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Learning Curve

Strategies to help new immigrant students

New York Teacher
Strategies to help new immigrant students

Annotating passages using color, icons and translated vocabulary can help ELL students decipher text.

The influx of students from new immigrant families these past few years has presented many challenges for New York City public school educators. These children have varying levels of literacy and some have had interrupted formal education. Many belong to families who are struggling to meet basic needs such as food, warm clothing and shelter. All have experienced dislocation, and some suffered traumatic experiences in their homelands or on their journeys to this country.

First steps

For educators struggling to support these students, the first step is easy: Just smile. “Make sure these children feel seen every day they’re in your classroom,” said Katie Kurjakovic, an English language learner specialist at the UFT. Body language and gestures can be used to communicate and set a friendly tone. “Make them feel welcome,” she said.

If the newcomer is new to your class, ask your administration for details on country of origin, education background, English language proficiency and home and/or school languages if it wasn’t provided to you. With that information in hand, pair up the newcomer with a more-established student who ideally speaks a common language.

“Having a buddy is the best way to help newcomers get acclimated to the routines of school,” said Panagiota Kaiafas, an English as a new language (ENL) teacher at the Queens School of Inquiry.

Building community

It’s important to make newcomers feel included in your class. For example, assigning classroom roles that don’t require language, like timekeeper or class photographer, “can make them feel an equal part of the classroom and a contributing member,” said Kurjakovic.

Rick Colon, an affiliate field liaison at the UFT Teacher Center, recommends asking newcomer students to keep digital journals where they can take pictures from their life, surroundings or culture. “This is a way you get to see that kid,” said Colon. “And that serves as a bridge to acquire and practice language, because you can talk about something seen in their pictures.”

Colon suggests creating a hallway bulletin board that displays each student’s country of origin, languages spoken, likes and dislikes, and even favorite sports teams. Students will see what they have in common with other members of the school community.

These personal connections can help build bridges and trust. “Students are in school buildings to learn content,” he said. “But schools also have the power to be hubs of the community where people come together for resources and guidance. But you only do that with people you trust and know.”

Educators suggest putting up displays that honor or recognize the newcomers’ culture and traditions. “Incorporating their cultures around the school can be very healing,” said Kurjakovic. “Cultural bereavement plays a role. These children have been wrenched from families and their cultures.”

Encouraging speech

Amy Mascunana, an ENL teacher at Pelham Gardens MS in the Bronx, says teachers should “always offer the opportunity” to newcomers to speak in class. She forewarned, however, that it’s normal for newcomers to experience a silent period. Pressuring them to speak “is just going to make things worse,” she said. “They’re just absorbing the language.”

If newcomers choose not to speak at first, don’t sideline them. Instead, Mascunana advised, try to elicit a physical response through a signal, like a thumbs up or down. “It’s balancing making them feel included without pressuring them to include themselves,” she said.

Once a student does feel comfortable enough to speak, provide plenty of positive reinforcement. “Always compliment and praise the student’s effort,” said Kaiafas. “Help them understand they are not the only English language learner in the school.”

Avoid publicly correcting first speaking attempts. “It’s about communication and meaning more than structure at this point,” said Kurjakovic. “They will get the structure later. You just want to encourage them to talk.”

Providing sentence starters, images and word walls can help build spoken language. Mascunana gives discussion questions in advance so students “think about and form a response so when I call on them, they’re not under pressure. Now they can participate in a way that feels safe.”

“Turn and talk,” a popular discussion method, should be more structured for English language learners, Colon advised. The Teacher Center uses a conversation prompt called QSSSA for Question, Signal, Stem, Share and Assess. The teacher provides students with a question, a gesture to signal when they are ready to answer and a sentence stem. They share their answers with a partner or group, and teachers can then assess student responses.

When to translate

Digital tools make translation easy, but educators should be judicious in using them. “Well-meaning teachers often translate everything for their newcomers,” said Mascunana, but it’s neither necessary nor effective.

It’s better to translate only key words or short passages. The New York State Education Department’s Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages resource, “Using Translations as a Support, Not a Solution,” offers effective examples to integrate home languages in class instruction.

A strategy called “treating the text” uses selective translation, images, chunking, highlighting and graphic organizers for tackling written English. Select “the meatiest paragraph from a longer piece or what gives the gist of what you want them to talk about and grapple with,” said Colon, and then annotate that excerpt to support comprehension.

Schoolwide practices

Kurjakovic said students feel more confident and get acclimated sooner when the entire school uses the same discussion protocols and classroom routines. “They know what’s expected of them, their stress level goes down and they’re ready to engage more,” she said.

School staff can request professional learning on ELL teaching strategies. The 2023 contract stipulates that professional development should be collaboratively developed by the school-based staff development committee, so creating common protocols and routines can be made a priority.

Remember to celebrate the small achievements and don’t focus so much on your students’ ability to quickly rise to a higher ELL proficiency level, Colon advised. “That number doesn’t reflect the learning they have undertaken in the months they’ve been here,” he said.

Above all else, be compassionate and welcoming.

Newcomers need to know “this is a community,” said Colon. “I’m going to learn from you as much as I hope that you’re going to learn from us.”