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Newcomers & Beginning English Learners - Where Do I Start?

As we settle into second semester, a new batch of content teachers are working with groups of beginning English learners in their classes.  It's an uncomfortable feeling for both teachers and the students.  What are the expectations?  What are the processes in this class?  What's most important?

Research and experience tells us that our beginning English learners need time, exposure, experiences, and direct language instruction.  BUT....the reality is we don't have extended time.  We have one semester to conquer this content.  All of these students need something a little different, yet there is only one you.  Where do you start??

While I have no magic bullet, here's where I recommend all content teachers begin their quest to make their content accessible and their students successful.

1.  Relationships - Smile.  Let your students know you care.  Be honest.  Tell them you aren't exactly sure what's best but, together you will find what works for everyone.  While I'd never suggest translation apps for conquering content, they are certainly helpful in getting basic communication started if needed.

2.  Remember the triangle!  Comprehensibility - 

Considering each of the Three Principles in your lesson plan is a great place to start.  Let's start with comprehensibility.  Students with an English proficiency level of 1 or 2 (beginners) understand, on average, about 20% of any lesson when supports are used.  So work smarter, not harder.  What's the most important 20% of your content for the day?  THIS is where you add visuals, focus on visual vocabulary, use hands-on experiences, video, notes pages, organizers, etc. to support students in understanding your message.  This is also where you give yourself (and students) a break and agree that it's not low expectations if they don't get everything - it's reality.

3.  Critical Thinking - How can students think on a grade/age appropriate level and demonstrate their understanding?  Do they need to read the entire article?  Can they demonstrate getting the main idea or citing evidence from a paragraph versus a few pages of text?  Consider tasks such as labeling, matching, demonstration, oral explanation, or creating a visual as a way to express their thinking rather than all text based work.  Beginning English learners need at least double the processing time, so what is most important for them to work through and what can you eliminate and still stay true to grade level content?  This is especially true for assessments.  Remember - stick to the most important 20%.  The rest is bonus when it happens.

4.  Interaction - Create an environment where it's safe for everyone to participate at their comfort level with a bit of a push.  How can you get just a word or two from a student?  Maybe even a gesture or action.  How do you encourage more proficient English speakers to engage in conversation with the beginning English speakers?  I recently witnessed a class activity where students had to interview each other and the teacher purposefully paired the beginning English learners with native English speakers.  It's important for all students to learn how to work with communication barriers.  All students in this class know how to break things down and use tools such as translation apps to have conversations.  It was beautiful and led to the most interesting interactions.  Everyone was uncomfortable.  Everyone got over it.

Interaction is the most effective and efficient way to grow content and language.  With appropriate supports, beginning English learners can participate in conversations about the content.  Through sentence frames, modeling, visual supports, oral rehearsal, and time to process with peers, students are able to play with the concepts and language to create meaning.

In the end, it's certainly not easy.  It IS possible.  Once you give yourself a break with the amount of content you are trying to convey, you will have the brain space to notice what works best for each student and when they are ready to be pushed a bit more.  This beginning stage doesn't last long.  Everyone will make it through with a little time, patience, and strategic thinking.

Blog author, Kelly Reider, is the founder of English Learner Portal.  She currently works with high school newcomers and provides professional learning workshops both online and across the country.

Want more professional learning around developing language and content in your classroom?  Take a look at our online course, "A Content Teacher's Guide to English Learner Success".  This course is perfect for those just getting started with English learners and is open for enrollment.


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