Over the last fortnight, I spoke with several immigrant families with school-aged children who narrated to me their stories of migration and starting a new life in a different country. As they reflected on their experiences of starting a new school, I realized one common thread that connected them all: their worry that they may not be understood, and that they may not be able to understand others.
Arriving in a new country and attending a school where they are surrounded by and have to learn in a language that is not their own is, of course, extremely difficult for students. But it is also challenging for teachers. As teachers, we want to get to know the students and their families. We want to ensure that students are happy, comfortable, and ready to learn. This is hard to achieve if there is a communication barrier. So, what can we do to support new students, create an environment that empowers them, and help their families to thrive? Here are five recommendations, based on the experiences of the families I spoke with recently.
1. Collect Background Data From Incoming Families
To establish a partnership between schools and families, it is important to get to know the families well right from the beginning. Some of this should be done by the school during the enrolment process. But teachers should follow this up with additional information:
- Which countries and cultures do the students associate with?
- What languages are spoken at home?
- In what ways are those languages used?
- Are children literate in their home languages?
Find out about everyday routines and family leisure activities. Find out too what the learner enjoys, dislikes, becomes frustrated about, helps them to learn, and so on. It may be useful to try and set up a home visit early on as families may feel more comfortable speaking at home than at school. It also gives the teacher an insight into the life experiences, cultural practices, and interests of the child that can become the foundation on which to build their learning.
2. Create a System of Support
One family I spoke with talked about how the school would check in on the family in some way once a week. This was sometimes an email or a text message. Sometimes it was a phone call or a (prearranged) visit to the home. The check-ins were a way to ensure that families were doing well, and see if any help was needed. Given the challenges of the pandemic for many families, this was a way for parents to signal the help they needed. Schools that had systems of support set up can be a source of comfort for families as they know they have people to turn to when in need.
3. Create and Maintain a Language and Literacy Profile for Each Learner
Providing appropriate support for language learners starts with understanding what languages learners use and how they use these languages. What is the learner able to do in their home languages as well as in the school language? Identify priority areas to work on. Take the time to compare the linguistic differences between learners’ home languages and English. Given the diversity of students in every class, even the most dedicated teacher may struggle to do this for every student, but if taken on as a whole school endeavour, the school could develop a resource that could be used by everyone. Teachers who understand the language starting point of their learners can better predict progress, anticipate likely problems, and better explain the differences between students’ home languages and English.
4. Adopt Nonverbal, Nonthreatening Ways of Communication
Picture word cards are a great resource to use with new students who may not be familiar with the words for essential items and procedures in the classroom. Learners could be provided a set of cards or a booklet that would function as a mini-picture dictionary. For some students, initial communication may involve simply pointing to a picture, before they gain enough confidence to respond or speak verbally.
Visuals are always a great way of enhancing instruction. Labelling everything around the classroom and creating a labelled photo collage of everyday routines and commonly visited areas in the school would also be helpful.
Use nonverbal cues to show learners what you want them to do. Have peers model behaviours and expectations as well. Play games like Simon says, or charades. Allowing learners to associate visual cues with verbal/written language will help them to notice the new language and accelerate learning.
When using gestures and body language to communicate, it is important to remember that not all gestures are understood or interpreted in the same way in all cultures. For example, nodding the head can mean yes or no, or indicate something else, depending on the culture.
5. Establish Orientation Procedures
For an incoming student and their family, everything is new—even the most basic things that you may take for granted. This is why it is important to have in place an orientation package and procedure that would familiarise them with the school. This may include taking the family around the school for a tour, explaining school routines, safety procedures, and identifying points of contact. This would be a good opportunity to identify language needs of the family—are they comfortable with communication sent home in the school language, or would they prefer a translation/interpreter? Explain the curriculum and the approach to learning in the school so that parents know what to expect.
Taking the time to set up processes in the school to welcome and support new students and their families will help build trust and provide families with the comfort that someone is there for them and will care for their child.