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Assisting students who are new learners of English - most FAQ by primary school teachers...

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By Janet McQueen

Many teachers who have a new student in their class who does not speak English ask, "How do I teach this student?" This is when they run to colleagues, discover ESOL online or approach an ESOL advisor. Dr Jannie van Hees from the University of Auckland addressed this issue by writing a very practical article, which was published in Many Voices in 1996. She has very kindly offerred to share this article with teachers on the VLN which I have copied below. (My apologies for any changes to the original formatting) You can access a formatted version to download from this link Assisting students who are new learners of English - most FAQ by primary school teachers...

Assisting students who are new learners of English - most FAQ by primary school teachers...

Jannie van Hees © 1996/2012

First published in Many Voices, 1996


 •         What are we expected to teach these children?

             Where do we start in English?

             What programmes are available to how learning sequences appropriate to new                               learner’s needs?

 The needs of new learners of English (NLsOE) vary of course, but for all of them there is one truth......they have an enormous catch-up need - not cognitively usually, but in the language which is the medium of learning in our classrooms, in understanding contexts within a new cultural experience and perspective and in becoming familiar and comfortable with hitherto unfamiliar contexts and experiences.

 This means there is a sense of urgency for all the students who come into our classrooms as new learners of English. It does not mean panic. It does mean we need to have the following:

-   as clear an idea as possible of their strengths and gaps (and thus needs)

-   language and otherwise... as early on as possible, so no time is wasted..... before providing meaningful, relevant and needed language and learning opportunities

-   based on the above, a clear idea and pathway of how to provide for these needs in an organised and informed way.

 The absolute musts at classroom level are:

-      gathering comprehensive information on the student’s background - linguistic, social, cultural, educational

-     ensuring a supportive and informing welcome and start

-     familiarising  family members with the class, the classroom topics,approaches and methods and involving them where appropriate or possible

-     setting up social and academic buddying

-     creating a class commitment from the others to the new learner of English

-     everybody doing their bit to assist in needed support and new learning

-     developing an understanding for all students that a new learner of English brings in many strengths and talents from which they can learn and develop

-      utilising first language knowledge and strengths as a needed, efficient and effective bridge to English

-     being committed to ensuring as much supportive participation by the NLOE as possible ..... without too big a challenge

-     assessing the language and learning strengths and gaps early on so necessary provisions can be  made 

-      helping the NLOE learn the language of instructions and commands commonly used in the classroom and school - oral and written (sharing this with the family is most useful so it can also be explained and learned at home)

-      building up a bank of English vocabulary in context - this is easiest when there is the actual / visual support along with the oral and written...e.g. labelling round the classroom, labelling pictures / photos, etc

-      linking and building text from this established vocabulary...e.g. from a one word label to a sense- giving language group, to a short sentence, to a question or an imperative, and so on.....

-      establishing English language in all aspects of learning and curriculum - this should include the language of maths, basic concept areas e.g. shape, colours, family, etc

-     ensuring phonological knowledge of English, along with the ‘basics’ in literacy, is taught early on

-      providing English language and learning occurs in a scaffolded way - i.e. learning in bite-size pieces, that build and cement, brick on brick, to make a wall of understanding and development

-     ensuring plenty of repetition and manipulation of materials

-     integrating the oral, visual and written elements of language and learning

-     recycling in ways that are both interesting and push the learner a manageable step forward

-     using contexts and topics that are part of the class plan so the NLOE can link into these as much as possible

-     providing for small group work within the whole class setting and as intensives....to name some.


•         How can I be sure the children understand what I say?

How can I understand them?

 You can never be sure the NLsOE understand what you are saying!!!! Make absolutely no assumptions .... then you are on safe grounds. You need to think of ways that give them enough repetition of what you are saying, enough time  to  process  each  snippet,  and  use  ways  of  ascertaining  their understanding and ability to be able to action. Neither should you make the assumption that they cannot understand when in fact they might...check it out, using more reliable methods than ‘Do you understand?’ 

