Supporting EL Newcomer Students

This past year, the team at Lincoln Middle School faced a new, unexpected challenge. “We’re a district that never really had a big newcomer population,” said Ivona Wypych, the EL teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Park Ridge, Illinois. That changed when an influx of students, mostly from Ukraine, moved into their community. Their arrival meant that the teachers and staff in the district had to work quickly and collaboratively to meet the needs of these newcomer students. Priority number one was making them feel welcome in their new home. “We wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable here,” Wypych said, “especially after what they’ve been through.” She shared the example of providing a one-on-one tour of the school for a student who arrived last fall. Wypych recalls the student’s excitement, “We didn’t find out until we asked about how many times she had moved that she’d already been at another school in Cleveland for six weeks. She described having to just ‘figure it out’ on her own there.”

Part of that welcome included making the families feel welcome as well. “This was the first year the district hosted a newcomer night,” Wypych explained, “some of the parents didn’t even know there were other Ukrainian families here as well.” These connections have helped the families as they learn their way around the community, where to buy groceries, how to find a job, etc.

They key to their strategy, says Wypych, was making sure all of the teachers were on the same page. “There was definitely some trial and error, but especially in the middle school where a student sees so many teacher throughout the day it’s about keeping everyone in the loop and having a plan.”

To help other schools with newcomer EL students, Ivona, in addition to two of her colleagues at Lincoln Middle School, Julie Powell, Instructional Technology Coach, and Christine Thielen, Math Teacher, have shared the resources and tactics that helped them support students with digital learning, in making connections, and within the classroom. They hope you find these resources helpful for your EL newcomer students, too.

Supporting Students in Making Connections

  • Take students on a 1:1 school tour: Provide newcomer students with a tour of the school with the EL teacher and/or counselor. Show students all of the common areas of the school and important locations like the office and nurses office. If possible, introduce the student to as many staff members as possible.
  • Provide a survival phrase booklet for the first few weeks of school: Include words or phrases such as “water,” “lunch,” etc. (credit to Amy Kuong for sharing this idea on Twitter).
  • Gather information about the student and their life: Find out what resources are available from the district and community (such as interpreters). Create a student portrait: collect information by asking questions that are experiential, social emotional, cultural and linguistic.
    • How often has the student moved? What life and educational experiences has the student had prior to moving to the US?
    • What are the students interests, skills?
    • Has the family been exposed to conflict or violence?
    • What are the family’s beliefs about education?
    • What are the most effective ways for the school to communicate with the family?
  • Offer community events for EL families: Host events for the parents of newcomer students to meet, make connections, and support one another. Provide a program overview for the families.

Supporting Students with Digital Learning

  • Google translate app on iPads: Translate physical worksheets. Change language keyboard on iPad.

  • Use an iPad or use a sticker overlay on Chromebooks for other alphabets: These are available for purchase through various retailers by searching the phrase, “[Language] keyboard labels.”

  • Google Slides translator: This extension allows students to translate Google Slides. Note: Google Translator extension doesn’t work with Google Slides. 
  • Provide students with an overview of their tech devices: Students may not have been exposed to 1:1 devices. 

Supporting Students in the Classroom

  • Meet with all teachers and other school staff to discuss best practices: Ensure that everyone has the same knowledge of the tech tools and other resources available. Ensure that teachers understand the language acquisition process for newcomers, which includes the “silent period.”
  • Incorporate visuals and hand gestures: Visually display written directions, homework, etc. and reference these when speaking to the class. Use hand gestures when explaining a process so that students can better follow along with the lesson or other class activity. (IE: Rather than just saying “open your book to page 40”, hold up a book and open it to page 40 when giving the verbal direction.)
  • Partner new students with a buddy: Do a language survey of your classes to see if any students speak another language in their home. If possible, partner the new student with someone who speaks the same language or a similar language. (IE: Spanish and Portuguese.)
  • Be mindful with language: Use more social language vs academic language — “test” vs “assessment”. Explain acronyms, idioms, and slang. (IE: It’s raining cats and dogs. You’re as cute as a button.)

Julie, Christine, and Ivona welcome your questions and can be reached at,, and, respectively. 


  1. It’s inspiring to see how Lincoln Middle School stepped up to support newcomer students, especially those from Ukraine. The teachers and staff worked collaboratively to ensure these students felt welcome and comfortable in their new environment. The one-on-one school tours and newcomer night events were great initiatives to make both the students and their families feel connected and supported. I also appreciate the emphasis on keeping all teachers in the loop and having a plan to provide consistent support throughout the day. The resources shared by Ivona, Julie, and Christine are practical and valuable, especially the survival phrase booklet, gathering information about students’ backgrounds, and using technology tools like Google Translate. It’s evident that the school prioritizes communication, cultural sensitivity, and creating a supportive classroom environment for these newcomer students.

  2. I think this article has been very helpful for teachers who may not know how to address language barriers. I am a college student and I have been placed at a couple of schools where a little under half the students are being supported by ELL while also being in a gen education course. I have also subbed a few times and had students that did not speak or understand English. Knowing that there are many different ways for the student to communicate with you or give a student a way to complete assignments they can understand. I like the idea of the school survival booklet for the students to have something to refer to when they need or want something. The booklet could also contain information about how to navigate around the classroom website or how to turn on Google Translate.