The Ignored Newcomer

Despite an ever-growing presence in US schools, many Newcomer students with limited English proficiency continue to be instructed with inappropriate methodology and programming.  Newcomers are commonly identified as those in their first year in US schools who lack proficiency in Basic Interpersonal Conversational Speech (BICS).

Newcomers lack proficiency in social language or BICS, which is foundational is to understanding the context-driven, content-reduced Academic Language used in most US schools.

Largely due to scheduling and budget restraints, most schools do not offer special programming for Newcomers, who are often taught in classrooms, both in the mainstream and in ESL classrooms with very limited differentiation.  Throughout the school day, the vast majority of Newcomers are “assigned to standard age-appropriate courses that they simply cannot understand….” relying on CBI ESL classrooms to help with “receiving some language support, but frequently it is insufficient” (Federal, 801).

Even ESL teachers in immersion settings struggle to support Newcomers, with little training in the best ways to differentiate and few opportunities for ability-appropriate grouping.

The few resources available to ESL teachers are very low in quality.  For example, here is the “WIDA Focus on Differentiation” published by the WIDA Consortium, whose standards have been adopted in 38 states.!ApoPj3kNvq9-3B-TjQewXIOTcqmf

This document gives a model lesson that claims to be a “powerful framework…to identify appropriate language based-expectations and supports for each of (a class’s) ELLs” (1).  Although a “Focus on Differentiation” is presented for intermediate and advanced ELs in the model lesson presented, there is no differentiation for Newcomers.

WIDA’s example lesson begins with an introduction of a level 1 student, Marco, who fits the definition of a Newcomer.  Marco was learning about the Rainforest using a sheltered-instruction approaches to teach Academic English in a content-area.  Unlike his intermediate and advanced classmates who “persuade” and “evaluate,” Marco’s language objective was to “Produce descriptive words or phrases” about a lesson on the Rainforest (3).  Even resources provided by WIDA fall short of allowing Newcomers real creative expression of novel ideas.

Despite the fact that the article began with the statement that “English language learners at all levels of language proficiency can and should be engaged in higher-order thinking tasks” (2), Marco was the only student not given higher-order thinking language objectives.  In essence,  the only “differentiation” provided for Newcomers in this and many other ESL classrooms is lowered expectations: expecting less language with less cognitive demand, and no higher-order thinking.

In many US classrooms, the disparity between what we know is best practices and the services given Newcomers is simply not addressed.  The same WIDA literature that explicitly identified “describe” as a less effective function of language, prescribed “producing descriptions” for Newcomers.  This inconsistency is simply ignored by an ESL community that also largely also ignores the urgent need for real differentiation for Newcomers.

Teachers across our country are being negatively evaluated on their ability to differentiate for these students, without programing and training in methodology that is appropriate for beginning language learners. SIOP, CALLA, and SDAIE trainings being presented throughout the country are appropriate methods for intermediate and advanced English language learners. However, training is almost non-existent for beginning language learners and Newcomers struggling to achieve in ESL classrooms. Many ESL teachers have simply resigned themselves to ignoring the lost Newcomers in their classes.

As a result, most newcomers do not receive any comprehensible input in any classes throughout the day; teachers report they simply “pick it up” on the playground, on the soccer team, and in the cafeteria. However, according Jim Cummins, BICS can take an average of one to three years to develop (Cummins, 18).  An instructional year or two of Newcomers’ needs being unaddressed is unacceptable.





Works Cited


Cummins, Jim. “BICS and CALP: Clarifying the Distinction.” (1999).

“Federal Funding for Newcomer Schools: A Bipartisan Immigrant Education Initiative.” Harvard Law Review 120 (2013): 799-820. Web.

Freeman Field, Rebecca. “WIDA Focus on Differentiation.” WIDA Focus (May 2012). Print.

Krashen, Stephen D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon, 1982. Print.

McDonnell, Lorraine, and Paul Hill. Newcomers in American Schools: Meeting the Educational Needs of Immigrant Youth. Publication. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1993. Print.

Vernez, Georges, and Allan Abrahamse. How Immigrants Fare in US Education. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1996. Print.







Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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