The Beauty and Struggle of Newcomers: 4 Things to Remember

I love newcomers.  If you ever have the opportunity to work with them, you will too. But they will probably stress you out first.

These are the students that teachers who are not newcomer teachers lose the most sleep over when these kids first arrive in their classroom.  These are the sweet kids who often have a very scared look on their faces, sit very quietly in the classroom, and seem to become master copiers.

I mean…I just love them.

Newcomers are defined as students who have been in the country less than a year.

Let’s talk for just a minute about language.  Language is typically divided into 2 parts – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Profiency (CALP). As a rule of thumb, it takes between 1-3 years to develop BICS, or social language, and 5-10 years to develop CALP, or academic language.  So by the end of the first year, you should definitely see growth in the newcomers’ language, but it takes time and intentionality!

Also, there is input and output. Input occurs through reading and listening, and language tends to develop through input first. Then comes output. Output is when the students demonstrate their learning through speaking and writing.

So here are a few things to remember:

  1. Language is the number one priority for these students.  If you get a 8th grade newcomer, the expectation cannot be that that student master grade level standards in the 8th grade. Can they be exposed to grade level content and vocabulary? Sure. But 99% of them are not going to be able to produce grade level output in the first year, and to expect that is to set them up for failure. Language! Language! Language!
  • They will go through a silent period, but they are still learning language! Don’t expect them to immediately produce language(output), but don’t doubt for a minute that they aren’t learning it (input).  So make sure to accommodate! Visuals, repetition, translation, and hand motions (total physical response) are so important during this time, even if we don’t feel like we are getting much output from the students.
  • We need to provide other ways for students to show output – perhaps highlighting key words, illustrating, non-linguistic representations, writing it in their native language and then using technology to translate (if they are literate in their native language), listing, and pointing are all ideas for other means of output.
  • This is a really crucial time to build a relationship with the student – but how if we can’t carry on a conversation with them? Make eye contact, ask yes or no questions with simple language, use a translation app, make personal connections through touch, like a hug, high five or handshake, and SMILE at them! It’s been reported that the spoken word is only 10% of communication – let’s utilize the other 90%!

So let’s recap:

  1. Build language! The student needs to read, write, speak and listen as much as possible, but at a level they can do!
  2. Accommodate! Even if they are not producing language, they are learning it! Make it accessible to them!
  3. Differentiate the output!
  4. Show them you care! Communicate in other ways!

Give yourself and your students grace in this. Lead in love and be intentional, you will see growth!

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