Of course, in the ideal, an adult bilingual person would be available to clarify, translate, explain.....there, beside the NLOE. Reality is that this is most usually not the case. Next best is a peer or older child who uses the same first language and can act as a support. A first language peer is somewhat less reliable in some aspects, but in many ways a very important provision.

In non -sensitive areas, using first language buddies helps immensely in ensuring the NLOE understands and can get on with what you are asking of him/her. 

Instructions could be written bilingually so that commands and instructions that are essential are understood by the NLOE. These may be from a set already devised, or from your own list of essentials which you have had translated for this purpose.

 That the teacher and the other children show, say and writedown, with enough repetition and body language to explain and confirm understanding, enables the NLOE to understand and become independent faster.

 •         How can I understand them?

  No  doubt  you  have  extensive  experience  in  reading  the  signs of understanding on students’ faces and in their body language. ‘Read’ these, understanding the learner is complex, especially because ‘affective’ factors, e.g. attitude, personality / their nature, confidence, etc, as well as his / her own cultural framework, always make each NLOE unique. 

Be alert to the tiniest signs of what is going on inside the learner. If there is little common language initially for you and the NLOE to communicate orally and in written language, then your full repertoire of other devices is needed.....gesture, sign language, bilingual dictionaries, drawings, guiding by showing...... However, don’t panic or despair.......there’s much you will understand, and he/ she you, if there is effort especially from you and other students. The breakthroughs and gains will be so rewarding! 

Remember, speak clearly, slowly, articulate well, look at the NLOE as you speak, repeat, give lots of pauses, use small chunks of language initially ...this all makes a considerable difference to early understanding and a supportive situation for new language learning.


•          How  best to begin teaching to cater for a wide age range of students?

 When programmes of ESOL are being planned and organised for students who are NLsOE at different stages and ages, it is important to consider many factors. Without the specifics of each situation, it is difficult to recommend any one answer.

If there are a number of students ranging from NE / J1 up to S4, for example, grouping them into broad age groups is recommended. Students at NE - J3 have different maturity and concentration spans, have some different priorities and skills regarding English, can cope with and need some different activities, input and practice than older learners. If the number of students and teacher time allow, it is recommended that the younger NLsOE are targeted in a different small group to students in the middle to upper end of the school. The latter  are  most  usually  literate  in  first  language  at  their expected age equivalent  level and can and will come to English learning differently to children at emergent literacy stage.

 Working  with  a  multi-level  group  of  non-English  speaking  background students, in the best of teaching and learning practice, is both enhancing and exciting. However, a teacher needs to be skilled at being able to cater for the individuals within the group, while at the same time providing for what all need. This is the skill of good teaching. In the best of situations, children, who are never at same stages really, will complement and support each other immensely and a teacher will find this a considerable asset.

 No matter what group of children, they all need to develop English language in a scaffolded way, within curriculum areas, so they can move back into the classroom mainstream situation with just that little bit more independence.

 To minimise a maturity / cultural gap or assumption which arises in both text and contents, use a predominance of factual / curriculum areas / topics - butterflies, eggs, electricity, people from different countries....whatever topics are being done in syndicates and classrooms at the time within the curriculum.

 Factual contexts are not babyish and are relevant to any learner. It is when there is a major use of fictional / story contexts, culturally dependent, that one starts to encounter wider gaps in interest, maturity levels and context understanding.  (It  is  not  to  suggest  that  fiction  should  not  be  used  and enjoyed, but rather that it not be the basis of the majority of contexts used within early learning of English.)

 All the basic principles of scaffolding for the learner are important and applicable to all NLsOE, no matter what age.

•          What advice can be given to classroom teachers who want to be sure  children  are  meaningfully  engaged  and  involved  in classroom activities (- suggestions for appropriate materials)?

