Supporting Newcomer English Learners (Part 1 of 2)

There are over 5 million English language learners throughout the country, which means that approximately one out of every ten students enrolled in school is an English learner.  Not only are there a great deal of English learners overall, but this group is the fastest growing student population in the nation! Yet, not all English learners are the same.  With a wide range of needs in this student group, it is important to know the main types of English learners present in our classrooms.  Today’s blog post focuses on our newcomers. We start with this particular group because they face some very unique challenges, and often educators feel ill equipped to support their needs.  These students must adjust to a new system and culture, acquire a new language, and learn the content material all at once!  Because there is so much to dig into regarding the challenges faced by this student group, we will spend two blog posts discussing newcomers.  This post will cover the types of newcomers and how we can help them adjust to U.S. schooling. The next post will dig into effective instruction for newcomers.

Welcome to USA greeting to a guest or newcomer. Card or banner design with patriotic themed flags. Vector illustration on white background


Newcomer is a general term given to students who are born outside of the United States and are newly-arrived to this country.  While some newcomers may be fluent in English, others may need varying degrees of support to acquire the language.  Regardless of where they are in their language and educational journey, transitioning to a new country and educational system poses some unique hurdles that you can proactively address.

When my family immigrated from Argentina, one of our biggest hurdles was understanding the U.S. school system.  Both of my parents thought the transition would be simple as they were both educated and I had attended school since preschool in Argentina. However, the systems are incredibly different and there was definitely some culture shock. While people in this country might take compulsory education for granted, it is one major difference between the U.S. and many other countries.  Taking time to explain the laws around students attending school, how the different grade spans are divided, and the length of the school day are all important to the success of newcomer students.  My family and I were shocked by how long the school day is in the U.S. as compared to Argentina.  Another big difference for us during the first few weeks was the fact that students couldn’t go home for lunch and return to school in the afternoon.  Being explicit about school hours, routines, and expectations will make it easier for parents to prepare students for transition into U.S. schooling.


Below is a list of items to consider explaining to help students adjust to the U.S. school system:

  • School map with the following things labeled with words and pictures
    • Bathrooms (including the symbols for genders)
    • Playground
    • Library
    • Cafeteria
    • Main Office
    • Nurse/Health Office
    • Counselor’s Office
    • Classrooms they will be using
  • School calendar and hours
    • Note all holidays and student free days
    • Explaining the difference of a regular school day, minimum day, late start day, etc. and the times for each
    • School day schedule showing the times for lunch and breaks/recesses
    • How are times (breaks and lunch) signaled at the school? (i.e. bell, teacher)
  • Names of key people on campus
    • Administrators, teachers, counselor, EL Specialist, etc.
      • Note: In many cultures addressing adults in school settings as “Teacher” is a sign of respect. Explain that American teachers prefer to be addressed by their last name.
  • School Lockers
    • How to open/close
    • Appropriate use (some schools allow only for PE and some don’t have any)
  • Procedures for when students are late/absent
    • Even better if you can have it written in the students’ home language
  • Arriving at school
    • Where do students go when they arrive?
      • Do they line up on the playground?
      • Do they go straight to the class?
  • In class
    • How are teachers addressed?
    • Do they raise their hand to ask for help or participate or can they call out?
    • Is talking allowed when working with peers?
    • Do students work alone or is cooperative work allowed? Are there certain times for each type of work?
  • Lunch
    • Where do student go to eat?
    • Can they bring a lunch? What can they bring? Are they able to heat up food at school?
    • Can they buy food on campus? How do they pay for it?
    • Are they familiar with the cafeteria food and do they know how to eat it?
      • Example: sandwiches are eaten with your hands instead of fork and knife
    • What can students do after they eat?
  • After school
    • Where do students wait to be picked up?
    • Protocol if adult does not come on time
    • Route home if they walk
    • Which bus should they take and at what stop should they get off?


I hope you found this list helpful!  Please feel free to comment and/or send me an email with any suggestions you would like to see added!  In the next blog post featuring newcomers we will dive deeper into their different instructional needs and how to meet them!


Rocio Figueroa is the Director of Equity for English Learners at Ensemble Learning. Continue the conversation or reach out with questions by emailing her at To learn more about partnering with Ensemble to support your newcomers and all English learners, contact Ensemble CEO, Elise Darwish at


Additional resources:

U.S. Department of Education Newcomer Tool Kit

ELL Information Center

English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing

Welcome Kit for New ELLs




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