When I first started teaching English as a Second Language I had 3 years of experience in teaching Spanish as a foreign language under my belt. I understood the basics of language learning, but teaching students who just arrived in the USA with little to no English was something new. I had to learn teaching strategies for newcomers very quickly on the spot.

The school where I taught ESL did not have a plan for newcomers. I had to figure out a way for my students to be able to communicate basic English and do it fast. 

I had once heard in a conference that verbs are where we should be focusing when we teach English because verbs are the building blocks of sentences. So I decided to start teaching my newcomers the most widely used verbs such as to need, to want, to have, to be able to, etc. We did drills and we also used the sentences in context with school related vocabulary such as, “I need to go to my locker.”

Next I would teach them academic content in their native language (Spanish) and then teach them the vocabulary related to that content in English. Having a mix of academic vocabulary and basic verbs gave them the survival skills they needed to excel in class.

Luckily, I was able to be with my newcomers in their academic classes, but if you are not so lucky here are some tips for helping newcomers that do not have a bilingual assistant or teacher with them.

  1. See if there is a way you can give them a preview (summary of the lesson with big ideas) in their native language. Although Google translate is not necessarily accurate, it could be useful in giving the student a basic idea of what will be happening in class that day. This is different than an agenda. You are giving them a quick 5 to 10 minute rundown of the lesson before class starts. Even though they won’t know all that is being said while you are teaching, by giving them some background knowledge you will be providing them sense of relief and an ability to grasp the main ideas of the content.
  2. Provide visuals as often as possible. Show pictures of what you are discussing. If you have a vocabulary list, put it up in the room with pictures next to the words. Pictures of the content and big ideas are so crucial for language learners. When you read aloud, put the document or text under a projector and use your finger to show where you are reading. This will give the student a chance to see the words and learn some pronunciation. Of course only a few words will be learned, but it is better than no words at all. This also gives the student more context for what is being said and they can find some cognates as you read.
  3. Have the student keep a notebook with big ideas, major vocabulary and cognates. Instead of testing them on minor details, test them on the vocabulary and ideas they are learning. If they can’t answer in English, see what they learned in their native language, if that is possible.

These are just a few tools to get you started with newcomers and beginner language learners. These strategies are excellent for all levels, and even for native speakers.

Please share more strategies that you use in the comments.