Helping ELL Newcomers: Things Your Students Need to Know

As a teacher of English language learners (ELLs), you are often the most important link between your students, their families, the school, and the greater community. You are probably also the person in your school best prepared to anticipate challenges and communication gaps that ELLs and their families may experience. Your work in this role may entail everything from interpreting and tutoring to shopping and social work, plus lots of extra hours and energy.

This job is an important one, but it's not something you have to do alone. With some extra preparation and communication with administrators and colleagues before the school year starts, you can help your school community begin to anticipate some of the challenges your students are likely to face — and make supporting the ELLs in your building a schoolwide effort rather than an individual one.

Authors Barbara Law and Mary Eckes have created a list to help begin that effort with things that ELLs (and particularly newcomers) need to know when they enter a new school. This excerpt from the The More-Than-Just-Surviving Handbook, 3rd edition (Portage & Main Press, 2010) includes topics like routines, rules, transportation, and classroom expectations.

Getting Around at School

  • How to find the washrooms (and how to tell which ones are for which gender)
  • How to find their way around the school: the location of the playground, the cafeteria, the gym, and their classes. For example, if Bounkham is in junior high or high school, he will need to find his way from one class to another in the allotted time. He will also need to know the amount of time given for morning break and lunch.
  • How to find the main office, the nurse's office, the counselor's office, and so on. Bounkham needs to know where to bring late slips, where to go if he doesn't feel well, and so on.
  • How to find the way back to the proper classroom from any of the above places (It might help to write your room number on a card for Bounkham to carry if he leaves your room for anything; in a new place, all doors and even all teachers can look alike. You might also consider making a simple picture map of the school for Bounkham, to help him find his way around.)
  • The names of a few key people, especially yours. In many cultures it is a sign of respect to call a teacher "Teacher," but time and time again, teachers have been dismayed that a student still does not know their name, even after months of being in school.
  • How to open and close a locker, particularly if it has a lock with a com-bination
  • The mechanics of the school day
  • When must a student arrive?
  • When are recess periods or breaks?
  • When is lunch period?
  • When is the school day over?
  • What are the dates of holidays and school closures?

The School Routine, Rules, and Expectations of Behavior

School rules

  • What if a student is going to be absent or late? Do his parents need to let the school know ahead of time?
  • Does he need to bring in a written explanation for an absence?
  • In secondary schools, are there absent slips that all the teachers must sign and then turn in at the end of the day? Where do these slips need to be returned (handed in)?


  • Are there one-way hallways, or is traffic designated to move in one direction on one side and another on the opposite side?
  • What do students do when they enter class? In elementary school, do the students line up in a single line, or in separate lines for boys and girls? Do they stand outside the classroom door or in another designated spot on the playground?
  • When and where does a student hand in his homework?
  • What does a student do
  1. In an emergency?
  2. If he's tardy?
  • How does he answer questions?
  • How does a student signal whether or not he understands?
  • Expectations of behavior at school

    • How should students address you?
    • Does a student need to raise his hand to be acknowledged?
    • Does he need to stand by his seat, as many cultures demand, when it is his turn to speak?
    • Is talking allowed when working in small groups?
    • Is cooperative work allowed, or is a student expected to work on his own? (Mary had a student who was constantly admonished for cheating in his content classes. When a meeting was held with Ming and his teachers, they discovered he had no idea that working on a paper with another student was wrong. At the school he had attended in his homeland, students always worked on the answers together.)
    • What is the school's policy and procedure for detention?
    • If a student has a detention after school for misbehavior, where is he to go and for how long?
    • What is he expected to do during detention? (With regard to detention, or in emergency situations when the parents need to be contacted, have a list of volunteer interpreters handy for translating the message.)


    • Where do students go to eat?
    • Does Bounkham need to bring a lunch, or can he buy it at school?
    • What is the procedure in the cafeteria?
    • Is he aware that the food and how to eat it (for example, picking up a hamburger with his hands, instead of using a fork and knife) may be unfamiliar?
    • If he buys milk for lunch, is it a cash sale, or is all the money collected on a specific day?
    • Does he display a card? What if he runs up a negative balance?
    • What do students do when they finish eating?


    • Where are students allowed to go during breaks? (In elementary schools, are there particular play areas for specific age groups?)
    • Are there any places they may not go? (In many high schools one area is designated for seniors only. If Bounkham is not a senior, he needs to know that area is off limits.)
    • How do the students know when it is time to go back to class?
    • When is a student allowed to go to his locker?

    Getting home

    • If a student is being picked up by a family member, where does he wait for them?
    • What should he do if they don't come?
    • Where is a phone if he needs to call his parents or other family members?
    • Is money required to make a phone call?
    • What route does he take to get home if he must walk?
    • Are parents made aware of any child welfare legislation that governs the minimum age at which a child may be at home without adult supervision?
    • If a student rides the bus to and from school, where does he wait for it?
    • How does he tell which bus is his?
    • How does he tell the driver where he needs to be let off?

    One tense afternoon, at a junior high school where Barb worked, a new student boarded the first bus that passed after school. She ended up going downtown instead of to her housing project. For two hours, her parents and teachers waited anxiously until she was located.


    The More-Than-Just-Surviving Handbook, 3rd edition,. ©2010 by Barbara Law and Mary Eckes. Reprinted by permission of Portage & Main Press. 1-800-667-9673.


    For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

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    Excellent source of questions for all students and ELLs.

    I really didn't understand just how many things may be confusing, scary, or frustrating for a new student that isn't familiar with the culture/language. Our job as a teacher is a critical support for them.

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