Preparing High School Newcomers for Content-Area Classes

Newcomer students who have recently arrived in the United States bring diverse backgrounds, languages, and experiences that enrich our classrooms. Newcomers also often have huge gaps to close before taking part in content-area high school classes. A newcomer will be new to the on-level concepts of algebra, civics, and biology, just like their English-speaking classmates. But the newcomer needs to build up the foundational English language structures and vocabulary that their English-speaking classmates already have.

While their classmates were learning words and phrases like division and pie chart, timeline and events, beaker and lab report in middle school, the newcomer may have been learning these words in their home language in their home country, or they may have been in the midst of community conflict, war, or long journeys away from danger, missing school altogether.

Here are some ways we can help prepare newcomer students for content-area classes:

Create language-rich classrooms

Post images and graphic organizers related to the topic of study around the room. As you build background and tap prior knowledge, have students add sticky notes to the images and write or draw in the graphic organizers in any language they want. As you progress through a unit, trap key language as it is generated by students. Have the whole class take part in translating into English as needed. Leave the visuals up for students to reference, discuss, and add to throughout the unit.

A mind map of science vocabulary for high school English language newcomers.
An example mind map of science vocabulary from the Lift Welcome level Teacher’s Book

Teach vocabulary paired with language functions

Introduce vocabulary with context such as a video or audio in which students hear not only high-utility content-area vocabulary but language functions and structures.

A science vocabulary lesson for High School English language newcomers.
A lesson from the Lift Welcome level Student’s Book

Then unpack the context, providing visuals to teach picturable words, but quickly moving to language functions such as explain, describe, and ask questions. Students who use vocabulary and language to make purposeful sentences are best prepared to participate in the academic discussions they will encounter in content-area classes.

A lesson on science vocabulary and prepositions for high school English language newcomers.
Visuals and associated activities in a lesson from the Lift Welcome level

Use realistic culminating activities that provide practice of vocabulary and language

Culminating activities that are embedded with content-area vocabulary and language provide listening, speaking, and reading practice while also teaching concepts in math, science, and social studies.

Read-alouds should reflect genres of the content area such as historical texts with timelines, math problem stories, and science experiments. This reading text from the Welcome level of Lift shows students how instructions for a science experiment are written:

A reading lesson for high school English language newcomers.
A reading activity from the Lift Welcome level Student’s Book

The Reader’s Theater in the Lift Welcome level Student’s Book is steeped in dialogue with multiple parts so students can practice realistic classroom language in groups.

A dialogue activity for high school English language newcomers.
A ‘Reader’s Theater’ activity from the Lift Welcome level Student’s Book

Videos that feature age-appropriate narrators using content-area language provide speaking models and listening practice.

A video on science vocabulary from the Lift Welcome level

Use routines

Learning a new language as well as how to function in a new country takes a lot of brain power. Having routines that follow the same steps every time you teach vocabulary, speaking, viewing, or reading alleviates some of the metacognitive load on students. Instead of figuring out how to do an activity, students can focus on the content they are learning, hearing, seeing, or reading.

Below is the same reading activity for newcomers from the Welcome level of the Lift program, accompanied by a reading routine from the Teacher’s Book. Doing the reading routine with students helps them follow a familiar sequence of steps when processing the text.

A reading text for high school English language newcomers.

We are all language learners. Whether learning a new language like English or Spanish, learning the language of a new subject like science or math, or learning the discourse of a community that is new to us, we need engaging and purposeful content to get us there.

The Welcome level of the Lift series prepares English language newcomers with the academic vocabulary they need to excel in high school classes and beyond.

Author: Honor Teoudoussia

Honor Teoudoussia started her career in Cameroon, Africa teaching English to middle and high school students. Since then, she has been developing K-12 literacy programs for English learners for 25 years.

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