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English Learner Profile: The Literate Newcomer

According to Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, there are four types of English learners:

  1. newcomers who are literate in their first language

  2. newcomers who are not yet literate in any language

  3. students who have been in US schools for several years and are developing English proficiency as expected

  4. long-term English learners with conversational English who have not developed academic language and literacy in any language.

In this series of posts, we go into depth about what these learner profiles mean for planning effective instruction. We unpack each learner profile and offer suggestions for designing effective instruction that builds on multilingual students' strengths and supports their English language and literacy development.

In this post, we discuss our first English Learner profile, the Literate Newcomer!

PROFILE 1: The Literate Newcomer

The first group of multilingual learners are those who are newcomers to US schools. They may have very limited skills in English, but they are already able to read and write in their first language. This is an enormous advantage to have!

Research has found that knowledge, concepts, and skills transfer between languages. This is one reason (among many!) that we strongly recommend families continue to use their first language when interacting with their children. It’s also one of the biggest strengths of bilingual and dual language programs. As teachers, we can seize on a huge opportunity for learning when we build on a student’s first language!

To explain transfer, researchers often use an iceberg metaphor. Imagine two icebergs floating on the surface of the sea. They appear to be disconnected from each other. But when you look below the surface, you see that it is actually a single iceberg connected underwater.

The two icebergs above the water represent two languages. The connecting ice underneath the surface represents the concepts, skills, and knowledge that transfer between the two languages.

Background knowledge is available to us in any language, regardless of the language we used when learning it. Concepts transfer between languages; it is simply a matter of attaching new vocabulary to that concept.

This same idea holds true for transfer of literacy skills. A student who knows how to read in one language will learn to read fairly quickly in a new language. The student already understands that there is a relationship between print and speech. Their brains are already wired for reading and writing. They can give their attention to taking on new vocabulary and language structures and applying them to the literacy system that already exists for them.

Students who can read and write in their first language are likely to pick up literacy in English quickly and easily. In our experience, they rarely need additional services like reading support, even when English language proficiency is low at the outset. Instead, they need time to learn, high-quality instruction, and English language scaffolds so they can access grade-level curriculum.

Tips for supporting the Literate Newcomer:

  • work to lower the affective filter so all students feel a sense of safety, value, and belonging

  • have high expectations and maintain academic rigor

  • provide language scaffolds so multilingual learners can access grade-level curriculum

  • affirm the knowledge, skills, and concepts the student brings from their first language and model ways to apply those strengths in English language settings

  • monitor progress to ensure growth is in line with true peers

  • encourage continued reading and writing in the student’s first language

  • allow time for language to develop

  • offer multiple ways for MLs to express their thoughts and understandings

  • establish regular and ongoing communication between educators working with the student to share information, observations, plans, and progress toward goals

  • partner with families of MLs to ensure schools are supporting students as fully as possible

Continue the Series

We hope this series will be helpful to you as you get to know your multilingual learners! Continue reading the series here:

The Four Profiles of English Language Learners (and How to Teach Them)

Profile 2: The Language and Literacy Novice

Profile 3: The Progressing English Learner

Profile 4: The Persistent English Learner

What have been your experiences working with Literate Newcomers? What challenges have you encountered, and what successes have you had? Share in the comments below!


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2010). Implementing RtI with English learners. Solution Tree. [Amazon]

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