Supporting Elementary Newcomers

Supporting Elementary Newcomers

supporting elementary newcomers

Newcomer students receive some support from an ELD (English Language Development) teacher in most elementary schools. The majority of their time is spent in their grade level classroom. Here are some strategies for supporting a newcomer student both in their grade level classroom and areas to focus on during targeted language development lessons.

Create a Welcoming Environment

Helping the student feel safe and comfortable is your main goal. Teach survival vocabulary at first so that the student can express their basic needs. Label items in the classroom. Include words in the student’s native language. This might also help the rest of the class learn a few new words. Know that the student may go through a silent period. This should be expected.

Survival Vocabulary

During the first few weeks, a newcomer student is in school, and they may need help navigating the school building and expressing basic needs.

Get a FREE set of survival phrases and picture vocabulary HERE.

newcomer survival phrases

Differentiate Assignments

In the beginning, you will likely do more modifying of the assignment. The learning goal might be different for your newcomer student. You might instruct them to listen to a read-aloud and try to remember five new words from the story. During writing, give them simple sentence frames so that they can practice basic vocabulary. If the class is working on writing a personal narrative, the sentence frame might be: “I live in a _____.”

Over time you will provide more accommodations such as vocabulary sheets and sentence starters so that the student can achieve the same results on an assignment as their classmates.

“Teachers can encourage better learning outcomes by providing opportunities for students to actively participate and interact with one another in relation to the subject matter (Haynes & Zacarian, 2010).” For a newcomer, this might mean having pictures available as part of a science unit that the student can point to and sort until they are comfortable speaking and writing.

Use Peer Tutors

A peer tutor can be an effective way to support a newcomer student. Even a responsible kindergartener can take on this role.

Shadow a Student

In kindergarten, a newcomer can complete most tasks that other students are working on but may need to see them in action or hear the directions repeated. They can have a partner they follow and work on the same activities in parallel. In the beginning, they may be primarily copying, but that is fine.

Playing a Review Game

This is a great activity for math. The partner can go over the rules of a math game. While the students are playing, the partner is reviewing math skills and the newcomer student is practicing math and practicing speaking English.

Consider giving the newcomer speaking prompts of helpful phrases while they are playing the game. This includes: “Your turn” “My turn” “Please say that again” “Can you show me how”

In upper grades, a peer tutor can read simple directions as a newcomer student is practicing basic vocabulary.

Use Visuals and Modeling

Modeling the steps to an assignment and behavior expectations is beneficial for all students. This is especially true for ELLs. Consider showing an example of a finished assignment. Writing out directions with a visual is helpful for all students and can help them stay on track when they are working independently. For a newcomer, they might only comprehend a small part of the directions when you are verbally giving them, but be able to understand more as they review the visual and writing directions. In addition, visual pictures can help students to learn new vocabulary.

Practicing Basic Vocabulary

It is important for a newcomer student to take part in most of the activities that the rest of the class is participating in through differentiation. It is also important for them to learn basic English vocabulary so that they can communicate. Have one or two responsible students work with the newcomer student as a peer tutor. The peer tutor can play a vocabulary game, read a book, or go over the directions for basic vocabulary practice.

File Folder Games are a fun way to practice basic vocabulary. I have ready-made sets available to help save you time.

home vocabulary file folder game

Also, take a look at this basic vocabulary mini book and supporting worksheets. The worksheets are an easy way for a newcomer student to practice writing basic school vocabulary. Their peer tutor can read the vocabulary words to them and then the newcomer student can work independently writing them.

School vocab mini book

Provide Phonics Instruction

Phonics instruction will look different depending on the student’s age and previous literacy experiences. For young students in K and 1st grade, phonics instruction is typically built into the language arts curriculum. For a newcomer, you might need to add additional pictures and review concepts from earlier in the year.

Some modifications to make for whole-class phonics lessons is if a newcomer isn’t ready to spell words, have them practice reading them, matching the words with pictures, or only having to write one missing letter instead of the entire word.

picture word sorts
Matching pictures with words gives students practice both decoding and helps build their vocabulary knowledge. Sorting by spelling pattern helps to reinforce the pattern in both spelling and reading.

Older students that are literate in their native language might not require much phonics instruction, especially if the language that students can read and write in uses the same alphabet as English. They may only need an overview of sounds/letters that are not part of their native language.

Other students are literate in their native language, but that language uses a different alphabet than English. These students will benefit from a quick overview of the English alphabet and letter sounds.

Finally, some students are older and are not literate in their native language. They will require the largest amount of instruction that is different than their native English peers. Use a systematic phonics program to introduce the letters and sounds of English. Include pictures and go over vocabulary. Use decodable texts that are respectful of the student’s age and do not appear like they are obviously created for young children. You may only have a short amount of time available for phonics instruction. Having a scope and sequence will allow you to make the most of your time.

Get a Newcomer Phonics Set which is designed to quickly introduce the letters and common spelling patterns of English along with basic vocabulary. The set is designed for upper elementary students.

decodable text passage and background knowledge passage Newcomer decodable sentence strips with pictures.


decodable books
Some decodable texts focus on a specific phonics pattern.
cicada book
Nonfiction decodable books are sometimes more engaging for older newcomers.

Build in Grammar Instruction

Similar to phonics instruction, newcomers in early primary grades may not require much grammar instruction separate from what students are already learning in the general classroom. Simply supplement with visuals and review previously taught concepts.

For older students, integrate grammar lessons with content material. One strategy is to use a sentence patterning chart to review parts of speech and sentence structure. Then create sentence frames and give students vocabulary to complete them. Another strategy is the picture inductive method, where you label a picture and then use the words from the picture to create sentences.

is lives can sentence writing
Sentence patterning chart with picture vocabulary words.

Use Materials that Highlight the Newcomer’s Culture

In elementary school, newcomers will range from those who have never attended school before to students who can read and write in their native language.

Find Read Alouds that Have Words in the Student’s Native Language

Sharing a book with familiar language is a great way to make your newcomer student feel more at ease. It is also a great way to show other students in the class how it feels to not understand everything that is being said and build empathy. Here are some resources for finding bilingual audiobooks.

Unite for Literacy– This is a large database of short books with photographs. Many of the books are available in multiple languages and have a read aloud feature.

The Fable Cottage– This site has audiobooks available in multiple languages. The available languages are English, Spanish, German, French, Italian. There are additional fairy tales available on a partner site

Include Books about the Newcomer’s Culture

Check your classroom library and see if it has books with characters and settings from the student’s culture and home country. Look for both fiction and nonfiction books. Your school and public library are great places to find books to supplement your collection. For book ideas, I have lists of diverse books on a variety of subjects.

Lists of Diverse Books for ELLs

References & Resources

Newcomer Vocabulary Practice Bundle Print and Digital

The ELL Teacher’s Toolbook

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