Five strategies to welcome newcomers into your classroom

March 1, 2024

Multilingual learners are the fastest-growing demographic in K-12 classrooms (Language Magazine, 2018). Currently they make up 10.3% of the national student body (NCES, 2020) and are predicted to account for 25% of public school students in the United States by the year 2025 (Language Magazine, 2018). This trend doesn't just apply to urban schools, since the number of multilingual learners is also increasing quickly in suburban and rural settings, where the percentage of enrolled multilingual learners has risen at faster rates in these classrooms than in city schools (NCES, 2020; NCES, 2023). Among them is a group of multilingual learners known as newcomers; a term coined for students that recently arrived in the United States. These students come to the classroom with rich and unique experiences, but also with new and varied linguistic, academic and social-emotional needs.

Read on to learn the five ways you can help in welcoming newcomers into your classrooms with links to helpful resources after each strategy and how you can dive deeper with WIDA’s virtual, self-paced offering — Newcomers: Promoting Success through Strengthening Practice. This workshop offers opportunities to reflect on learning practices in your individual teaching and learning context, create an atmosphere and system of shared responsibility and incorporate and build on the rich resources that multilingual newcomers bring.

Know Your Students: Who are they? What can they do?

When your multilingual newcomers and their families join your school community, get to know them, as well as their abilities and strengths and consider what assets they are bringing to your teaching and learning setting. Family and student questionnaires, delivered in an accessible language and format, are great ways to gather this information! They can capture insights on unique experiences, personal interests, hobbies and skills, language, schooling backgrounds and potential resource-based needs.

Once the academic and linguistic screening is complete, adopt an asset-based, can do approach to identify areas in which your multilingual newcomer demonstrates abilities that can be capitalized on for language and content learning. Use student portfolios to highlight academic, linguistic, cultural and experiential assets that can be shared with fellow educators who will also be working with these students.

Content and language learning requires intentional classroom practices.

We know that language and content are not learned in isolation, yet the meaningful integration of language and content is not automatic. How do we draw on students’ unique strengths and experiences to bring them into the content of our classroom and ensure accessibility to language and grade-level academic learning? There are several research-based instructional practices that have been found to encourage more equitable engagement and participation of newcomers in the classroom.

Here is a short list of some of these methods:

Culturally Responsive Teaching is important for newcomers as it encourages educators to focus on their students’ wealth of assets, languages they speak and heterogenous perspectives they bring to classroom communities.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching? Education Week Article

Thematic instruction connects all curricula to a chosen theme, allowing students to see the "big picture" and patterns across academic disciplines. For newcomers, research suggests that the more students participate in diverse engagements around a unified theme, the clearer their understanding of ideas and relationships will become.

How do I implement thematic instruction? Colorín Colorado

Structured teaching protocols, including highly structured environments, high-impact teaching and highly structured activities encourage educators to be intentional about learning environments, activities and multimodal supports for communication.

Highly Structured Approach – Open Library Ed Guide

Translanguaging is a nuanced, multilingual practice. Through translanguaging, students make use of their full linguistic skillset creating connections between languages and extending repertoires.

Be multimodal! "In addition to the use of spoken and written language, students also communicate through gestures, facial expressions, images, equations, maps, symbols, diagrams, charts, videos, graphs, computer-mediated content and other means." (p. 19, WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework, 2020 Edition)

WIDA ELD Standards Framework, 2020 Edition

Focus on WIDA English Language Development Standard 1.

ELD Standard 1, Language for Social and Instructional Purposes, extends beyond the other ELD Standards Statements, applying universally across educational settings. It addresses multilingual learners' diverse backgrounds, identities and their significance in content comprehension. A crucial aspect of ELD Standard 1 is that it emphasizes the language skills essential for both social interaction and academic engagement within classroom communities. For that reason, educators must consistently ensure that students possess the linguistic tools required to fully participate in classroom activities and learning.

With that in mind, we should always ask ourselves, “Did I equip my students with the tools to be successful in understanding and using language necessary to access, participate and equitably engage in the activities and content learning taking place in the classroom?”

