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My Top 5 Ways to Support ESL Newcomers and Create a Strong ESL Program in the First Few Weeks

As ESL teachers, one of the most exciting times of the year is finding out who our beginners will be during the first few weeks of school. Many times, they are still arriving during this time, and we are trying to juggle the day-to-day responsibilities as well as find the time to test our incoming ESL students. I have compiled a list of my go-tos to get me through this exciting, but challenging time. After reading this, please consider reading about my newcomer curriculum that will support these students throughout the entire year.

1. Have your mentor or “expert” students ready to go on the first few days of school

If you are a brand new ESL teacher, you won’t have this luxury (yet!), but it’s something that you can start preparing for and looking forward to in years to come. You want a STRONG ESL program. That requires not only teachers and support staff, but a community of students who are there to support each other through it all. After all, your ESL students have walked in the shoes of the newcomers that will be in your classroom. Nothing happens… I repeat… nothing happens in an ESL program without relationships. I know that’s the typical push in education anyway, but it is SO important when working with ESL students. The ESL program creates the connection, the life line, for ESL students to be successful in day to day life.

How do I line up my expert students?

  • Over the years, I have advocated HARD for bilingual students to get the credit they deserve for their skills. I’m at the high school level, so I get to have lab assistants (They are called bilingual tutors at my school). Typically, lab assistants don’t get any high school credit. That’s how it is at my school, but bilingual tutors get elective credit. It’s not wasted time for them. It’s helping them work toward graduation, and I highly recommend working with your principal and district office to get this added to your course list. If you aren’t bilingual in a language spoken by a newcomer, recruit upper level ESL/bilingual students to come mentor this student as a bilingual tutor in your English class.

  • If you can’t have tutors, no worries! You can still recruit expert students by building that strong ESL community. Many of my ESL students start the day off in the ESL classroom. They arrive at 7am and hang out for the next 45 minutes. This happens on the first day of school as well as every day for the rest of the year! Your classroom is a safe haven and one where new ESL students can be taught the ropes with a student you know is giving good advice. We want to plug anyone that is new in with students who are kind, achieving, and motivated. This sets the tone for newcomers. It lets them know there is a standard that needs to be met, and they can be successful if they follow the lead of your other students. In the first few weeks, use your expert students to give tours… more on this in tip #2.

2. Give a tour to your newcomers (and use your expert students!)

If you have created that safe ESL culture, your students are in your classroom in the morning anyway, so it’s the perfect time to schedule tours. I ask who wants to give the tour on the following day, and I always have a few students who want to do it. Not only is giving a tour the best way to introduce students to the building, it gives you time to prepare in the morning! I think the students actually prefer the teacher not being on the tour as they can more freely ask questions to your expert student. You not being there makes the environment more casual, and, in most cases, more comfortable.

3. Share English language proficiency level, other important information, & correct name pronunciation with teachers

This is incredibly important and can be a game changer for helping your newcomers feel welcome in mainstream classes right from the get-go. Not only does this help your newcomers, this makes classroom teachers love you - I’m serious! Teachers are so thankful for the “inside” info. I give all classroom teachers a cultural biography (You can download this for free on TPT) on every ESL student who arrives new to the district. It includes their name, age, what country they are from, their previous educational experiences, their ELP level, and any other information that is pertinent to know. I love hearing from students how their social studies teacher asks them about current events happening in their country. I love hearing from teachers that they are incorporating something new this year because they are AWARE of some detail about an ESL student that has inspired them. Lastly, if a student has a hard-to-pronounce name, shoot an email to teachers, call them, or actually walk down to their room to ensure teachers can say the name correctly. All of this should be done prior to the student’s first day of classes.

4. Create a doable schedule for your newcomers and a smooth system for all incoming ESL students

This is time-consuming but so worth the effort. Once the schedule has been made for your school, I sit down and map out when my ESL classes will be and what blocks and teachers can take ESL newcomers. This benefits your newcomers, the counselors, and classroom teachers. For newcomers especially, have a concrete schedule that the students get placed in. For instance, 1st & 3rd blocks are available for students to be placed in Algebra 1, 3rd & 4th blocks are available for Earth Space Science, 7th is Social Studies 1, and so forth. All your newcomers get placed in these classes, and your counselors can easily set up their schedule upon arrival. These classrooms should have your paras in them already. You may need more than one or two options for math classes, for instance, depending on the size of your ESL department. There should also be a set schedule for counselors if the student is an intermediate or advanced ESL student. The point is, everyone knows “THE PLAN” when you communicate with counseling that a new ESL student has arrived. You also know you have maxed out the support you can provide to this student by providing counseling with the information they need.

5. Finally, help your students feel connected right off the bat by purchasing each student’s flag

I hang these on the front board. When a new student arrives, I purchase his or her flag. Once it arrives, I start the next class period with that student’s national anthem. It’s the best surprise! The student will be shocked to hear something familiar, and they usually beam with pride; they may even start belting out the song. While it’s playing, I ceremoniously hang their flag over the board. If your school displays flags for all students who are in the building, make sure to notify them that a new country’s flag needs to be purchased if it’s not already hanging.

These are my top 5 suggestions for welcoming your newcomers. In the comment, please feel free to add your own!

Happy Teaching!


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