If you're like most teachers in the United States, you've already noticed that the number of newcomer children is growing. They come from all over the world speaking many different languages. They have varying degrees of first-language literacy development. And they usually come to our classrooms scared and anxious! Here are some quick and easy ways to provide them with a little shelter from the storm — from the very first day.

Introductions in a Student's First Language

If possible, ask a volunteer who speaks the child's first language to make an audio tape welcoming the child to the class, telling him or her the name of the school, and reassuring that the teacher will help him or her learn English. Include what the child will need to bring to school, how to get lunch, and so on, as well as certain key words such as "bathroom" or "help." In addition, learn to pronounce the child's name correctly and teach the rest of the class explicitly, if necessary.

Classroom Buddies

Assign the child a buddy, preferably bilingual, to give a school tour and to help with classroom introductions and routines. Rotate buddies through the first week and month, if possible, so that no child feels put upon.

Student Identification Cards

Help your newcomer student make an identification card to keep at all times. The card should include the child's name, grade, teacher, classroom, his or her native language, home address and phone numbers, and a list of other children in the school who are fluent in the same language.

Language Reminders

Give your newcomer a recent picture of the class marked with the names of all students. Even a list of names for the newcomer to read and refer to will help build a foundation for socializing. You might also label common classroom items in both English and the newcomer's native language, to create a school picture dictionary. Have him or her write each word in his or her native language below the pictures. You can cut apart the page and use as flashcards, play concentration with two sets of cards, or tape the page to the student's desk for reference. You might also distribute copies of the newcomer's completed dictionary so that other students can learn some words in the newcomer's language.

Welcoming the Family

Plan an initial parent conference to welcome the family and to find out as much as you can about the student and his or her home culture. Invite parents to bring a translator or provide one for them. Some questions to ask might be "What is your child's previous schooling experience?" "Does your child read and write in his or her first language?" "What does your child like to read?" "What are your hopes for your child this year?"

Assessing Student Language Skills

Choose a private place, and a time when the new student seems relaxed and comfortable. For speaking assessment, show the child a picture that shows an action or interaction. Ask, "What is happening here?" As the child speaks, notice the words they use, pronunciation, grammar patterns, and so on. For listening, ask questions such as "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" and "How old are you?" Next, sit with a box of crayons and small objects such as pennies, jellybeans, jacks, etc. Give simple commands such as "Give me the red crayon." or "Show me three." For reading, choose text just below grade level. See if he or she can read aloud and ask simple comprehension questions. If not, go down one more level. For writing, ask the child to write about his or her home, family, or friends. If he or she cannot write anything, invite him or her to draw a picture.

Sheltering Strategies

Sheltering is the use of strategies for providing newcomer children with language they can understand. Some basic sheltering techniques include:

  • Pre-teach important vocabulary. Writing key words on paper and drawing pictures next to them will go a long way in keeping all learners focused in the classroom.

  • Preview the lesson. Have a native speaking volunteer take a few minutes to explain several key points from the lesson in the student's first language.

  • Sketch it out. Pictures, lists, charts, graphs, Venn diagrams, and colorful maps all help move learning concepts from the abstract to the concrete.

  • Write it out. Being able to see words rather than just hear them is one more inroad into language literacy.

  • Act it out. Using gestures and body language increases student comprehension. Having native speakers role-play is another creative and realistic way to build understanding.

  • Break out. Working cooperatively in small groups gives students more opportunity to speak and interact meaningfully with others.

  • Break it down. Breaking down large chunks of information into smaller chunks aids comprehension.

  • Slow down. Speak slowly, using short and simple sentences.

  • Keep it short. When reading aloud, keep passages short and check your newcomer's comprehension as you go.

Lowering Stress Levels

Children will take risks in their new language only if they feel it's safe to make mistakes. Keep stress levels low by keeping language demands appropriate: difficult enough to promote learning, but easy enough to be achievable. Children who are stressed do not perform well. One way to lower anxiety is to correct mistakes indirectly. For example, if the student says, "Yesterday I make a cake," you can respond, "Yesterday you made a cake? Great!" Also, when placing the child in a cooperative group, give him or her a specific role that isn't too dependent on language skills.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is a psychological reality for all newcomer children. It involves anger, anxiety, estrangement, sadness, loneliness, homesickness, and frustration. Second-language learning is also second-culture learning! Give these children the time and understanding they need, and their adjustment may become a little smoother.

Key Phrases to Learn

  • I don't speak English.
  • I speak a little English.
  • Can you help me?
  • I need____________.
  • I have a question.
  • I know the answer.
  • Can you repeat that?
  • What does _______ mean?
  • How do you say _______?
  • Can you show me, please?
  • I don't understand.
  • I understand.
  • This is too hard.
  • This is too easy.
  • Whose turn is it?
  • Is it my turn?
  • May I use the bathroom?
  • May I get a drink?
  • What are we doing?
  • Where are we going?
  • I don't feel well.
  • My _______ hurts.
  • What time do we _______?
  • What page are we on?
  • Can you speak more slowly, please?


This article was originally published in the September 2002 issue of Teacher magazine.