How To Help Newcomers Feel Comfortable in the Classroom

How to help newcomers in the classroom
How to help newcomers in the classroom
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Did you know? 

According to the National Education Association, by 2025, 1 out of every 4 children in classrooms across the US will be a new English Language Learner, Multilingual or Bilingual student. New students arriving in the US are usually called newcomers in a school setting. The term ‘newcomers’ is defined as K-12 students born outside the United States who arrived in the country in the last three years and are still learning English. In a study conducted by The Annenberg Institute, they discovered new students have lower average levels of English-language proficiency than newcomers in years past.

When I taught English as a Second Language, I had various newcomers, including students from China, Afghanistan, Mexico, Poland, and Bulgaria. My students’ ages ranged from 5th to 8th grade. All of my newcomers spoke different languages, held various levels of their home language, and had unique cultural backgrounds. 

Some newcomers arrived without educational experience; my job was challenging. 

However, by the end of the first school year, my students began to thrive quickly with hard work, dedication, collaboration with mainstream teachers – and much patience.

Teachers nationwide open their classrooms to a new academic school year every year. Returning to school or attending school in a different environment can cause anxiety for any student. However, the fear and anxiety of starting over in a new country differs when you are an English Language or Multilingual Learner arriving in the States.

Also, teachers who work with newcomers face unique challenges. They have to support their new students linguistically, culturally, socially, and academically. On top of meeting these unique needs, newcomers need meaningful content to relate to – the kind of information that coincides with their former lives and enhances their new lives. 

Finally, entering a new classroom can be a daunting experience for anyone. Newcomers are saddled with assimilation into a unique culture, have different background stories, and many come with varying levels of education. Some students don’t know their native language, which can create an even more significant learning gap. 

As you face many challenges as an educator, little changes can make a significant difference.

How to help newcomers in the classroom
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Here are Ten Effective Ways Teachers can Help Newcomers Feel Comfortable in the Classroom

Create a Welcoming Environment

First impressions matter when a student arrives in a new country, state, and especially – a new school. Greet newcomers with a warm smile or a simple “hello” in their native language when possible. Learning “hello” in different languages can help create a bond and inspire other students in the class to welcome the new student with open arms, too. Small gestures for newcomers can go a long way in helping them to feel seen, acknowledged, and welcomed. 

Decorate your Classroom 

Decorate your classroom with different images alongside words. For example, hang posters that use welcoming greetings in other languages so your students can immediately see they fit into their new environment. Also, be sure to have easy-to-read posters that establish clear expectations in the classroom, which foster respect and understanding.

For academics, posters with vocabulary words and images are one way students can internalize English words – through repetitive and engaging visual interactions.

Some other examples of classroom decorations to support newcomers include:

Word Walls
Create a word wall that displays common vocabulary words used throughout the school. You can use word walls interchangeably by creating words for everyday social language learning and academic learning. Use colorful cards or sticky notes to make your word wall visually appealing and interactive.

Offer a Cultural Corner
Dedicate a classroom corner to display cultural artifacts, flags, maps, and pictures representing different countries or cultures. It’s not always easy to find decorations for all cultures. You can find free images online to help with personalized learning. 

Use Interactive Bulletin Boards
Set up bulletin boards that encourage student participation and require engagement. An interactive bulletin board is fun because all students can take part in creating and changing it as needed.

According to Bored Teachers, here are a few ways you can use interactive bulletin boards:

Create a Travel Map
Post a map of the United States or the world on the bulletin board, and have students add pictures or small tokens when they travel to a new place. Students can use the bulletin board to learn about essential landmarks or historical events.

Design a Giant Word Search
Encourage your students to find phonics sounds, spelling words, or vocabulary words with a fun word search. Finding these things in context is an important skill, and a word search is a fun way to practice.

Use QR Codes
Create a mystery-type bulletin board with QR codes. Students can scan the QR code to get clues to answer questions or use it as a research tool to discover facts for a class project. 

