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Ways A Mainstream Teacher Can Support An ELL Newcomer In Class




In addition to teaching full-time in high school during the day, I’m on the adjunct faculty in the teacher education programs at California State University, Sacramento and the University of California, Davis.  I’m finding an important question keeps on cropping up:

How do I teach a newcomer, with next-to-zero English proficiency, who is placed in my mainstream classroom without any additional outside support being provided?

Unfortunately, I suspect that this is a very common issue for teachers across the United States – a newcomer is “parachuted” into their classes and they’re just told to “integrate” the student into their instruction.

Here are some suggestions – from readers and from me:

MY NUMBER ONE PIECE OF ADVICE: Remember, your newcomer student is as intelligent as any native-English speaker you have in your classroom.  He/she is just new to the English language.  Start off by reading this piece that Katie Hull and I have written: Do’s & Don’ts for Teaching English-Language Learners.  And, please, don’t make the mistakes of speaking loudly in English to them or giving them a seat at the very back of the room.



* Learn their story – why their family came here, what their interests are, goals they might have for their life.  If you cannot speak their home language and/or can’t find another staffperson or student who can, using Google Translate is a very viable option.   Using the audio translation mode, it will automatically provide verbal interpretation.   It’s not perfect by any means, but you should be able to have a basic conversation. Just last month, Google announced a breakthrough in improving their Translate tool for some languages and expects to apply a similar tech upgrade to all of them.



* Provide access to a computer or tablet (I often will let a student use my “teacher” computer).  If a student has zero or next-to-zero English, the best help any teacher – no matter what subject they are teaching – can provide is support to students in developing basic English communication skills.  Duolingo, LingoHut, USA Learns and English Central are the four best online tools for that kind of support (here are other language-learning sites, too).  Doing this – for a short time, at least – can help them begin to develop self-confidence, get them familiar with online tools they can also use at home (if they have Internet access there) and give you some time to develop a longer-term plan on how you are going to teach them your content matter and pull together needed resources.

* If the newcomer is literate in his/her home language, you can also provide access to online materials in their language that are comparable to what you are teaching in English to the rest of your students.   Many such resources can be found at The Best Multilingual & Bilingual Sites For Math, Social Studies, & Science.

*If you are fortunate enough to speak your newcomer’s language, using the Preview, View and Review method is an option (preview the lesson in the home language, then the main lesson in English, and then review it in the home language).  I’ve also used the bilingual resources listed in the previous suggestion in the same way – previewing and reviewing with those materials.

*There are many sites that provide similar high-quality materials on multiple subjects using different “levels” of text.  For example, an article on the Electoral College might be edited for three or four different reading levels.   Using a high English level version of one for most of your students and a simplified version for your newcomer is a fairly easy way to make content accessible.  In fact, there are tools that let you do the same for any text you copy and paste into them.  You can find links to all these options at The Best Places To Get The “Same” Text Written For Different “Levels.”

*There are a number of content-specific books that are designed to be particularly accessible to ELLs – you can see a list of a few of them at The Best Books For Teaching & Learning ESL/EFL. I use some of the books listed in my history and English classes (note that, though the book titles are all accurate, the links where to purchase them might be out-of-date).  You can find other content-specific books at The Best Places To Buy ESL/EFL Books. Software & Multimedia.  Providing these textbook alternatives, which likely cover similar subjects to the ones you use with the majority of your students, could be a useful scaffold.

*At the very least, make sure you have a bilingual dictionary in your newcomer’s student language.

*At our high school, seniors often get a class period when they are T.A.’s (teaching assistants) or “Peer Tutors.”  With support and minimal training from me, a student who doesn’t even speak the newcomer’s home language can provide invaluable support to them.  In addition, having the title “peer tutor” can look better on a senior’s transcript when applying to college.

*Inductive teaching emphasizes pattern-seeking, which is a skill found to be particularly important to those learning a new language (and it’s important for everybody else, too!).  If you presently employ inductive methods in your instruction, creating more simple versions for your newcomer should be fairly easy, though would take a little extra time.  If you are not using them now, I’d encourage you to consider experimenting with it.  You can learn more at The Best Resources About Inductive Learning & Teaching.  In particular, you might want to read how I use it: Get Organized Around Assets and The Picture Word Inductive Model.

*If your newcomer does not have Internet access at home (or even if he/she does), providing him/her with accessible books they can read at home can be a big help – plenty of research documents the importance of home libraries.  Our local Friends of the Library has provided hundreds of free books for our newcomer students, and you can also print out many online (see The Best Sources For Free & Accessible Printable Books).

*If your school has a specialized class where the newcomer is learning English, regularly talk with their teacher to learn more about the student and to both listen to – and offer – ideas how you can both support the student in their classes.

Karen MacKenzie:

Prioritize – choose two or three concepts from the unit you are teacher and work hard to get those across to your newcomers. Trying to ensure the student understands every little last thing will be overwhelming for you both.



*Provide a peer mentor to your newcomer – ideally, someone who speaks their home language.  At our school, peer mentors leave one of their classes for fifteen minutes each week and chats with their “mentee.”  You can read more about what we do at Here Are The Instructions I Give Mentors To Our ELLs – Help Me Make Them Better.

* Talk privately to individual students who have demonstrated empathy in the past about their reaching out to your newcomer.  Perhaps share with them this story:


What do you think is missing from this list?


Since I originally published this post, I realized I forgot to include a few other strategies:

Though I discus Google Translate, I forgot to mention its relatively new ability to “read” text, including print textbooks and PowerPoint slides, by using its camera function (see Video: “How Google Translate Makes Signs Instantly Readable”).

In fact, Google just published this video that highlights that feature and the features I mentioned in the earlier post:

In addition, I neglected to mention the obvious strategy of showing English subtitled with any videos you show.

Finally, this was an idea suggested by one of the credential candidates at my California State University, Sacramento, course: if you are teaching whole novels in your class, why not get a version of it in your ELL’s home language, if available?

Also, see The Best Online Resources For Teachers of Pre-Literate ELL’s & Those Not Literate In Their Home Language.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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