New Kid, New School, New Year, AND New Language: That First Day Really Makes a Difference!

By Karen Nemeth

This post is meant for teachers of all grades who will greet children who speak languages other than English into class this year.  I usually focus on preschool, but we gathered a lot of great suggestions that apply to all ages when we discussed this topic on our weekly Twitter chat – #ELLCHAT.  (I hope you’ll join in the chat – coordinated by well-known author @JudieHaynes. We talk about specified ELL topics every Monday 9:00 pm Eastern time.)

The first day of school is a big adjustment for students of all ages – AND their teachers.  But what must it be like for the child who is new to school and new to the language? Certainly, what happens on that very first day can set the stage for a smooth adjustment.  A difficult first day may start the child’s new school experience off on the wrong foot.  With thanks to my #ELLCHAT colleagues, here are some
strategies you can use to make a new ELL feel welcome, comfortable, and ready for school:

  1. Find out the languages of the students in advance so you can prepare to greet them with words and materials that will be familiar.
  2. Learn to say hello and a few other simple words in each child’s home language. Some teachers think this is a lot to ask when they have multiple languages that change from year to year – but I believe that this one simple step in the beginning can help you establish a positive relationship with a new child under stress and that will undoubtedly make your job easier all year.
  3. Invite the child and family members in for a tour of the building so they will be familiar with where to enter, find bathrooms, get lunch, go to the nurse and so on.  Some programs have made video tours so families can go over them at home and help their children feel prepared.
  4. Post signs with welcoming words in the home languages for the students and parents to see as they enter.
  5. Post a schedule on the wall – and make sure all students see it – using pictures to show what will happen throughout the day. For students that move from room to room, try to make them a picture schedule too – using photos of the classrooms and room numbers, their teacher, and some hint of what content they will cover. For example – from 8:30 – 9:12 there’s a photo of Mrs. Smith, the math teacher, at the door of her room holding a calculator and a protractor.
  6. Once students are settled, take a calm approach to walking through emergency procedures and firedrills so they don’t get caught off guard.

Next, we thought about what it’s like for a new student to walk into a boisterous, crowded classroom on that first day with no idea what is going on.  Sometimes the noise and the constant pressure of trying to listen to instructions that you can’t understand can be exhausting.  Here are some ideas from our group:

  1. Build in some quiet time or quiet space in every linguistically diverse classroom.
  2. Provide magazines or books in the home languages of the children and offer some free choice silent reading time for everyone.
  3. Put out some activities that can promote learning or help children get to know you and each other that don’t depend on knowing each other’s language right away.  Art materials, building materials, a brief silent movie or nature video to watch together, or puzzles might work.
  4. Be sure to have translation apps like iTranslate for iPad or Google Translate on the internet. This will help you respond quickly when communication is needed.
  5. Take the time to directly teach students about the classroom and school rules, and where and when to use the bathroom, what to do if they don’t feel well, how to listen for the bell to change classes, and any other basics that a newcomer may not know.  These things are really important for new ELLs because one bad experience – such as getting reprimanded when they don’t understand a rule, or missing the bathroom, or showing up late to a class they couldn’t find – can be so hurtful to them that it may interfere with their school experience for a long time.  Helping them feel confident, competent and in control is an investment in success for the student and the teacher.
  6. Prepare in advance to differentiate instruction for the different languages and abilities in your class.  Be ready with visuals, graphics, and props to help make the content you present meaningful and comprehensible to all.
  7. Invite English speakers or experienced bilingual children to be ‘ambassadors’ or ‘buddies’ to help the newcomers feel welcome and guide them through activities and transitions.
  8. Entering non-structured activities in the first few days can be so intimidating for ELLs. Think what it is like to just stand at the entrance to the school cafeteria, not knowing where to sit, who to talk to, what to do.  Assign buddies to be especially supporting during those times.  You might even plan some kind of icebreaker activities or invite some of the students who are especially shy to eat with you in the classroom if that seems to help.
  9. Ask experienced bilingual parents to serve as ambassadors for the new families as well, making sure they understand policies and procedures, and special events at the school.

Now that’s what happens when you get a professional learning community together on Twitter – or anywhere!  Feel free to add ideas and resources via the comments for this blog!




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