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Teaching Newcomers and Beginning Proficiency English Learners Where to Start

Congratulations! You’ll be teaching a Newcomer ESL class this year….

ESL? Where do I start? How do I communicate? HELP!

If you’re like many teachers, you might find yourself thrust into exciting new territory this school year.  Schools around the country are seeing an influx of English/multilingual learners with unique needs that extend beyond language learning, and educators are finding themselves in classrooms filled with students they aren’t accustomed to teaching.

Depending upon their home country, English/multilingual learners arrive with various levels of education, life experiences, and background knowledge. Some students have interrupted learning experiences (SIFE or SLIFE students) and tend to struggle with literacy in any language. Others might speak and understand their heritage language (often referred to as the L1), but cannot read or write in that language. Many educators are finding themselves overwhelmed and underprepared to meet the needs of their newcomer students, but there are simple strategies and scaffolds educators can use to better educate this diverse population of learners and acclimate them to the American classroom.

Where Do I Start? 

Start with a smile! A welcoming environment immediately puts students at ease and reduces what is known as the affective filter, i.e., any barrier to learning such as anxiety or lack of confidence. Students are more apt to learn in an environment where they feel a sense of safety and encouragement. Once students feel safe, true language learning can begin, and there is no better place to start than with introductions. Welcome your students and embrace their unique backgrounds.


One way to foster communication is through authentic experiences. Begin with “hello” and model simple yet important greetings like “How are you?,” “What is your name?,” and “My name is….”  Students will not only learn how to engage with others in their new language, they will also learn language that helps them identify themselves and others and their roles in the community with phrases like “Mrs. Carter is my teacher,” “Alana is my classmate,” “I am a teenager,” and “I like to swim.”

Vista’s series for newcomers in grades 1-12, Get Ready!, opens with these themes and is specifically designed for both elementary and secondary beginning-proficiency students. The series also offers educators easy-to-follow lessons that demonstrate welcoming rituals and celebrate identity.

TPR—Total Physical Response

These engaging lessons also allow teachers to employ the TPR—Total Physical Response—method of teaching. TPR is a great way for educators to convey meaning, while newcomers can use TPR to show their understanding of language. Newcomers wave or high-five their classmates when learning to say “hello,” and point to themselves when saying, “My name is….”  These students begin to understand general welcoming rituals in a language-rich, authentic setting.

Visual Cues

When working with newcomers, teachers of all grade levels and content areas can present lessons with visual cues as an effective way to convey meaning. In the Get Ready! series, each page of instruction contains photographs, symbols, or images that accompany both academic and practical language (often referred to as “survival English”). Students see children on the pages who look like them, while also learning how to interact appropriately with others in their world.

Visuals are also useful in acclimating newcomer multilingual learners to their new school. For example, you may use graphics to create a daily schedule for students. While the words “lunch” or “cafeteria” might be unfamiliar to a newcomer student, pictures of food and a room with children eating creates meaning and context for a student learning to navigate their school day. Such familiarity builds confidence, while also developing the language.

Oral Fluency

As newcomer multilingual learners become accustomed to their new language and environment, the need for verbal expression grows. Simply stated, these students should be encouraged to speak and utilize their new language. However, many newcomers experience what is known as a “silent period.”  This silent period should not be dismissed as merely a passive activity devoid of any learning, however.  The silent period is an excellent opportunity for newcomers to absorb the language that is all around them. Oftentimes, educators mistakenly associate lack of speech with lack of understanding. This is not always the case. Many multilingual learners are not yet at a level of comfort where they wish to demonstrate speaking skills, but they are able to show their understanding through other means, such as drawings, pointing, or role play, and these less-confident newcomers should be encouraged to do so.  Teachers can, however, reinforce speaking skills in a very low-stress setting. Get Ready! allows students to practice their oral fluency through the program’s embedded speaking exercises. These activities can be assigned for at-home practice, one-on-one, or with a shoulder partner if desired. This feature also allows students to try out their speaking skills while avoiding whole-group (choral) reads or echo practices, where the entire class is involved.

Working with newcomer English/multilingual learners doesn’t need to be a nerve-wracking experience. In fact, many teachers find that after the initial fears subside, these students are apt to be engaged and motivated to learn. With the appropriate scaffolds and strategies in place, students can learn English at a steady pace and can achieve academic success alongside their native English-speaking peers. The key is implementing the right scaffold, or level of support, for the student’s level of English proficiency. And just like structural scaffolds, learning scaffolds are designed to be adjusted as the student learns. For example, as multilingual learners grow in their new language (called the L2), teachers will discover that they don’t need to employ as many visual or verbal cues as when their students first entered their classroom. Classroom labels such as “pencil” or “notebook” can be removed once students have mastered those terms—and master them they will. With the proper supports and a nurturing environment, these students can be successful!


By: Jody Nolf

Also read: Vocabulary Strategies to Support English and Multilingual Learners

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