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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Getting Newcomers into the Academic Flow

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When supportive routines and activities are adopted by all teachers, teens still learning English can dive into academic learning.

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Instructional StrategiesEngagementEquity
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Credit: Steve Debenport
As I consult in schools, I often hear questions like, "I have a new student in 3rd period who doesn't speak a word of English. How do I help her?" A colleague may add, "I don't want her to sit quietly all semester. What should we do?"
Many schools in the United States—and in other countries—now see adolescents who are recent immigrants arrive sometime throughout the school year. Many term these students "newcomers," although the label belies their many differences. Some newcomers were highly educated in their native country and may know more algebra, geography, and science, say, than their U.S. peers; however, their levels of English proficiency will vary. Others have missed out on one or often more years of education in their native country due to reasons beyond their control. Most have experienced stress and even trauma on their journey to this country.
Regardless of their educational background and life experiences, all newcomers arriving in secondary schools need to develop academic vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing skills, and concepts for core content. They also need to learn basic English phrases for maneuvering through the day and terminology for how to approach learning processes (such as math strategies that are common in U.S. classrooms, how to complete a science lab, or what it means to "find evidence," or "use norms for discussions"). Newcomers with limited schooling, often called Students with Interrupted Formal Education, will also need assistance from a reading specialist to grasp basic reading skills that they may have missed in their native language development.
Equally important for these students is the ability to grasp the language of the social-emotional skills that are favored in U.S. education. Newcomers need to know how to work collaboratively and do project-based learning.
Typically, newcomers in secondary schools spend anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes a day with an ESL teacher in a self-contained classroom and the rest of their day with core content teachers. Fulfilling newcomers' needs is a tall order for teachers with little training in English language acquisition. And immigrant students' great variance of language, literacy, and knowledge competencies makes it even more difficult for core content teachers to discern how to reach each one. No wonder core content and electives teachers are on the lookout for strategies that are expeditious, motivating, and effective for English learners—especially those with scant English—but that also work for the rest of their students.

Creating a Comprehensive Framework

To help core content teachers incorporate effective instruction for newcomers, the Carnegie Corporation of New York asked several of my research assistants at Johns Hopkins University and me to develop and test a set of instructional strategies that could be used across all subjects. With help from teachers and administrators in secondary schools in New York City and Kauai, Hawaii, we began building a framework of strategies for integrating support with basic and academic vocabulary, reading comprehension, and text-based writing into math, science, social studies, and language arts. Eventually, we created an instructional and professional development framework called Expediting Comprehension for English Language Learners (ExC-ELL), now used in many schools throughout the country and abroad.
The framework consists of a sequence of 12 components (see Figure 1). These are flexible enough to integrate into any secondary school's curriculum and teachers' lesson plans. Evaluation has found that when all 12 are implemented schoolwide, student academic growth is significantly larger for adolescent newcomer students (and also striving readers who aren't necessarily ELLs) than when only two are three are adopted.
Figure 1. ExC-ELL Instructional Sequence for Integrating Language, Literacy, and Content
  1. Pre-teaching of Vocabulary
  2. Teacher Think-Alouds
  3. Student Peer Reading
  4. Peer Summaries
  5. Depth of Word Studies/Grammar
  6. Class Debriefings/Discussions
  7. Cooperative Learning Activities
  8. Formulating Questions & Numbered Heads
  9. Round Table Reviews
  10. Pre-writing & Drafting
  11. Revising/Editing
  12. Reading Final Product
Many benefits surface when all teachers in a school use the same terminology and routines to work these components into instruction. For one, this consistency makes it easier for newcomers to feel comfortable with the new context and new language. I saw this in action this past year as I shadowed various newcomers in secondary schools that are adopting ExC-ELL. I observed these learners' progress as they moved between ESL classrooms and subject-matter classrooms during the school day, and I paid close attention to how their teachers used these 12 components to make instruction accessible to students new to English.
"Ricardo" is a composite of several newcomers I shadowed; his story is representative of most immigrant teens. He arrived in Loudoun County, Virginia, from Guatemala early in the school year, speaking no English. He'd had little schooling in Guatemala. The fact that all teachers in his school were using the same instructional strategies made it easier for Ricardo to keep up with any lesson's flow—to know when to work in pairs or teams, and sense what to do when no one was around to guide him. Let me describe specific ways I've seen teachers in Loudon and elsewhere collaborate to teach students like Ricardo.

