3 – Supporting Newcomer EAL Students in the Elementary Classroom: The First Weeks

Patricia Hicks

The increasing number of English as an Additional Language (EAL) students in Saskatchewan schools is just one of the numerous challenges faced by today’s teachers, as well as being a potentially exciting new learning opportunity. The number of EAL learners in Saskatchewan schools has been steadily growing since 2008 (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod.1, p. 1). EAL students must learn not only curricular outcomes but also social and academic language. These students’ immediate learning needs create an urgency to begin developing language and academic skills as soon as possible upon arrival at school.  Providing appropriate supports for the newcomer student in the first weeks of Saskatchewan schooling will be the focus of this paper.

EAL leaners are a diverse student population. Many are Canadian-born learners whose first language is one other than English (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod.1, p. 10). Another population of EAL learners are students who have come to Canada at a pre-school age. Garnett (2012), refers to these students as generation 1.5. The third group of EAL students are newcomers to Canada. Newcomer families are most often economic immigrants, family class immigrants, or refugees. Over 3300 landed immigrants and refugees aged 0-14 arrived in Saskatchewan in 2015 (Prokopchuk, 2017). Continuing immigration coupled with a recent influx of Syrian refugees has brought unique challenges to the classroom. Unlike Canadian born EAL students, newcomer arrivals generally experience the “stages of adjustment” (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod. 1, p. 10), which may include a period of culture shock.  Newcomers present many other unique challenges because of “a vast difference in age, time of arrival, country of origin, prior experiences, and educational needs” (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod.1, p. 8).

Newcomer students face many challenges that can impact their learning. One of the most obvious challenges for newcomer students is communication. Many newcomers must learn not only a new language, but also new print conventions. Different cultural norms challenge newcomer students as well. Often newcomers feel isolated within the school community, especially as they move from the honeymoon stage to the hostility or culture shock phase of adjustment (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod. 1, p. 10). Students must also learn “to do school” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 60) as they learn the expectations and teaching/learning styles prevalent in Saskatchewan schools. For refugee students, trauma is a real and serious concern. Many students arrive in the classroom having experienced separation from loved ones, exposure to acts of war and interrupted schooling (Manitoba Education, 2012).

With so many challenges facing the newcomer EAL student, it is imperative that teachers are well prepared to work with the students and their families. One of the first lines of communication with the newcomer family is through the Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program. As part of this program, these trained workers provide services in Humboldt, Moose Jaw, Regina, Saskatoon, Swift Current and Prince Albert regions (Regina Open Door Society, 2017). All teachers can access valuable links, contacts and information at the SWIS web site (SWIS Sask. 2017). If needed, any school in the province can access free OPI (over-the-phone interpretation) services funded by the Ministry of Education (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod. 2, p. 9).

Once the family has completed the initial intake procedures in terms of school registration and placement, an assessment of the student will take place. Like most school divisions, the Saskatoon Public School Division has a two part interview and assessment process. First, background information is gathered. An interpreter is used if required. Next, a language assessment of the learner is performed (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014). Common procedures for reception, intake and assessment are established throughout Saskatchewan school divisions (University of Saskatchewan, Mod. 1, p. 8).  All of this information is accessible to the classroom teacher and provides a well-rounded look at the newcomer student.

An important indicator of the newcomer student’s language abilities is the score on the Common Framework of Reference (CFR). This assessment tool is “a well-established language framework that identifies ways in which learners at various levels of proficiency use language to perform meaningful, authentic tasks” (Government of Saskatchewan, 2013). This “can do” scale (Government of Saskatchewan, 2013) rates language learners on what they are able to accomplish in the areas of listening, spoken interaction, spoken production, reading and writing. Saskatchewan schools focus on the first three proficiency levels of the CFR, breaking them down further to A1.1, A1.2, A2.1, A2.2, B1.1 and B1.2. The descriptors allow the teacher, students and parents to see a detailed description of where the student is at and to track progress over time.

By examining all the data gathered from the initial intake and assessment, a learner profile can be created and goals set. Data collected early on will be important to keep. This data provides evidence of growth which is important for EAL students to see as they progress. The goals that are set will be dependent on the student’s present level of English communication and previous schooling experiences. For students who have no English language skills, “their immediate need is to learn the language of everyday interaction as well as some basic academic terms” (Coelho, 2012, p. 84).

The first experiences in the classroom should be designed to make the newcomer student feel welcome and at ease. The way that the student is introduced to the class can help create a welcoming climate. Coelho (2012, p. 156) suggests that the teacher introduces new students by telling the class about where they come from, what language they speak, pronouncing names correctly, and enlisting support from the entire class. Sometimes new names can be difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Amber Prentice from Colorin Colorado (2012) advises not to anglicize student names, but to be respectful of their given names. By practicing as many times as needed, teachers can learn to pronounce new names correctly. Always confirm which name is used as the everyday first name and how official names on documents should appear as these vary culturally (Coelho, 2012).