To explore how considerations for ELD Standard 1 informs our work with multilingual learners in classrooms across the K-12 sphere, check out the grade-level cluster-specific versions of the 2020 Edition below.

Create safe spaces for newcomers and their families inside and outside the classroom.

Creating a welcoming and secure environment for newcomers and their families starts from the moment they arrive at the school. Tailoring enrollment systems, policies and practices to multilingual newcomers ensures clarity and equity in navigating school procedures. Familiarizing them with these processes enhances their comfort, equips them for social and academic success and promotes equitable access to school resources.

Additionally, fostering a sense of the classroom as a safe space is crucial. Multilingual newcomers must feel valued and supported within their classroom community before fully engaging in language and content learning. Despite the necessity of high grade-level expectations and authentic participation for equitable academic outcomes, achieving these goals can be challenging for newcomers requiring intentional support and understanding.

Actionable ways to encourage safe spaces at the classroom level include the following:

  • Acknowledge individual identities and strengths in classroom materials and décor.
  • Encourage translanguaging to deepen understanding of new content.
  • Structure group work to promote collaboration among diverse students.
  • Empower students with choices in their learning process.
  • Implement regular social-emotional check-ins and restorative conversations.

To foster inclusivity within our school community, consider

  • Gathering background information to inform decision-making
  • Providing professional development for staff
  • Ensuring accessibility to communication platforms and services
  • Offering supportive resources and clear signage in school buildings

U.S. Department of Education’s Office Of English Language Acquisition’s Newcomer Toolkit

Family Engagement page

Don't do this alone.

Greater integration and collaboration challenges teachers to make meaning with multilingual learners as they expand their linguistic repertoire while learning rigorous, grade-level academic content. In today's educational landscape, everyone within the school community bears responsibility for the success of all students, valuing their diverse experiences and assets. When we come together — sharing our deep knowledge of students and content through our unique lenses — we build capacity to facilitate greater depth to content learning and greater breadth to language instruction. Fostering purposeful collaboration among stakeholders is a shared responsibility that supports our learners and is particularly essential for our multilingual newcomers to succeed across our nation’s K-12 classrooms.

Keep the momentum going!

In the fully virtual, self-paced workshop, Newcomers: Promoting Success through Strengthening Practice, participants begin with an introductory opening module then choose their own adventure to continue down a pathway most relevant to their teaching and learning context. These strands include learning and thinking critically about newcomers through three different perspectives: collaborative school systems, school community considerations and administrators as change-makers.

The workshop includes insight from teachers, families and newcomer students themselves. It offers space and place for self-reflection, goal setting and check-ins for understanding of new learning, along with turnkey handouts and templates to integrate considerations for newcomers into school practices.

*Note: Workshops available in the Secure Portal may vary by state.

Ready to dive into a fully self-paced workshop? Follow the steps below.

  1. Log in to your WIDA Secure Portal (Valid login required. Don’t have an account yet? Visit your member/state page to learn how).
  2. Go to “Professional Learning” in the Portal’s main menu to view available virtual workshops.
  3. Complete a self-paced workshop and print your certificate.

Questions? Contact the WIDA Client Services Center at (866) 276-7735 or

Cited Resources

Hussar, B., Zhang, J., Hein, S., Wang, K., Roberts, A., Cui, J., Smith, M., Bullock Mann, F., Barmer, A., and Dilig, R. (2020). The condition of education 2020 (NCES 2020-144). U.S. Department of Education.

Language Magazine. (2018, October 22). 1 in 4 students is an English language learner: Are we leaving them behind?.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). English learners in public schools. The Condition of Education 2023. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

About the Authors

Lauren Bartholomae is a professional learning specialist on WIDA's Educator Learning, Research and Practice team. In this role, she engages in the development and facilitation of WIDA's professional learning with educators of multilingual learners across the consortium. Her research and work interests focus on special populations of multilingual newcomers and students identified as students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), as well as utilizing STEM initiatives and project-based learning to bridge content and language learning in the K-12 classroom.

Elise Sheikh is a marketing specialist on WIDA’s Communications and Marketing team. She collaborates with teams across the organization in the development and execution of communications for WIDA projects, products and services.


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