Groundwork for Speaking

Finding the Right Words

Ms. James, Ricardo's biology teacher, and Ms. Macias, his ESL teacher, meet weekly to discuss the week's lessons for Ricardo and other recent newcomer students. They analyze texts that students will be reading and select key words and phrases to pre-teach that will facilitate reading those texts. To choose words or phrases they'll pre-teach in the week to come, they ask, Is this word …
  • Critical to understanding a key concept?
  • Likely to appear on a test?
  • Critically important to the discipline?
  • One the teacher will want students to use in peer summaries tied to this lesson, or that students will likely use in an "exit pass" or writing assignment?
The two teachers zoomed in on key words identified. They pondered whether it would be best, for each text, to teach words that are common or specialized, and whether various terms were vocabulary from Tier 1, 2, or 3. Tier 3 words are subject-specific; they label concepts and topics connected to a discipline. Tier 2 encompasses "information-processing" words or phrases, polysemous words, transition words, or connectors (such as simultaneously or as noted previously). Tier 2 words often embed Tier 3 words in long sentences, and they allow for rich discussions and specificity. Tier 1 words are basic words ELLs need to communicate, read, and write (such as people, read, and family).
Ms. James and Ms. Macias looked for Tier 3 words that were subject-specific and critical for learning key concepts. They found many of these in the text they were examining (a section from the 2017 report Overview of Climate Change Science by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). However, they realized that most Tier 3 words connected to this text (such as greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and heat-trapping gases) were nested in long sentences containing Tier 2 vocabulary like primarily due to or release, as in this sentence: "Human activities which have been noted as contributing to climate change, are primarily due to the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, known as greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere every year." So both teachers gave preference to pre-teaching Tier 2 words since understanding them would be the key to figuring out meanings for more complex, subject-connected words here.
Ms. Macias also met with Ricardo's history teacher, who shared that his class would be reading about the U.S. civil rights movement after watching two videos on the topic. Ms. Macias agreed to introduce relevant Tier 1 and 2 words from the text they would be reading and do some background-information building with Ricardo and others. From a book on the civil rights movement with simple vocabulary, she chose key multiple-meaning words (like right and change) that she would pre-teach newcomer ELLs.


Once a teacher has selected key vocabulary to pre-teach for a text or lesson, that teacher should choose three to five words to focus on at the beginning of each class period, using these seven steps:
  1. Say and show the word/phrase. Have students repeat it three times.
  2. Read and show the word/phrase in the sentence from the target text.
  3. Provide the definition(s).
  4. Explain the meaning using student-friendly definitions or examples.
  5. Highlight an aspect of the word that might create difficulty, such as multiple meanings, homophones, or odd spellings.
  6. Engage students to verbally use the word in five or six example sentences with one partner. The teacher needs to provide sentence frames to help language learners participate. All students are in pairs, not triads, which gives them the confidence to speak.
  7. Remind the students that they will need to use this word/phrase later during class in their verbal summaries, in an exit ticket, or other activities.
Suppose Ms. James, the biology teacher, decides to focus pre-teaching in one class period on have been noted, due to, and release to prepare students to read about climate change. She involves all students but, starting with step 6, modifies the process for students with sparse English. The first two weeks or so, as students get into pairs, she might place Ricardo with two other students who are proficient in English—and have been prepared to help elicit examples of these words in sentences. Each triad that includes a language learner like Ricardo receives a sentence frame ("I had a good day, due to ___") and a few words or pictures to help him generate sentences. It helps if someone in the triad also speaks Spanish; he or she might be able to give Ricardo the English words to use in creating an example.
The history teacher would follow the same protocol to pre-teach vocabulary for his unit. Ms. Macias would do something similar in her ESL class to familiarize students with the agreed-on vocabulary. When these seven steps become a daily routine throughout a school, all students gain word knowledge—but especially newcomers.

