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Favorite Lessons From Teachers for English-Learner Newcomers (Opinion)

Today’s post is the latest in a series sharing teachers’ favorite lessons for English- language-learner newcomers.

Even though the school year is over, or near its end, for most of us, it’s never too early to plan for the next one!


Teresa Amodeo is an ESL/language-acquisition program coordinator for District 302 in Illinois. She has a master’s in literacy, with endorsements in ESL, middle school (language arts concentration):

The most effective lessons I have taught are those that bridge the students first language to English and provide multiple approaches in learning.

A few years back, I had a middle school student who just arrived from Mexico. She had little to no English background and was very timid. She only spoke to me and another other teacher that she was comfortable around. The first few weeks we were focusing on acclimating to a new lifestyle, new school and culture essentially. The first lesson that lasted a few days was identifying objects around and simple commands and requests.

I used visual resources to label important pieces of the class and school that she frequently used or visited to help her navigate through her day successfully and effectively. I used simple words such as “book-libro,” “class-clase,” “door-puerto,” then added simple commands or requests, for which I created a miniature pamphlet for her to reference and keep in her agenda that helped her ask to go to the restroom, go to her locker and the like. This began as a lesson via direct instruction and then became more independent practice and a reference in her environment throughout the day.

I encouraged her teachers to have her practice with them one-on-one, as she was timid to begin trying in front of peers.

After a few weeks, we utilized this same approach but as a lesson for her literature course. During our small group, we created a visual representation of a bridge in which we wrote the vocabulary word on one end that then was connected to the word in her native language among a visual representation if it was applicable. Utilizing students’ home language is tremendously effective to begin to build connections and a strong foundation to the new language learned. Any lesson for newcomers that provides hands-on, visuals, and connections to what they know or are familiar with lends itself to a great lesson.

More recently, I have also utilized lessons through supplemental materials such as; Team Tool Kits Newcomers, that provides flash cards with visuals that correlate to the Common Core State Standards and software-based resources, such as; Equipping ELs, which aligns to many standards and skills addressed in the classroom, in grades K-12. These resources that I incorporated in small-group lessons provide not only visuals but opportunities to practice speaking and listening in English, which builds foundation and baselines for our newcomers and familiarity with ACCESS, the state English test.

What Works

Adriana Villavicencio is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Her research is focused on K-12 educational policy and practice that deepen or disrupt inequities for students who are marginalized because of race, ethnicity, and immigration status. She wrote this with Verenisse Ponce Soria, who recently earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of California Irvine:

When I became a high school teacher in an immigrant-rich community in New York City, I arrived with strong preparation in curriculum design and research-based instructional strategies. However, I struggled to effectively serve English learners, especially those who had recently arrived in the United States. As a product of an immigrant family myself, I believed it was critical to understand how schools and teachers could create learning environments where newcomer youth could thrive. Fast forward 20 years, my research in this area has uncovered some essential components for designing classrooms that support newcomer students toward graduation and postsecondary opportunities.

A Model That Works

Since 2016, I have been studying the Internationals Network for Public Schools—a national network of 32 public schools designed to exclusively serve students who have been in the country for fewer than four years. In comparison with students attending other public schools, students attending Internationals schools have shown greater outcomes related to academic performance, attendance, and graduation (Cherng et al., 2020). The Internationals model is effective because it directly addresses the shortcomings of traditional secondary schools. In particular, the Internationals schools focus on integrating language and content, meaningful teacher collaboration, and inclusive school culture.

1. Integrate language and content: Public secondary schools typically address the linguistic needs of ELs by requiring remedial classes that focus on language development to the exclusion of academic content. In contrast, teachers in Internationals embed language development into content instruction. Students’ home languages (including dialogue between peers) are also integrated into the curriculum thematically and via multilingual resources (e.g., word walls, dictionaries, translation apps) to maximize learning and access to rigorous content.

Because active, interactive instructional strategies have been shown to be effective for English learners (Calderón et al., 2011), the model also emphasizes thematic, hands-on, interactive, project-based learning. We observed, for example, students engage in a monthlong water-themed unit across multiple subjects researching access to clean water in their home countries, learning research skills in their own language, and presenting their projects in English.

2. Create interdisciplinary curriculum through teacher collaboration: In most high schools, teachers of ELs often work alone with little opportunity to collaborate with colleagues outside of their disciplines (Lee, 2019). Internationals address teacher isolation by establishing interdisciplinary grade-level teacher teams and allocating time during the school day for kid talk, instructional planning, and sharing effective strategies.

Teachers also receive targeted professional development and coaching in translanguaging and designing or modifying existing curriculum to meet students’ language needs across subjects. This dimension draws on research illuminating the importance of developing teacher expertise to provide differentiated, linguistically responsive instruction tailored to EL needs—knowledge often not addressed in many teacher-preparation programs (Wixom, 2015).

3. Foster a school culture that supports families and promotes student belonging: Subtractive linguistic models (Valenzuela, 1999) that forbid students from using their home language(s) ignore decades of research in educational linguistics (García & Kleifgen, 2018) and result in the marginalization of EL youth. School culture elements of the Internationals model disrupt the subtractive schooling experienced by many ELs in traditional secondary settings (Callahan, 2013).

Not only do teachers in Internationals frame home languages and cultures as assets and resources, they also schedule opportunities to foster nurturing relationships with students outside of the classroom (e.g., wellness corners, student advisory periods), while relying on community-based organizations and legal professionals to help families navigate challenges related to mental health, immigration status, and postsecondary options.

Overall, Internationals students receive a culturally and linguistically responsive learning environment from educators who have the training and support to meet their complex needs and honor who they are.

Why It Matters More Than Ever

Traditional secondary schools have largely failed to serve immigrant ELs, many of whom struggle to attain proficiency in English after six years in U.S. schools and drop out of high school at alarming rates (Clark-Gareca et al., 2019). The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened existing disparities for immigrant youth, who experienced tremendous personal loss and educational setbacks as a result of the pandemic (Lazarin, 2020). Given long-standing disparities and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, it is essential to not only identify the causes of educational failure but also implement scalable practices to address the needs of immigrant youth, especially those who are developing proficiency in English.

See References here.

Thanks to Teresa and Adriana for contributing their thoughts.

The question of the week is:

What are the most effective lessons you have taught to English-language-learner newcomers?

In Part One, Julia López-Robertson, Monisha Bajaj, Tatiana Chaterji, and Stacey Diaz contributed their responses.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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