Teaching Emergent Students

As a teacher of emergent multilingual students, I’m often asked, “Where do you begin?” It is always best to start with a smile and introduction. I usually begin with, “My name is Rebecca. What’s your name?” If there is no response, I place my hand on my chest and say, “Rebecca,” Then I point at the student and wait for a response. If this fails, I introduce another student and myself again. Eventually, we all learn each other’s names. If I know the student's native country, I ask which languages they speak. (Swahili? Telugu?) This assures the student by acknowledging their language. Saying a few words in their language helps to build a level of comfort.

SILENT PERIOD. Emergent students are both eager to learn and anxious about their new environment. Many have never been in a school and others are overwhelmed by the size of a typical American school. Many enter a Silent Period and observe all the new things and people around them. If a student does not talk, allow them to remain silent. However, include them in class activities and encourage them to participate as much as possible. During the Silent Period, ask questions that use physical actions like circling or sorting. Next, introduce questions that have one-word answers. They will gradually begin to speak as they become comfortable and learn more English.

NON-LITERATE. Emergent students can be divided into two groups, non-literate and pre-literate. Non-literate students come from a concrete, 3-dimensional world and are unfamiliar with 2-dimensional symbols such as numbers, letters, and words. Using tangible objects is essential for teaching these students. This gives students time to adjust to the flat, 2-dimensional world of reading and writing. Eye strain is an issue, so a mixture of speaking, life skills, phonics, handwriting, vocabulary, and grammar exercises is necessary. Each teaching unit should last 10-15 minutes,

PRELITERATE. Pre-literate students have lived in a literate world and have observed people reading and writing. Many have had limited or interrupted education and may be referred to as (SLIFE) students. They are familiar with a written script and some of its uses. This knowledge gives them a great advantage over non-literate students. They are more comfortable with letters and the concept of reading. They often learn letter-sound correspondence quicker than nonliterate students.

LISTENING and SPEAKING. Include listening and speaking elements in every activity. Listening and speaking are the foundation of language development. Have students respond with words or sentences whenever it is possible. Encourage talking and helping each other during individual assignments. Use pair and small group exercises to encourage speaking. When practicing new grammar forms, play ’Catch and Toss”. The person who catches the object says a sentence or asks a question then tosses it to someone else.

LIFE SKILLS.  Basic life skills are essential for emergent students. These include numbers, days, months, dates, money, time, signs, and weather. Begin by teaching numbers and the calendar. Days, months, and dates are used in a variety of situations. One fun technique is to have students teach words for the numbers and days in their language/s. Often days are translated as first day, second day, and so forth. Students enjoy watching others struggle to pronounce their language correctly. This reduces their fear of mistakes and demonstrates that mistakes are O.K. It’s all about trying! They rejoice when their teacher and classmates pronounce words correctly. This technique also reveals insight into how their language works.

Emergent adult refugees come to class for a limited time because they must get jobs. They are also taught about jobs, paychecks (taxes), money, shopping, and banking.

COUNTING. Almost every language and people group counts. Most counting systems use base ten or base twelve. Numbers 1 to 12 are taught first because of their unique names. Using real objects such as crayons, pencils, or whatever is handy makes counting tangible. Flashcards, dice, and dominoes are great tools to teach numbers. Don't use hand gestures to indicate a number because these vary widely throughout the world. After the first twelve numbers are learned, move on to the teens followed by tens.


A few cultures do not count. These use words like 'couple', 'few', 'several', and 'many'. Teaching counting is more of a challenge for students from these cultures. Begin by teaching 'couple' with concrete objects and count “one, two”. Next, introduce the concept of 'few' with objects and practice counting from three to eight’. This builds on their prior knowledge and expands into counting individual objects.

LETTERS & SOUNDS. Learning the names and sounds of letters takes time. It is good to sing the ABC song every day. Before teaching the alphabet, clarify that you want students to know TWO things: the NAME and the SOUND. The pictures help remind them of the sound. Encourage students to give other words that begin with the same sound (G- grapes, good, god, go, get, give, etc.). This teaches letter-sound correspondence and prepares them for reading. Include focused work on one consonant/vowel a day.

HANDWRITING. It is vital to teach handwriting to all students. This helps students learn the uppercase and lowercase letters for each letter. Handwriting and letter recognition are another foundation for reading.

If the student is older or writes using a different script, they need to learn how to form English letters correctly. Handwriting by strokes is a quick and easy method. All of the letters and numbers can be learned in 7 lessons. This method begins with letters that are simple to write and progresses to more difficult letters. Chanting strokes (down, right), letter names, and sounds (L says /l/) while forming letters reinforces and connects letter-sound correspondence.

VOCABULARY is essential for multilingual learners. Book, paper, pencil, table, and window are easy words to teach because they are present in the classroom. Using miniature objects is a concrete way to teach vocabulary. Many verbs can be acted out. Color pictures are the next best option. Black and white sketches are often too difficult for these students to understand. New words can be practiced by using speech, physical actions (charades), and writing. Singing helps to lock new words into memory.

GRAMMAR. Most teachers begin grammar instruction with ‘to be’ verbs and personal pronouns. Regardless of the grammar structure, it is good to begin with speaking/listening activities. This is easy with the ‘Catch and Toss’ game. For example, the teacher might say. “I am a woman.” and tosses the object to a student. The student then makes an ‘I am’ statement and tosses the object. Surveys, questionnaires, and other speaking activities should also be used.

Next, write some student-produced sentences on the board and point out the grammar structure. Lastly, have students do short writing exercises to reinforce the grammar point.

Teaching questions and answers is a crucial aspect of grammar for students. English has several question patterns (Question words, be verbs, action verbs, & combinations). Answers also take several forms. These grammar aspects should be taught.

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