 Firstly, be sure that there is no simple answer nor text nor one approach. However, the student can be included in a great deal of what is going on..... if:

-      effective buddying systems are set up in the classroom - particularly in classes beyond juniors

-      the teacher implements the idea of We are all teachers and learners’

-      all students feel / know it is their role to be alert to assisting and it is indeed not for the teacher alone - (in fact, the teacher needs to always look for ways to de-pressurise her/ himself, yet still be able to provide meaningful learning for the NLOE)

-     the teacher works with small group learning situations within the class

-     taped text bags, with activities, and a buddy available to work with the NLOE are used

-     implement the self-pacing boxes as early on as possible..... 

   ............to name a few important pointers.

 Teachers often panic. They might want, even expect the NLOE to participate in everything because somehow they feel it is good exposure to English.... yet realise the NLOE is unable to understand much. At times during the day, when the complexity and overwhelming new language exposure and learning becomes too much for the NLOE, time-out tasks / activities are important and useful. These are hopefully not busy or babyish activities, but ones devised to give  consolidation, yet a breathing space. Buddies are important here to create opportunities for shared language and input.

 A skilled teacher can use a common activity or topic task and work it to many levels, including that for the NLOE. Thinking of what and when within the task or situation is the key ..... and is paramount. Be innovative, creative and certainly not a perfectionist. Use your other students. They are wonderful, but you need to give them guidelines.


•         Where can you find a good source of resources?

 There is no simple or satisfying answer to this. I would need to know...for what? Unless I know what topic area you are to focus on, what the learner’s needs and interests are, there is no blanket, generalisable answer. There are some useful resources available, but they will only be useful to some and not to others, in some situations and not in others. There is often a problem when some resources which have been on shelves for years, still continue to be the basis of what the NLOE get given to use or work with.

Have your eyes open all the time. Keep your mind open to adapting and adjusting what is around. Never be convinced that one or two key resources are the answer to all provisions or needs. They are not!!!!! Use your critical head, your innovative mind, your casting eye, to find what’s around that is up- to-date, can meet or adjust to the basic principles of scaffolded learning and the best of language learning.


Reality is that often there is not much around that the NLOE can work with independently because considerable more English language understanding is needed first. However, with buddy or 1:1 or small group support and input, the NLOE can often work extremely well without the classroom teacher there at his / her side. Independent activities are usually best and manageable when at  consolidation  stage, while adding a little bit more if the learner is ready....with someone to interact with.

 Look out for well-scaffolded materials. Critique existing materials. Do they follow a well-scaffolded framework or are there assumptions and leaps that will mean the NLOE cannot cope with the next stage or step? The reality is that much existing mainstream material is really superb and with some adjustments and attention to scaffolding, will be effective and relevant to the NLOE...but that there is also much which is not worth beginning with unless much is changed and adjusted to make it effective learning material.


•          How can I  provide adequate support for teachers who have children with varying language needs....e.g. boxes of useful resources for independent work?

 That a NLOE is expected to be independent, if you examine the idea, is an amazing expectation! Language is the carrier of meaning and so if the language is English, the NLOE, despite his / her cognitive capacity, may not be able to carry out the task in English unless given support in and through first language or his / her strongest language. However, what some teachers are expressing is understandable....’I can’t attend to him/her all the time, so what they can do without me that is still useful? Help!!!!’

 As much as possible, having an activity to work on with a buddy is most useful to the NLOE. It gives another opportunity for oral input and interaction. It means there is someone to access for assistance.

 Resources the NLOE would / could use are extremely variable. A list of what resource/s are available, suitable, recommended, requires more elaboration than is possible here, but here are some suggestions:

-         a plastic bag with:

                                    -an appropriately easy text, 

                                    -vocabulary cards to place and match, etc.

