"The journey of a thousand miles begins with the initial step."
— Lao Tzu
The little girl and her mother were standing in the office when I arrived. I had been called out of my class to help enroll a Spanish-speaking student in our elementary school. I was new to the school and not very familiar with the registration process. I remember how polite and patient the mother was with me as I gathered forms and then muddled through basic information in Spanish. I encountered words I had never learned, such as "free and reduced lunch," "salary," and "attendance phone number." I was able to get the basic information and the child was placed in a second-grade classroom. I turned to the little girl and asked, "Would you like to start today or come back tomorrow?" Her response was to continue staring at me with wide eyes and hug her mother tighter. It was decided she would start the next day.
In hindsight there are many things I would recommend doing differently in that situation. Number one is to have a qualified interpreter available and make an appointment with the family so school staff can prepare and the family will have a chance to ask questions. Beyond the "nuts and bolts" of registration, though, I have continued to reflect on the anxiety the little girl experienced. It is very important that school administrators and staff spend some time thinking of ways to help new ELL students make a smooth transition into school and ease their anxiety. Since ELL students may enroll throughout the school year, many do not have the benefit of the welcome speeches and activities at the beginning of the year. One way to help them feel welcome and get them prepared for success in school is to present them with a "Welcome Kit."
A Welcome Kit is a packet of school information and other supplies that will contribute to a positive beginning by including relevant school information and other academic supplies, no matter when the student enrolls. I recommend that a school administrator and a couple of key staff members meet to decide what should go in the Welcome Kit. Summer is a perfect opportunity to make up a stack of Welcome Kits in order to have them readily available throughout the year as new ELL students enroll. The Kits can be tailored by grade level to include appropriate academic items. Below are some of the items I recommend including.
- Teacher information: Classroom location and phone number
- Basic information about school's attendance policy, including phone numbers parents should call when their child will be absent
- Bussing information
- School website
- Lunch information
- Volunteer opportunities
It is very helpful if any of this information is available in the student's first language. If not, I recommend revising the standard school information handouts to simplify the English, make shorter sentences and add pictures for visual support. It is also helpful if the most important information, such as the teacher name and school number is printed on bright cardstock that can be easily located in the packet. If time is available a staff member should go through the packet with the family and explain the items. Calling in to the school when their child is sick is very important and may be a new concept, so offering a sample dialogue of what to say when they call will be helpful.
The calendar can be adapted for new ELL families by placing bright circle dots on the most important days such as school release days and conferences.
Community resources: after school programs, English classes, health centers
Placing a few brochures or a short list of local resources is helpful for new families. Not every family will need the information, but it is likely that someone they know will benefit from it.
Grade level support materials
- Coloring book
- Small book
- Letter/word cards
- Dice and/or number cards
- Game board (Bingo, chutes and ladders)
- CD of English songs or audio book (with book)
- Picture / student dictionary — the school, neighborhood, survival English, content
- Glue stick
- Fun eraser
Many of these materials are readily available at the school, or available for minimal cost at stores during "back-to-school" time. School supplies can be very expensive for a family to purchase in the middle of the year, especially when they have more than one child to provide for. It's possible that the school PTA will donate a small budget to support the Welcome Kit project. Many of the materials are also downloadable from the Internet. (See the hotlinks section for resources).
Students arriving in the middle of the year need backpacks, which can be purchased for less before school starts. Consider hosting a "backpack drive" as students return to school. The backpacks can be offered to any newly arriving students whose families might find it difficult to afford one.
DVD or Video of school — available in other languages
Since some ELL families have lower literacy skills in their first language and English they may be used to receiving their news through TV and radio. A Welcome DVD for the school with information shared in the family's first language can be extremely helpful. Depending on the level of quality needed, this can be a student project. Many students are familiar with video cameras and movie-making software on the school computers. In my neighborhood, a local school PTA provided funds for a group of Somali students to make a Welcome DVD for their school. This was an innovative solution to sharing important school information.
Note: Parents may not have access to a DVD player or VCR, and so it may be more effective to show these DVDs at a welcome session for parents at the school.
Podcast on website with current information in other languages
Another idea that bilingual students may be able to help with is to record news updates in podcasts and make them available through the school website.
In addition to offering a Welcome Kit to the new student I highly recommend taking the time to offer the family a tour of the school. If the family tours the school together they will have a common understanding of the student's daily experience, and feel more comfortable when returning to the school for events.
Giving a newly enrolling ELL student a Welcome Kit does much more than share information and academic materials. Offering a kit that includes school items and activities sends the message that staff members are very excited to have the student join the school and that they are dedicated to his/her academic success. A successful finish begins with a good start, and for many ELL students the Welcome Kit will be the first step in their journey to academic achievement and a high school diploma.
This popular site offers printable books and activities including high-frequency word books, books in Spanish and French, and leveled books. Subscription is required.
Links to many printable activities and worksheets. Topics include coloring books, paper dolls, math and reading activities and games.
Free downloadable little books. Titles include authentic material such as "Eensy Weensy Spider and Five Little Monkeys." There are also a few Spanish language books such as, "Yo Tengo un Gato."
Printable little pages and books for each letter of the alphabet. Includes a picture for each letter such as "A for Apple."
Article by David and Yvonne Freeman, "How to Make Your ELL Students Feel at Home." Describes benefits of promoting use of a child's first language.
Free printable math worksheets for many grade levels.
Valuable printables resource center with thousands of printable activities. Database can be searched by grade level and topic.
Links to a booklet, "Welcome to the United States." The booklet covers basic information about housing, jobs, education and healthcare in the U.S. Downloadable in multiple languages.
This homework tool allows parents and students to create their own flashcards for subjects such as math and vocabulary.