Our Silent Journey: Supporting English language learners to adapt to the classroom 

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It is evident that the number of English language learners (ELLs) has increased in the last few years. In Ontario, more than 25% of the student population are learning English as a second language (L2) (Statistics Canada, 2020). Given that numbers are increasing, it is important to know how to support ELLs in the classroom, school community, and in their own communities with the purpose of helping each student become successful. Hence, the core of this message is to provide strategies that may support newcomers to feel positive about their learning, as teachers become more aware about their practices in and outside of the classroom. For this reason, we will focus on the settlement curve and explain it, in addition to focusing specifically on the downwards slope to understand the student and provide the necessary assistance. Moreover, we will look at the importance of human contact, especially when dealing with trauma and placing the wellbeing of the child in the core of our practices as educators, suggest strategies of inclusion and wellbeing, and finally provide different resources that will help understand the newcomer’s background as we continue to support them.

The numbers 

It is said that a substantial chunk of Canada’s population is made up of landed immigrants, or at least of people who were once a landed immigrant. In fact, around 8 of the 37 million of the total population are landed immigrants (Statistics Canada, 2022). However, before we proceed, it is important to identify what a landed immigrant is. Any newcomer who has acquired this title landed Immigrant is one who has held a permit to come and dwell in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2008). This group is also known as having permanent residency in Canada. In this case, the person has been granted permission to stay and live in Canada, just like any Canadian citizen, but apart from no voting rights. Nevertheless, both statuses mean that the person is on their way to become a Canadian citizen if they chose to become one. Given the fact that more than 20% of Canadians have been at one point (or are still) landed immigrants, it is important to focus our attention on how to support them in the classroom. In Ontario, 1 out of 3 persons is/has been a landed immigrant (Statistics Canada, 2022). In cities such as Hamilton and Toronto, 1 in 4 and 1 in 2, respectively. Moreover, this data provided by Statistics Canada, can be easily found and attest to the needs of supporting our newcomers in a classroom setting. Furthermore, it is important to mention that within 2016–2021, 1.3 million newcomers settled in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2022). These number are simply increasing because of the many devastations occurring in various parts of the world which would allow for more newcomers to immigrate into Canada. The question that quickly arises is: How can a teacher help an ELL adapt to the classroom? What kind of support is readily available to ELLs?

As a former classroom teacher, I understand the many challenges that any classroom teacher faces regularly. Generally, most educators endure curricula challenges, such as the amount of curriculum that must be taught by the end of the year. This often includes modification and accommodations of curricula, behavioral issues, differentiation of instruction, and providing the students a safe and welcoming environment where all learners feel included and safe to participate, along with the addition of new students, including newcomers.  This, of course, would also include newcomers that do not speak English and/or may be new to the Canadian culture. It is critical to point out that not all come in with a permit to stay in Canada. Furthermore, all newcomers will enter Canada with a history, and in some cases, this may involve trauma.

The settlement curve

This curve has been used by different governments that have had an increase in immigration. For example, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and North America, may utilize this same curve or a similar one. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to recognize the 5 main parts of the curve, which are: (1) the pre-arrival excitement, (2) the arrival, (3) the settling challenges, (4) the getting used to period, and finally (5) the sense of belonging (New Zealand Immigration, n. d.).

The prearrival excitement comprises of the emotional state that a traveler exhibits, having learned of their soon arrival into Canada. Given that Canadian soils are known as a safe haven to many, and an opportunity to better oneself by studying and working, it therefore provides the immigrant with initial excitement for a better lifestyle. For others, such as myself, it was an opportunity to see my father and be reunited with him. Knowing that once again my family would be together, meant that I would be looking forward to entering Canada. Just like my family and I, most newcomers feel the excitement of being able to consider Canada their new home. This knowledge leads all immigrants to feel a sense of excitement and joy; a positive feeling that will culminate soon after the arrival into Canadian land. It is also important to note that Canada may feel and be a safe haven due to the political turmoil, government instability, and war-torn lives that many immigrants may have had to endure in their homelands. Take for example, Nati, a young boy who was forced to leave his country due to civil war. After months of constant suffering, his family decided to emigrate from their native land in search of a safer and welcoming home. After months of travelling and being treated like second class citizens, and possibly, having suffered the losses of family members, a sound financial life, and having witnessed the atrocities of the war, they find out that they have been given permission to come to Canada—a safe haven. Though our student has not arrived in Canada yet, he feels the excitement of being able to escape his current war-torn reality and come live in Canada. Prior to coming to Canada, I spoke with my father, who was already in Canada. He had promised us a fridge filled with ice cream upon our arrival. Though we were more thrilled to be with him, our minds were also thinking of the ice cream.