Reading from Day One

Now let's explore how secondary-level teachers get students new to English reading—aloud even. I've watched teachers use partner or triad reading with students like Ricardo. For instance, Ms. James might assign two Spanish- and English-speaking students (whom I'll call Carla and Martin) to read with Ricardo, with him sitting between the two. As Carla and Martin read aloud alternating sentences from a class text, Ricardo would listen and track. After each paragraph, Carla and Martin would look back at the text and summarize verbally what they read. The idea is that Ricardo "whisper reads" words he recognizes as they summarize, and after a week or so, he whisper reads as many words as he can while each partner reads aloud.
Soon, the reading pattern would become Carla, Ricardo, Martin, Ricardo, Carla, Ricardo, Martin, and so on, meaning Ricardo would get double turns reading, accelerating his growth. Teachers have told me that when a student like Ricardo gets his own turn to read aloud with only one partner, the student is often surprised and excited to realize how much he can read.
After a class has tried partner reading and summarization, a teacher can regroup students to do more cooperative learning related to a particular text or text set. Ideally, he would have a triad containing a newcomer ELL join with another pair of native English speakers to form a team of five who will work together for at least a week. It's best to group teams with a mix of native or near-proficient English speakers and language learners, genders, and reading levels.
In a twist on the traditional "answer the questions at the end of the chapter," each team works together to develop their own key questions, drawing from a designated part of the text. They write each question on a card with their answers on the back. (Ideally, the teacher will have had the class practice creating questions at higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy, using question starters for each level.) The teacher then "tests" the whole class using these questions. Within each team, students count off (say, 1–6) and as the teacher asks each question aloud, the students put their heads together and delve deep into the text to find the answer. Each team makes sure everyone knows the answer—especially the newcomer. After a few minutes, the teacher randomly calls a number and selects a team to be on the hot seat. The student with that number in that team must state the answer. The newcomer is prepared and confident in case his or her number comes up.
At the end of the week, the teams compete to write and define from memory all the key words and phrases they've learned that week ("Round Table Review"). The teammates of a very new English speaker like Ricardo are prepped to warn him about this competition and start drilling him early in the week.

Safety Nets for Writing

To help language learners write in content areas, the ExC-ELL framework uses methods that view writing as a process. In drafting and revising, students again work mostly in pairs or teams, so there is always a safety net for newcomers. Supports—like table tents containing sample transition words, connectors, and checklists of essential elements for writing powerful conclusions—should be given to content teachers at trainings for such teaching. Because generous time is left to edit, elaborate, or add more English to a piece of writing, students have leeway to write in their native language, for later translation, gradually moving into all English. (In dual language schools, students alternate weekly between writing in English and Spanish throughout the school year.)
Writing a brief exit ticket is a good gateway writing activity. For instance, Ricardo was shown how to write about what he was learning on a notecard at the end of each class period. The first week, he just copied some words from the relevant text; later he jotted a few words from memory (albeit misspelled). Toward the end of the week, with support, he participated in a "Write Around," in which each team member writes a sentence or more (to a prompt) on a sheet of paper, then passes it to the right for another team member to add to. At first, he was assigned a "twin" and told to copy what his twin wrote. Once he started taking his own turn, Ricardo often wrote part of a sentence in Spanish; he knew the content, but not all the words in English, and he knew he could add English in the editing session following the Write Around.

Whole-School Learning

Early evaluations of using this whole-school approach to support newcomers' participation in academics have shown strong results in schools that have tried it. For example, Middle School #319 in Washington Heights, Manhattan, went from the lowest-performing school in its district to exemplary status in two years. What makes this set of strategies work is that teachers receive early, continuing professional development in using the cooperative learning strategies described here and delineated in the ExC-ELL framework. For instance, Loudon County Public Schools, which is phasing in this approach over 3 years, provides all teachers and administrators three days of training on these strategies before students arrive. The district's instructional coaches have ongoing training on how to observe and coach teachers as they try these strategies with their classes.
By integrating language, literacy, and content, subject-area teachers like Ms. James are helping newcomers feel comfortable enough to speak, read, and write in English soon after they begin attending academic classes. Most important, newcomer students, like their peers, have ample opportunities to interact verbally throughout all learning processes. All of this is extremely helpful for teen immigrant students with little English—and for other multilingual learners who arrive at most of our schools throughout the year.
Copyright © 2019 Margarita Calderón
End Notes

1 Calderón, M. E. (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, Grades 6–12: A framework for improving achievement in the content areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

2 Abreu, Y. (2011). How a middle school went from reconstituted to highest performing in two years: A principal's perspective. In M. E. Calderón & L. Minaya-Rowe (Eds.), Preventing long-term English language learners: Transforming schools to meet core standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Margarita Espino Calderón, PhD, Professor Emerita, Johns Hopkins University, has served on national preschool to 12th grade literacy panels and as an advisory board member of the National Research Council, the Education Testing Service, WIDA, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth, and the Carnegie Adolescent English Language Learners Literacy Panel. She is a consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights. Her research interests include professional development, effective schools, and language and literacy development of English learners.

Dr. Calderón, a former middle and high school teacher, directed bilingual professional development programs at San Diego State University and taught bilingual and educational leadership courses at the University of Texas, El Paso and University of California, Santa Barbara. She has authored, coauthored, or edited more than 100 books, articles, and chapters, is an international speaker, and conducts comprehensive professional development programs throughout the United States and abroad.

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