Teacher Voice: Supporting multilingual newcomers in the general ed classroom

25-Mar-2021

Classroom teachers have a million decisions and actions to move on per day. When we don’t have additional resources and colleagues to help us provide the best services to our students, it becomes exponentially more difficult to provide our supports in areas such as reading and math intervention, special education, and English learners.

By Nicole Heinlein

Classroom teachers have a million decisions and actions to move on per day. When we don’t have additional resources and colleagues to help us provide the best services to our students, it becomes exponentially more difficult to provide our supports in areas such as reading and math intervention, special education, and English learners. As I firmly advocate for fully funding public schools, here are some ideas for those who serve English newcomers.

Know Your Students

Knowing your students’ backgrounds, academic levels, and who they are as people is key to building quality education. As we create positive relationships with our students, we better understand their needs and become stronger advocates. This worksheet from Getsupported can help you get started collecting information about your students. 

Include Visuals

Early elementary teachers know how to create a print-rich classroom. However, that print can be meaningless to multilingual learners unless it’s tied to a specific useful object, like a classroom clock. Putting a picture of a slide next to the word “recess” on a class schedule can also generate connections. Tape real-life images and photos to anchor charts, draw sketches on the board when writing directions for students, or include relevant emojis in online assignments. In addition, newcomers will learn words faster when they draw appropriate images themselves. Students can draw a response to a question and then label that drawing or include a few words, phrases, or sentences to explain it. Drawing during writing time is not only for kindergarten – it can benefit all ages!

Build Background

One of my favorite ways to access and build academic background knowledge is to use the OCDE Project GLAD® strategies called Observation Charts and Inquiry Chart. Teachers organize images by categories onto 12 x 18 pieces of paper and display them at student eye level. 

For example, if studying the Earth’s biomes, one chart might have images of the tundra, another of the desert, and so on. Students are intentionally assigned a partner with the same language or paired up with English-proficient peers. The duos walk around the room with one pencil to share as they observe the images on each chart and write on an attached paper with headings: questions, comments, and predictions. 

I include sentence frames such as:

“When I see ____, it makes me think ___.” 

“When I see ____ it makes me feel ___.” 

“When I see ____, it makes me wonder ___.” 

After students have observed each chart, we come back to the whole group space and capture some of their writing and verbal conversations on an Inquiry Chart. This chart asks students the questions “What do I know about this topic?” and “What do I want to learn about this topic?” 

Throughout the unit of study, the teacher can refer to the initial Inquiry Chart and ask students to confirm or deny their statements and answer questions they had. After each statement or question, students can cite their reference to prove where the new learning came from. Challenging misconceptions and highlighting where thinking about a subject has changed over time are important learning experiences.

Utilize Cooperative Learning

Hands down, students learn language best by communicating with peers. We know that students learn best when they teach something to someone else and whoever does the talking does the learning. Cooperative learning theory shows that as students help each other, communication is strengthened. My favorite cooperative learning structure is “Numbered Heads Together” which holds all group members responsible for the learning. Also, “Timed Pair Share” is similar to "Turn and Talk" but with time limits so each partner gets a chance to equally share. 

While these strategies cannot replace the invaluable work that a dedicated TESOL-certified teacher can do with our English Learners, these strategies can help classroom teachers get started creating the classroom and environment all students need to thrive.


Nicole Heinlein is an experienced, National Board Certified elementary classroom teacher turned middle school EL coordinator and teacher at ‘Īao Intermediate on the island of Maui. She is a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow, an OCDE Project GLAD® trainer, and is passionate about helping all students achieve their potential.


Contact Information

Communications Branch

Phone: 808-784-6200

Email: doeinfo@k12.hi.us

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