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Welcome to Canada: Receiving and Supporting New English Language Learners in Your School

Jeffery Robinson, Peter Dorfman

Last fall, the Ontario Ministry of Education released a new policy on English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Literacy Development (ELD). The ideas presented in this article will help your school meet the requirements set out in that policy.

Jill Donner (not her real name) is a grade 4 teacher in a small, lively school in a typical Ontario town. In four years of teaching, Donner has worked with students from various cultural backgrounds, but she has just received her first English language learner (ELL), Azmina. Although she is a skilled and conscientious teacher, Donner does not feel prepared to teach a student who doesn’t speak English. With no ESL/ELD teacher onsite, Donner feels frustrated and unsure about the first steps she should take with Azmina. Like many mainstream classroom teachers she needs some guidance.

The following suggestions include some practical ways for teachers and schools to prepare for and meet the immediate needs of newly arrived students.

Develop a reception plan

Developing a clearly described plan for receiving students who are new to Canada will go a long way toward ensuring their success in their first days at school. The key players in the school should meet to make decisions about who will be responsible for each part of the plan and what needs to be done. They should then share that plan with the whole school team: administrators, secretaries, teachers, educational assistants, and parent council.

The reception plan might include providing a special package with information about the Ontario school system, a school handbook, a map of the school and community, and a list of items the student will need for class. (The website has print and video resources in 17 languages, to share with parents.

They are great for non-newcomers too.) One highly effective strategy is to have a team of student ambassadors who link newcomers with students who can help them with classroom routines, join them at lunch, and play with them at recess.

Conduct an initial assessment – in both English and the home language

During an ELL’s first few days in class, get an idea of the new student’s language abilities – how well he or she can speak, listen, read, and write not only in English, but in the first language too. Azmina doesn’t read and write much English yet, but Donner could learn more about her ability to read in her home language by asking her to bring one of her favourite books to school. She could observe how Azmina handles the book, the general complexity of the text, and how easy it is for her to read. She could also make notes about Azmina’s ability to write in that language. Her findings will help the school form a program for Azmina and should be shared with all of the teachers and administrators who will work with the student and her family. If Azmina reads and writes well in her first language, the skills that she already possesses in that language will help her learn English too.

Adapt instruction for ells

All newcomers, even those with limited prior schooling, possess a wealth of world knowledge and need help to communicate what they know. Depending on Azmina’s language abilities, Donner may ask her to complete some tasks in her first language during the first week or two so that Azmina can concentrate on getting the gist of her lessons instead of struggling to record her ideas in English. Of course, Donner doesn’t understand Azmina’s home language, but after Azmina has completed her work, they can work together to translate some of what she has written. Using a bilingual dictionary or another student who speaks the same language will be helpful. This process is important for Azmina to feel successful and demonstrate that she already understands concepts.

Imagine how frustrating it would be to have just arrived in a grade 4 classroom in Canada and to have to describe the hierarchical structure of medieval society entirely in English! Helping Azmina to work out her thoughts in her own language first, then in English, makes good teaching sense. Donner should give Azmina tasks that are just beyond her current skills to help her learn the content of lessons without too much pressure or frustration. In her planning, Donner will need to include a wide variety of strategies that will help Azmina to glean the key ideas from the lessons. After all, Azmina is not only learning English, she is learning the content of the curriculum as well.

For help with differentiating instruction for ELLs, see the sample units in the ESL and ELD Resource Guide at esl18.pdf.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has resource documents that help teachers meet the needs of ELLs. Many Roots Many Voices is a guide for teachers available at

View LNS webcasts about equity and differentiated instruction at

Monitor the student’s progress

A daily check-in is a good idea. Starting school in a new country is hard for a child. Azmina will pass through a period of excitement about being in a new country and school, but will almost invariably experience some frustration or even depression. This is common, but she should be closely monitored by her teacher and the school community. A daily check-in will let Azmina know Donner cares and will help her feel strong enough to risk those first words and sentences in front of the whole class. Simple conversations about school routines like lunch, clothing, and making friends are a good place to start. Donner also needs to take time to see if the strategies that she has chosen are working in the ways that she had hoped.

Communicate with parents

Newcomer parents are often overwhelmed with settling in Canada and the accompanying changes. Fostering a trusting relationship with Azmina’s parents is key. It will be helpful for Donner to establish a reliable mechanism for communicating important information via either one of Azmina’s relatives or a contact at a local settlement agency. Donner should encourage the parents to speak with her after school or to come with their daughter to the open house/curriculum night early in the school year. She can offer to show them the classroom and talk about how Azmina is doing with learning English and content in the subject areas. If necessary, Donner can arrange for an interpreter to attend meetings with Azmina’s parents through the local settlement agency.

 Find out about resources in the community

Newly arrived families may also need help locating community resources. Almost all Ontario communities are served by settlement agencies that provide services to newcomers. They can provide information about language training and employment opportunities, and help families sort through the many issues related to coming to a new country.

The settlement agency staff in Donner’s school community may be able to help her and her colleagues understand some of the unique issues that Azmina’s family faces and suggest some solutions.