                                    - a tape of the words and text

                                    - a bilingual dictionary to check meaning in first language (if literate)

                                    - an activity matching or manipulating text piece sentences

-           large coloured, laminated pictures or photos, with word bags for matching vocabulary onto the pictures.....with simple sentences to find and match up with words

 -        teacher-made games which give important language input around a topic area in an essential area of knowledge - e.g. the classroom

 -     you as trainer - train a small group of capable, independent children in the class to give dictation:

            - they learn how to give it

            - what simple text / sentences to use

            - what learning of vocabulary by the NLOE might be needed beforehand

            - how to get the NLOE to be his/her own checker...e.g. the model text is enlarged, behind a piece of paper which they can lift up to check and edit what he / she have written

- putting the dictated text on tape 

-    train a group to cooperatively write with a NLOE

-    train a group to work with a NLOE using pictures and words in a given topic area, and to be able to give sufficient repetition, oral and written, and sufficient challenge.

 No one resource or material in a book will be the answer. Be critical of what is around and keep your ear to the ground and your eyes peeled for what is good and available or has potential and relevancy.  In  the end, what the teacher generates out of what is current in the classroom at the time, using her / his major teaching resource, the other children, will be a large part of the answer.

 In-class effective learning opportunities is most important, but so is small group work with a trained and effective teacher, focussing specifically on the content and language within topics and contexts of classroom work and beyond, in well-scaffolded steps.


•          What to do to keep children anchored in the classroom and involved in the programme?

 Some further points not mentioned already:

• As much as possible, incorporate the child’s prior experiences and knowledge. For a NLOE, this means you may not be able to establish this by questioning, but rather need to use prompts that draw out this information or allow you to see what the learner knows and can do, or the gaps. Inevitably, if the NLOE sees relevance in what is being worked with and can link  from his / her own perspectives to the new, there is likely to be involvement and anchoring.

 •  Any specialist time of ESOL should primarily be focused within the curriculum topics / areas being studied in the classroom. Thus, if a student is in a small group situation for some school time, he / she will be motivated and participatory if:

-       what is going on      

            ......   is understandable

            .....     is fun

            .....     uses manipulative materials

-        he / she sees why this particular learning and context is relevant and useful

-        he / she knows or learns it will make a difference to the next learning challenge in the classroom i.e. is support towards more independence.

 On return to the large group or classroom, the NLOE will be able to make more sense of the contexts and content, the activities and tasks...all carried through  language.  The  alternative  of  a  non-mainstream  curriculum  focus being the basis of a specialist English provision, is that the NLOE cannot make the links to what is  going on the the mainstream classroom, or is learning something that has little direct relevance to their immediate needs for understanding and participation at school.

 • There are a range of techniques, approaches and methodologies that all teachers need to incorporate in every classroom in order to cater for the multi- level  nature  of  any  group.  Effective  techniques,  approaches  and methodologies for NLsOE are also just as important for all learners.

 Be on the hunt for what these are; try them out; critique their success; adjust and innovate, based on what you know are effective teaching and learning principles. Most of all, make no assumptions. Unpacking the learning in bite- size pieces, along with effective formative assessment, are key tools of teaching and should never be overlooked, especially not when working with NLsOE.

 A skilled teacher has the ability to increase or decrease the learning demand according to the various levels of each member of a group. If whole class teaching is the most usual approach to teaching and learning in your classroom,  with  little  accommodation  and  provision  for  multi-levelledness within a whole group, you can be almost sure the NLOE will miss out and become frustrated and bored.

•          When you have a very wide range of abilities and only a certain amount of time, how does one cater for the different levels - from those with absolutely no English  to those with some or a great deal?

 Any group of learners is diverse and multi-levelled. The key to catering for this wide range is to layer in the possibility of choice in how difficult or easy a level a learner might work at. This means that in preparing and planning, one makes sure there are levels within the materials, not so each student has an individualised programme, but that within the overall bits of the scaffolding learning sequence, the student gets chances to access the simple to the more challenging in pieces that are understandable and manageable for him / her.

 At every step along the way, a skilled teacher is able to gauge where each learner is and push just that little bit further. This is the true meaning of scaffolded learning.....where the learner gets a bit more input but is still supported so there is not a fall of any disastrous proportions!

 This can be accomplished through various techniques.... and by the material itself: Some suggestions....