How to help newcomers in the classroom
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Co-Teach and Collaborate 

With such a significant influx of students coming to schools rapidly, language support and mainstream teachers must work together. In the study mentioned above by The Annenberg Institute, they state, “There’s the need for more English-learner teachers and more access to research-based strategies in teaching newcomers for general education teachers – such as co-teaching and collaboration.” When teachers work together and bring their unique perspectives, students have a greater chance of thriving due to ongoing support from different support staff.

Create Flexible Program Offerings if Possible

No program fits a one-size-fits-all scenario regarding teaching and learning – especially working with newcomers. Therefore, there is a great need to create scenarios, programs, and flexible learning options for all students. 

In addition, The Annenberg Study found that district administrators stated that many teenage newcomers had work obligations outside school. 

They also claimed many newcomers were coping with trauma from their home countries or during their journey to the United States. Offering flexible programs will help students find their best fit for a thriving outcome. 

Also, if your district has the resources, providing adult English language programs has demonstrated tremendous outcomes for students and their families.

Create Personalized Name Tags 

Create personalized name tags for all students and display them on their desks. This strategy will help you learn names quickly and support students and their peers. Speaking your new students names correctly is crucial because it shows you care about them – especially on the first day of school.

How to help newcomers in the classroom
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Routines Matter 

Just like newborn babies thrive from a predictable schedule – routines and daily patterns can make a significant difference for newcomers. Routines create a sense of boundaries and safety and can help newcomers understand what is coming next in their day when they cannot understand English – yet. 

In addition, newcomers must follow a routine to become familiar with new faces, societal differences, and classroom expectations. A routine also helps them understand their new culture. A clear and consistent daily classroom schedule will help newcomers succeed from a social and academic lens. You can use many ways to assist students with their new school routines. 

How to help newcomers in the classroom
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Assign a Buddy 

Pair newcomers with a buddy or a peer mentor who can help them navigate classroom routines, understand assignments, and make social connections. Having a friend can ease the transition and provide a sense of belonging. 

Also, this is a great way to help students who might need a more substantial purpose in school – helping them with any social issues they may be facing simultaneously. 

If you have a student who speaks their language, encourage them to engage with your newcomers. This partnership will provide a positive experience for all students. 

Lastly, assign a classmate who can help them navigate the classroom, answer questions, and introduce them to others. 

Create Opportunities for Interaction

Encourage collaborative learning activities that allow newcomers to engage with their peers. Group work, peer discussions, and cooperative projects can foster friendships and build confidence while students learn English simultaneously. You can also increase interaction and engagement through group discussions, problem-solving exercises, hands-on experiments, or interactive simulations. 

You should also make sure your content is relevant to the real world. Connect your students and provide different ways for them to demonstrate understanding. Offering speedy feedback can help your students see where they are succeeding immediately while providing them with the tools they need to improve where they’re still lacking in their language learning journey.

Use Simple Language 

Remember that we don’t always know how much education our students have in their former countries – or their levels of native language use. 

Be sure to speak, check for understanding, and avoid using complex language or idiomatic expressions that may confuse newcomers. 

Refrain from scolding or correcting your students out loud in front of the class. This behavior can set students back a great deal due to humiliation. 

When newcomers make a mistake, correctly repeat the sentence at the right time. Simple language, visuals, and gestures can facilitate better fluency, comprehension, and communication.

Celebrate Progress

Acknowledge and celebrate the progress of newcomers, no matter how small those wins might be – and continue to praise their success. Positive reinforcement and encouragement can boost their confidence and motivation to continue learning. 

Celebrating your students’ success is just as important as achieving success. Celebrating progress is essential to all students’ self-esteem, confidence, growth, and love of learning. Regardless of size, recognize your students’ achievements when they reach their goals. 

Welcoming newcomers is an ongoing process every day throughout the country. By implementing these ten strategies, you can foster a positive classroom environment to help your new students feel accepted, valued, and empowered to learn and thrive.

Building connections, providing language support, and fostering a sense of belonging are essential steps in helping newcomers thrive academically and socially in their new school community. As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that every student feels comfortable and supported as they embark on their learning journey.

Bonus Tip!

Finally, don’t forget to use music in your classroom. The benefits of using music to teach English are endless. Music improves memory, it’s fun and engaging, and it can easily bring a classroom together!

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