The arrival offers a firsthand experience of being in Canada. Everything is new and exciting. There is snow on the ground (if you come in during the winter season) and the roads are large. Big buildings welcome you, and from your new apartment, you can see a majestic view of Lake Ontario. You continue to be excited. The fact that your family can walk to a grocery store filled with all types of goods, fruits and vegetables, meats, and dairy products, makes you not miss anything. Additionally, you feel safe because there is no war. The family that sponsored yours provided you with a freezer filled with ice cream and other goods that they discovered are to your liking. Life is good. This is the period of introduction to the country, both linguistically and culturally. You embrace them both because you embrace your new adopted country. In fact, you are overjoyed that this country opened its doors for you and your family. All feels good. During this period, you are welcomed with open arms, and you are introduced to the culture. With no lack of excitement, you express your gratitude.

The settling challenges begin as soon as you step foot in your new country. Nevertheless, its level of difficulty increases daily and it becomes more notorious the moment that the excitement of having come to Canada dissipates. This part of the curve is when newcomers start feeling exhausted from all the change. That is, an ELL may start noticing that his home country is different than Canada; that there are less people in greater spaces and therefore less opportunities to socialize with others; that their country allows for ambulatory sales on the streets which makes it easier for purchasing household items; that their favourite sport is not being played outside in the middle of the street or a park nearby; that the beautiful snow that hangs itself on bare branches can be cold and wet the moment it falls on your bare nape. The newcomer realizes that days are short during winter months and that the inviting streaming rays strong enough to awake any deep sleeper, was not a reminder that the heat is present on a mid-February day. The student starts missing their relatives and friends, their customs and way of living, their old way of life and possibly the common hot days. This is the part of the curve where missing someone or something is magnified. As an immigrant, I remember looking back and hoping that the situation in my home country would become better so that we, as a family, may go back. I missed everything about my country; from its exquisite food to its welcoming weather. However, the fact that I could not go back made me feel impotent and this would upset me. I would also like to say that we, as immigrants tend to leave a part of our hearts in our country. That said, we now need to live our new Canadian life with a piece of our soul missing. During this stage, we realize that the cold is not as pretty and welcoming as it was when landing on a plane. This is truly an eye-opener for many immigrants and therefore, is the period where emotions may be at its worst. And by the way, the ice cream is not gone.

For people who have struggled in their own countries due to war or instability, their mind could   unintentionally be evoking their past. Therefore, their previous struggles, along with their traumatic experiences, may start to flourish in their lives. Not that they are hoping to relive these experiences, but rather, they sneak up on anyone, producing pain and social-emotional distress. There is this period of transition, of getting used to the new normal in life. There is only time to accept what is in front of one and go forward. However, missing family and extended family, along with friends and a way of life becomes inevitable. This is the part of the curve in which I would like to spend more time. That is, while the student suffers as they navigate this downward slope, the amount of support would need to increase to better support them.

The settled phase is the one where the student has a good sense of belonging. This is the part of the curve where there is integration, growth, and progress. It is also the part where the student is an active contributor to his classroom and school environment. This is the part of the curve where we as educators want our students to be. This is also the part where the student may succeed. It can also be the part of settlement where you actually feel Canadian and/or important. You also realize that there is much that you can offer to your community. You are the expert representing your country and are willing to share your knowledge with the world. You can buy your own ice cream too!

All humans require human contact

Dr. Jean Clinton (Medical Doctor) authored a book entitled Love Builds Brains, in which she discusses how positive relationships with children help them grow emotionally. One of her main statements is “all humans require human contact” (Clinton, 2020) which is in fact a statement that can easily be applied to newcomers and/or ELLS. Under this premise, as educators, we need to constantly seek to make connections with our students. This also becomes of greater significance for an ELL, especially when a teacher desires to make positive connections and subsequently engage his newcomers in daily classroom activities, discussions, social games, and henceforth, learning. Therefore, the fact of making connections may be the difference for a child who has been lacking any human connection as he had to flee his country due to war. In fact, he may not have had any positive human connection that might help him learn. Imagine how much more effect this may have on his life and learning!

