Back to School/New to School: Helping Newcomers Succeed
By Bill Bliss and Steve Molinsky

As summer ebbs and we head back to the classroom, it's helpful to keep in mind that for many of our students it isn't back-to-school time but rather new-to-school time. Whether they are children enrolling in elementary or secondary schools or adults enrolling in English language programs, many of our students are newcomers who are entering school here for the first time - and who may be walking into a classroom anywhere in a very long time.

The circumstances of life back in their countries of origin or the challenges of their transitions to a new land often result in students arriving with limited prior schooling or significant disruptions in their education. For these students, the challenge of learning a new language is coupled with the challenge of orienting to the physical and social structure and cultural expectations of our classrooms, our schools, and the education system.

"What Do You Call That?" - The Importance of Classroom and School Vocabulary

Probably the most important skill newcomers need to develop from day one in our classrooms is to label the environment - the objects in the classroom, the actions that students and teachers engage in, and the occupations of the people they will encounter throughout the school. With these newcomers in mind, the Word by Word and Word by Word Basic Picture Dictionary programs in their earliest lessons offer practice with the nouns and verbs of the classroom and the school.

One of the most popular lessons introduces "Classroom Actions" vocabulary through picture sequences that students can act out. Sixty common classroom actions are grouped into twelve action sequences that can be practiced using the total physical response (TPR) technique. Some sequences are very basic and familiar: "Stand up. Go to the board. Write on the board. Erase the board. Take your seat." Others highlight richer vocabulary related to styles of instruction such as cooperative learning: "Share a book. Discuss the question. Help each other. Work together. Share with the class."

Later units in both picture dictionary programs return to the school theme with vocabulary lessons that introduce the names of school subjects and the most important introductory vocabulary for specific subjects including math, language arts, literature, geography, and science.

Adults as Students . . . and Parents of Students

Many of our newcomer adult English language students find themselves in dual roles: they are students attending an adult education program, and they are the parents of children enrolled in school. Our four-level Side by Side Plus program therefore offers these students school-related language practice and orientation to the education system from both vantage points - as a student in a classroom and as a parent who needs the communication skills and cultural understanding to be an effective participant in and advocate for their children's education.

Parent-oriented lessons offer practice in registering a child for school, reading a school's floor plan, calling the attendance line to report a child's absence, writing a note to a child's teacher, and discussing concerns during a parent-teacher conference. Readings include descriptions of the various levels of the U.S. education system, grading systems and report cards, and tips for helping children succeed in school.

A Newcomer's Song

The challenges a newcomer high school student faces in the first weeks in a new school are captured in a WordSong included on the audio CD with the Word by Word Basic Picture Dictionary program. Here is an audio file of the tune, which incorporates lots of school vocabulary as it describes how overwhelming it is to be "one of the new kids":

One of the New Kids

And here are the reproducible worksheets for the song - a lyrics sheet and a cloze exercise - which you can find in the Lesson Planner books and CD-ROMs included with the Word by Word Basic Teacher's Guide.

As the singer laments: "I wonder if I'll ever stop running around in circles in this school." It all works out, though. How? The answer is in the last verse.

So whether you're heading back to school soon or you're already back, we wish you and your students a wonderful teaching and learning experience in the months ahead! And for your newcomers, we send a special wish for success as they begin their language-learning journey in your classroom!