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Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   May 25, 2022

4 ways to welcome students who are new to the country and learning English for the first time

By Houa Yang-Xiong

Gr. 3-5 ESOL

4 ways to welcome students who are new to the country and learning English for the first time

By Houa Yang-Xiong

Many families and children are taking and seeking refuge in new places daily.

So, it might not be surprising when you suddenly get a new student in your classroom. When you have a newly arrived newcomer student, the impact you have on welcoming them on day one is so important.

Who is considered a newcomer student?

A newcomer student is someone who is new to the country and possibly has had little to no English language.

Newcomers might have an immigrant or refugee background. An immigrant is someone who leaves their country to move to another, whereas a refugee is someone who is forced out of their country due to a danger in their life. There is a lot to unpack when working with newcomers. These are a few things I have learned over the years to welcome newcomers into our schools and classrooms.

1. Go beyond the classroom.

If possible, allow the family and student to come visit the classroom and school beforehand. Have a team or a point person (i.e. ESL teacher, guidance counselor, etc.) as a school-to-home communication liaison. Here is a starter checklist of things to ask or do with the student and families:

Video links: Welcome to School; Arabic: Burmese: Dari: English: Karen: Rohingya: Pashto: Somali: Spanish: Swahili

When I have a newcomer student and family, I would create a welcome packet or folder for families with this information for parents to take home. Another thing I’ve done, if possible, is do a home visit. This really bridged the connection with families. When families feel a sense of ease about school, the transition and trust will come. 

2. Take time to learn about their language and culture.

It is so important to know the background of your student and their families. Don’t assume that because the family doesn’t speak English, they are incompetent to support their child’s education journey. Some ways to learn about your student family:

  • Taking the time to meet the family to have this background knowledge. Taking the time to understand their story will help you. This will help families feel connected and involved in their child’s learning.
  • Like any other student, be open to their experiences, cultural practices, and interests. Take time one-on-one or small group with the student so you can get a better insight on what they are bringing to your classroom. If a student is in their “silent period”, can the student draw or possibly write about their interests outside of school or their experiences? One of my newcomers, with no English or schooling background at all, and I did a lot of gestures with one another! Through this, I figured out he liked basketball and soccer during recess.
  • One way to be culturally responsive to a student’s culture is through books. You really have to put in the time and effort for your own learning. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has this great book search tool that can help narrow down specific age levels and diversity subjects. Not only is this for your learning but can also be for your class’s learning, as well. We want peers to also be understanding and open to learning about their classmate’s culture.

3. Have accessibility to classroom content at all levels.

In general, students should be able to show what they know through a variety of outlets. Do not exclude students because “they might not understand”. To help gauge where newcomers are at, ask yourself: Are they able to write in their native language? Is there another student who speaks the same language? What technology tools can help translate content? Here are a few ideas that can help you get started.

Links: Rewordify; Text Compactor, Academic Language Function ToolKit

4. Provide adjustment time.

Remember when you first started teaching? How long did it take for you to get into the groove of things?

That is how it feels for many newcomers.

School can be overwhelming, especially when you do not understand the language, yet. It gets exhausting physically and mentally for many newcomers to adjust to school routines, rules, then on top of that, the academics. There are times when behavior might come out because sitting for a long period of time or they get frustrated about certain tasks. Recognize these stressors and how you help students self-regulate what they’re feeling.

Take the time to get to know them one on one time through games, books, or videos. There will be highs and lows for students but if you create that welcoming, safe environment for them, it will go a long way.

As educators, we play a huge role in shaping our student’s educational journey. In my experience, most of our newcomers and their families are grateful for your support. They are so resilient, even with all they have endured. Many of them continue to be positive and push forward to be successful in their life. When we have newcomers, we will have a better understanding on how to meet their needs and encourage others to welcome them.


Houa Yang-Xiong

Gr. 3-5 ESOL

Houa is currently an elementary English Speaker of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher working students in grades 3-5 of various backgrounds, native languages, and English-proficiency levels. She has licensure in Elementary Education (1-6) and a Master's in Educational Technology. Aside from...
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