ESL for Newbies: 5 Ways to Support Newcomers in a Mainstream Classroom

Have you ever felt like you were walking into the middle of a movie? You know that something happened before you got there and that everyone else except you knows it. Now imagine walking into the middle of a movie in a different language with no subtitles. This is similar to how ELL’s feel everyday. What can we do as teachers to help our students feel less lost? Here are a few simple strategies to get you started. Think of it as the trailer to the movie.

What not to do

Before we get into the winning strategies, a quick PSA on the two big “don’ts”: First and foremost, don’t put a new ELL (or any new student) on the spot and have them tell the class something about themselves on their first day. Welcome them without causing too much of a disruption. Seat them in the middle of the room where they can see you and the other students. This will allow them to see what the other students are doing so they can follow their cues. Allow the student to get acclimated as you learn to correctly pronounce their name. You can check in with them discreetly later during class. Second, if you see that they don’t understand, don’t repeat the same words over and over, and definitely don’t say it louder! Try to say the same thing in a different way.

Now for some “dos”: Here are some simple strategies to help new students catch up in the movie. The goal is to create a welcoming environment where the student feels comfortable and is more willing to take risks as time goes by. 

Strategy 1: Model

Modeling can take many different forms. It can be used to demonstrate the class routines like where to turn in assignments or where to pick up make-up work. It can be done by showing work samples, working the first math problem on the board, or doing a “think aloud” demonstration to determine meaning using context clues. Modeling does not need to be the exclusive task of the teacher. By building in group work, other students can also be models. Group work gives all students the authentic opportunity to use the new vocabulary to communicate about the concepts. This Edutopia article discusses 5 modeling strategies including sentence frames and chunking and provides examples of how to do them.

Strategy 2: Wait time

Wait time is important for all students but is especially important for ELLs. This article on ThoughtCo. describes how doubling the wait time from 1.5 seconds to 3 seconds created positive changes in students which in turn led to increased numbers of students who volunteered, increased correct answers, and increased test scores. ELLs need even longer wait times to process the information and to formulate an answer. As with any other classroom routine, using wait time has to be consciously taught to the students to prevent those impatient students from calling out the answer. Ways to incorporate more wait time when teaching is to use a timer, count down on your fingers, or use some other visual like a red card to wait and a green card to signal that they can now answer the question. The idea here is to create time for the students to reflect BEFORE they rush to answer the question.  

Strategy 3: Visual/Nonlinguistic representations

Use visual or nonlinguistic representations whenever possible in explanations. This means diagrams, graphic organizers, movement, manipulatives, demonstrations, or role plays. Here are 3 ways to incorporate nonlinguistic representations in your classroom. The demonstration of the orbit of the planets mentioned in the article is a very effective visual by having a student be the sun, another one be the earth, and a third student be the moon. When I used it in my class, I did not have the students spin in their orbits, but I did have the earth circle the sun while the moon circled the earth. Of course, you have to allow time for multiple students to take their turns! Everyone wants to be the sun! Who doesn’t want the world to revolve around them?

Strategy 4: Verbal and Written Instructions.

Always provide written words along with verbal instructions. Use the “less is more” strategy when writing directions. Take out extra words. Use simple sentences instead of complex ones. It is important for ELLs to see the spoken-written word connection. In my article on Multilingual Literacy I go into much greater detail about improving reading comprehension, but I also mention that active listening is important for ELL students. It improves pronunciation, models fluency, and allows students to be able to think more critically about the content because they are not struggling to decode the words. Provide the ELLs with written text whenever possible.  

Strategy 5: Check for understanding

Checking for understanding is important for all students and strategies for ELLs can benefit all students. “Turn and talk” is a way to get ELL students to talk to other students. Here is a detailed plan on how and when to use a Turn and Talk strategy. Sentence starters, question stems, or key words can be provided to the students to help them get the discussion started.

Now that you’ve seen the trailer for the coming attraction, you may want to take in a double feature. For the first show, check out this Penn State College of Education article. It is loaded with strategies for welcoming a new student and strategies for developing reading and writing skills plus ways to support ELLs in the content areas. And the second feature can be found in this scholastic article about how to make ELLs feel at home and ways to draw upon a student’s strength in their native language. 

When I was a young girl, my sisters took me to a movie and we came in after it started. The movie ended and started immediately again. We watched it until we got to the point where we came in. Hopefully, these strategies help you get your students to the point where when they walk in your room, they feel like: This is where I came in. I know the routine and I know what to expect.

Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)
Written by Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)

1 reply on “ESL for Newbies: 5 Ways to Support Newcomers in a Mainstream Classroom”

Mary Waters says:

Thank you so much for posting these strategies to help our ELs! I’ve been teaching a newcomer U.S. history in my high school. He has almost zero English. To the point of, another teacher said “It’s great to get to know you” and the student didn’t understand. His native language is Spanish (which I don’t know, my 2nd lang. Is Chinese). What strategies can we use for newcomer high school students that are thrown into such a sink or swim model? (And the district doesn’t allow pull out instruction without the certified social studies teacher present!)

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