One of the first supports a classroom teacher can offer the new student is a buddy (Helmer & Eddy, 2012). Preferably this buddy would be another student who is the same age or slightly older who speaks the same language as the newcomer student. However, “it is more important to select students of any language background who are kind, patient, and empathetic” (Coelho, 2012, p. 36). Training sessions for potential buddies are a good way to emphasize the need to be empathetic as well as informative. A well trained buddy can assist the new student with familiarization of the school and provide introductions. Also, recess or class change bells, fire drills and lockdown drills should be explained in advance to reduce any stress that these may cause the new student.

Helmer and Eddy (2012) remind teachers to be aware of cultural considerations that may impact student relationships when assigning buddies. It is important to keep in mind that circumstances, such as socio-economic status, religion and gender, can affect relationships. Despite a similarity in first language, students “could, in fact, come from areas that have been sworn enemies for centuries” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012). By accessing newcomer background information and educating oneself about world cultures, the classroom teacher may be able to avoid cultural conflicts, or recognize difficulties as they arise.

Newcomer students can arrive at any time in the school year. Simple preparations can speed the transition process for the student. Having certain items ready ahead of time for potential new students can reduce stress on the first days for everyone. A welcome package containing essential classroom items such as pencils, erasers, crayons, notebooks, and other items appropriate to the classroom and grade is easy to have ready and will make the newcomer student feel welcomed and prepared (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, ECUR 415 Mod. 2, p. 9).

It is important to remember that EAL students and their families are capable of successful communication in their first language or languages. “Research has shown that children who maintain and continue to develop in their own language reach higher levels of literacy and academic achievement than children who begin to lose their first language once they start school” (Coelho, 2012).  Providing a print rich environment that includes the community languages represented in the school population is one way to include and encourage use of students’ first languages. It is affirming for newcomers to see signs, posters, and books in their first language. By learning some key phrases in the school’s community languages, the teacher can make the newcomer student and parents feel more welcomed (Colorin Colorado, 2012). Various examples of multilingual school information for parents is available on the SWIS web site (SWIS Sask. 2017).

Some newcomer students will experience a silent period. This period is normal for many beginning language learners (Coelho, 2012, p. 230). While students are first exposed to the new language they may not be speaking but are learning. The student needs support as they “take in” the language. The student will become verbal once they are ready.  This may take up to six months and should not be considered abnormal as long as the student is listening and participating in other ways in the classroom (RALLI Campaign, 2013).

The newcomer student requires many supports in the first weeks, months and years of schooling. Supports provided to assist student learning are referred to as scaffolding. Numerous scaffolds are vital in the first weeks of instruction. Language presentation can be scaffolded to support learning. Providing “comprehensible input” (Coelho, p. 233) requires the teacher to present language that is just slightly beyond the student’s current level. To make the language more comprehensible for newcomer students, Hill (2008) suggests using simple authentic language at a slightly slower rate with a clear voice. He also suggests using manipulatives, visuals, gestures, pantomime, and facial expressions. With the use of computers, tablets and Smartboards, it is easy to provide the learner with visuals that support just about any topic.

Using culturally responsive teaching methods is an excellent way to incorporate the newcomer’s background into the classroom while developing language skills. (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013)  Newcomer students feel more engaged when the teacher provides projects that incorporate their cultural background (Coelho, 2012, p. 161). One of the examples of an intercultural project offered by Coelho (2012) is The World in our Classroom activity. A world map is hung in the classroom and all students and teachers hang a picture of themselves to indicate their country of origin or ancestry. As newcomers arrive they can add their picture to the map. Later, when the newcomer student’s English language skills permit, this student can make a presentation to the class about his or her own country of origin. Several other intercultural project ideas are outlined in Coelho (2012, Ch. 6) and Muniz (2008).

The information researched for this paper will be extremely useful to me in the upcoming school year. Applying the appropriate supports is key to successful transitions for newcomer students. In my class journal (University of Saskatchewan, 2017, Journal 2-4) I identified a need for more multilingual resources in my school. By engaging the local community, new resources can be created that are representative of the heritage languages in our community. Creating multilingual welcome signage will be a great way to begin building relationships and exploring the diversity of languages in our community.

I will begin the school year presenting this subject matter to colleagues in a half- day workshop. Each newcomer student in my school division will face his or her own unique challenges. I hope that by welcoming them with an encouraging smile, setting appropriate goals, learning names correctly, assigning a peer buddy, embracing culture in the classroom, and seeking appropriate supports, each newcomer student will be provided with the best possible start to a successful Saskatchewan education.



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