Are All Newcomers the Same?
Every day, our school welcomes families who come for an initial orientation meeting to receive information about our school program and tour the site. As you see them around the school, you may only notice their eyes gazing at the rooms and student work displayed on the wall, but underneath this initial encounter, you start thinking about this newcomer student’s/family’s story. Gathering information about families and students of newcomers is the first step to better support and welcome them into a new school community.
During this initial meeting, our newcomer families share valuable information to help us support their children at school. But who are they? There are many misconceptions about the term “newcomer.” Assuming that a newcomer student is a student from another country with “no English” is not sufficient. The USED Newcomer Toolkit defines Newcomers as a highly heterogeneous group that bring their customs, religions, and languages with them. The term “newcomer” refers to any foreign-born students and their families who have recently arrived in the United States. However, this is a broad definition that includes many different characteristics and backgrounds. Learn about other definitions of this diverse student population.
Two Students, Two Stories
This school year, the beauty and richness of a diverse classroom brought two unique students to my homeroom. Both share one goal: to learn English and adjust to American culture. As we established relationships in the classroom, I started learning more about their funds of knowledge and feelings about being in the U.S. school system.
Student A is an example of a highly schooled newcomer (HSN) student from South America who was placed at a reading level close to grade level in my class. My 7th graders were in awe when we announced it to the class. “But, Miss… How?” students asked.
Student B is an example of a student with interrupted formal education (SIFE) from Central America. He was out of school for 3 years while living in Mexico, and prior to that, he attended a rural area school for part of the day in Honduras. He did not attend school while in Mexico because his mom was afraid of sending him to school there. On his first day of school, he said to me, “me, no English.” I replied, “Great! We are going to learn a lot this year!”
As I developed goals based on these two students’ reading levels and language proficiency levels, I engaged them in thinking about their own learning. As I witnessed Student A applying more of her English reading skills, I posed the question, “What do you think about your English?” She quickly responded, “I don’t know… I don’t think it is good!” Despite the fact that she came with great English language proficiency and continued to improve it, she did not see that as an asset. Her mindset was tied to what she didn’t know or had acquired yet.
As for my Student B, his response after working in a small group and interacting more with the new language was: “Maestra, no sé!” He was aware of the gaps in his education, even in his first language. I assured him that it would not be a problem, and we continued the lesson. I had to adapt the pace of my lesson and focus on a few consonant letter sounds and letter names. After a few sessions, I noticed some progress, and we celebrated every time he earned a new letter name or sound.
Yes, They Can! But How?
My take on looking closely at these two students is that from my end, as a teacher, I need to know my newcomer students, support their strengths, and help them understand that their gaps are temporary and do not subtract all the valuable knowledge they bring with them from their personal experiences. Not only educators but also students themselves need to learn to see their challenges and language progress from an asset-based lens instead of a deficit-based lens.
Some practical strategies that I incorporate to welcome newcomers at the school level include curating information that our orientation team sends to teachers about newly enrolled students (grade level, language, country of origin, classroom assignment, transportation) so the classroom teacher will be prepared to receive the students arriving weekly. At the classroom level, students with more English proficiency help new students on their first days. A “buddy” who speaks the same language is assigned to help guide the new student through their schedule, routines, and tasks in the classroom.
Often, newcomer students come with a deficit mindset, the idea that they don’t know anything or that what they bring with them is worthless. I differentiate their assignments based on their literacy needs and skills. Even students who are now holding a pencil for the first time can be engaged and work to become skilled readers. Turn-and-talk and stop-and-jot activities are great for speaking practice and student engagement in reading classes. Strategically pairing students with another student who speaks the same language can help students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) during their first days of school. Visuals and sentence frames provide needed support for vocabulary and comprehension. A structured schedule with familiar activities also benefits assignment completion.
Delivering language instruction using language gets trickier when your students don’t understand your directions. Simple and concise information needs to be carefully designed to attend to their initial needs. My lessons included simple steps, visuals, and key vocabulary. As students become familiar with the routine and tasks assigned, they start utilizing metacognitive skills they bring from their primary language (L1) to instruction in the second language (L2). Explicit teaching of cognates also helps newcomer students build vocabulary and enhance their comprehension skills.
I also use technology and activities at my newcomer students’ reading levels to build literacy skills. They read silently every day in class and respond to the text with turn-and-talks and stops-and-jots. While I work with different small groups throughout the day, other students work independently with their peers to complete differentiated tasks targeting their individual needs. Keep in mind that any task or routine you want to establish with your newcomer students will require a lot of repetition and practice before they are able to navigate it by themselves.
Explore more activities and strategies in this slide deck created in collaboration with the NC ML Teacher Network. I also recommend Serving Language Learners From an Asset-Based Lens – Peers and Pedagogy and On English Learners and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy from the Peers and Pedagogy blog.
What I Bring Adds Up! | Let’s Discuss
- What kind of activities do you recommend to create a welcoming environment for your newcomer students?
- What strategies or activities do you use to learn about your newcomer students’ cultures, schooling experiences, and their stories?