-   speed it up slightly for some / for all

-   get those with readiness to be ‘teacher’

-   build up to more complex

-   give lots of repetition followed by making more demands on the learner to be independent e.g. hiding a text or the visuals.....allowing some to view again, while challenging learners at readiness to not access that support

-   by ‘forcing’ self-checking, using text models where needed

-   by insisting on interaction / sharing between children in a focused way....   e.g. one asks the  question, the other points; one says the word, the other makes a sentence;  one reads a sentence or text, while the other writes what is called out; one manipulates and shifts, the other matches and reads the sentences...etc

-   by getting the more able students to extend into their own resources, while those still needing more support and input use the materials in hand for reinforcement and consolidation......

-   by encouraging the literate NLOE to use a bilingual dictionary and talk with a buddy with the same  first language

- making all the materials within any learning sequence as interestingly repetitive as possible....... so  there is in-built challenge.


•   What language activities can be provided that are worthwhile, not just fill-ins, especially when you have 32+ others in the class?

 Learning in the topic and curriculum areas of the current studies in your classroom are most important for NLsOE. This should not ignore some important basics.......the command / instructional language of your classroom; coming to grips with literacy basics in English - (alphabet, phonics, blends, basic sight words, basic sentence structure....);  key English language around basic  concept  areas  such  as colours,  shapes,  classroom  equipment,  the school - places, equipment, activities and people....etc.

 Use the necessary principles so far examined that make the best of learning activities and apply these to as much of what is provided for the NLOE as possible......but be cunning! You  don’t have to prepare it all....you don’t have to teach it all....in fact, often the other children are indeed the most effective teachers ......if they are given guidance and know what to do and how to do it.

 De-pressurise yourself and be switched into the people resource in your classroom.


•         When can the written language begin?

 From the beginning! Remember, no matter how old the NLOE, he / she has years of catch up in both oral and written exposure to the English language in order to get towards a competency and performance level in English of their English speaking background peers. To concentrate only on oral makes learning in a new language single-moded and often much more difficult. Oral alone relies so much on memorising words and structures only heard or spoken. By layering in words and sentences on card and paper and using them in repetitive and interesting ways alongside visual / actual materials and talk, the learner has multi-moded support and input and a much better chance of retention.

 It is most important that NLsOE are handling print - how else can they come to written text strength and understanding. An integrated approach of the modes makes sense and is in fact what has occurred  for children whose first language is English who have readiness for coming to literacy in English. Go back to what adults do in a first language situation for young children. They do not keep books out of the child’s world till they might think he/ she has acquired enough oral English. No, the effective adult knows / believes in exposure and integration of language, yet plenty of repetition and attention to the parts.

Although there is a recognised threshold of initial oral language that seems to be pivotal to establish a base for the new language before a ‘zoom’ period can occur, no one really knows how much and what this is. So, it is senseless and will inevitably be inaccurate, if one tries to pinpoint when and if a NLOE has enough oral now to come easily to written English language. It is a little like telling someone he / she is still too cold and needs to put on many more clothes, even when the only person who actually can gauge this accurately, is the person him/ herself.


•          Am I teaching sufficient areas in English to enable the students to cope with formal English?

 To come to formal English language competency is no easy task if English is not the first language. Although acquisition of social and communicative English is relatively quick for most NLsOE - 1 to 2 years, being able to cope with the complexities and subtleties of English as is expected and demanded within formal and academic learning, requires at least 5 - 7 years of well- structured learning and teaching.

 In response to the question, realistically the answer is no, you are probably never able to provide for all that the learner needs and requires....merely because you will never be able to predict nor cover all that the student has to cope with in the curriculum. What you can do, however, is make no assumptions, use  formative  assessment  constantly,  look  for  areas  where there are commonalities across subject / topic areas, build on what has been established; get the learner to be constantly taking responsibility for self- checking, learning-to-learn and their own thinking, pushing their own boundaries; searching for what they have previously learned, to hook on new learning or challenge, give the learner strategies to seek out the ‘hows’ and ‘wherefores’ of English language texts.


Kia kaha. Jannie