to be a translator.  Some students may be embarrassed or feel uncomfortable speaking a foreign language in front of their peers. The goal of the student translator is not to be a one-on-one interpreting service, but rather to serve as a resource during the first difficult days in your Newcomer’s new classroom.

These are some simple tips to make newcomer English learners feel at home in your classroom.  It is difficult being a newcomer English learner in an English speaking classroom, and it is challenging for teachers who work with them.  Be sure to be gentle on yourself and the students. Unfortunately there is no magic wand you can wave to suddenly have your Newcomers understand and speak English, but know that they will recognize your kindness, caring, and effort, and that it will make all the difference to them on what could be one of the most difficult periods in their lives.

If you have any questions or concerns about your students, feel free to drop us a note at

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