Not all newcomers and/or ELLs come with a difficult background. However, what we do know is that most immigrants leave their country due to political turmoil, war, a better education, a safer place, a job opportunity, to be with extended family, or a better future. In fact, in a survey that I presented to newcomers, most of them had mentioned one of the above-mentioned reasons. Moreover, my family came to Canada because of terrorism in Peru in the 80s. The same survey was given to teachers and without surprise, they also indicated similar reasons. Therefore, it is not new information that people leave their beloved country to seek a better and safer life overseas. Nevertheless, what this means is that all immigrants must sacrifice their ways of life, local land, changes in the weather they were familiar with, language, culture, and even habits. Even if a person decides to move to a part of a city in North America where they are represented, there will still be challenges that arise due to the assimilation of both cultures. Take for example the Peruvian community in Toronto. Though this is a smaller population compared to the Chinese community in Toronto, all Peruvians living in Toronto would have to get used to the rules, regulations, weather, and all changes related to Canada. This will also apply to any other subculture available in North America. In other words, as an immigrant and a Peruvian, I would have to get used to the Canadian way of life even though my family continued to carry on our cultural and moral values. Hence, all newcomers, regardless of where they choose to live in their new country, will have to undergo a process of adaptation and assimilation into their new country.

There are different third-party support groups that will help the process of adaptation for a newcomer. It is important to find them and provide their help to all newcomers. If the student and/or family has undergone any type of trauma, then any support that could be provided to the family is fundamental. Therefore, as educators, we need to find out what social-emotional support is required, in addition to being readily available for our newcomers. In 2016, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) proposed a plan to best support all learners specifically with math. Though this article does not focus on math strategies, it is critical to point out that in this plan, the HWDSB placed the well-being of the learner as the core of its plan. In other words, the HWDSB recognized (and continues to recognize) the importance of taking care of the well-being of the student when teaching academics. This is also important when teaching and welcoming newcomers into our classroom, school environment and community.

How to support newcomers

If we believe in the notion presented by Dr. Clinton that “all humans require human contact,” then we, as educators, would want to seek opportunities to connect with our students, in and outside of the classroom. Additionally, considering the settlement curve, it is important therefore, to talk about the different strategies available in supporting newcomers adapt in their new Canadian identity whilst learning English. Most teachers would agree that newcomers will require support to feel welcome and included and consequently to facilitate learning. Here are some suggestions to help an ELL feel part of a classroom family, take part (depending on their social character and linguistic level), and extend their learning experience. Keeping in mind the downward slope of the settlement curve, a teacher may need to quickly implement any support to their newcomers, with the idea of helping them during the toughest moment of the curve. In fact, in his book, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson indicates that with love, encouragement and character intact, a person can be resilient beyond imagining (Chapter 8). Hence, with the right support during a much difficult stage in life, a newcomer might be able to rise above the waters, an ELL might be able to feel safe, included and finally, learn.

Make connections 

All newcomers are hoping to make friends, especially after leaving behind their valued friends. It may not be known what kinds of friendship each person is seeking, but we can safely speculate that a loyal friend may be able to help during challenging times. No human being would like to feel alone or desolate, especially if he cannot navigate the system independently. Furthermore, a newcomer would be required to learn English, the Canadian culture and way of life, respect the rules, and satisfy the requirement of being successful. Making connections immediately may ease off the pressures that a newcomer may be feeling. There was a case of a young ELL who came to Canada after having lived in a refugee camp after leaving his homeland. This student who I will call John, was 9-years-old and was born in South Africa, but when he was 5-years-old, his mom decided to flee their country due to the corruption and violence that his mom endured. Having worked for a foreign agency that monitored the quality of medical services in her country, she was asked to use the funds in a way that would have benefited a select group which included a mafia group. After her refusal to cooperate, she started receiving death threats, which made her flee her country. At that point she only left with John and the other 3 minors, given that John’s father decided to stay in their land. The family settled in a nearby country and was granted temporary asylum. After staying in this country for close to 4 years, she and her family flew to Canada where they were given permanent residence. However, prior to coming to Canada, she was served with divorce papers from her husband who sought the opportunity to stay in South Africa with his new family that John, his siblings, and his own mother, did not know about. Additionally, a few months prior to leaving for Canada, John’s older brother died in a nearby hospital. John’s family did not feel that they had enough time to cope with the loss of their family member and the news of his father having another family. Furthermore, John’s mom mentioned that though John attended school, he suffered many racist acts from the locally-born people. His mom also added that she learned not to question or raise any concerns while living in this nearby country, which she did not want to name. She knew that there were racist acts against any foreigners even if they all looked the same, as she pointed to her dark-pigmented skin. After arriving in Canada, John’s new teacher noticed some learning issues with John and asked specific information about his academic history. Knowing all his prior familial issues, the ESL teacher told the classroom teacher that John had not been granted a good education and was taught to never question anything. She also told the homeroom teacher about all the suffering that he and his family had endured. She also added that John had never had any formal English lessons and if he was already able to carry out a conversation, it was by his own merit and using YouTube and social media as his means of learning English. After hearing this information, John’s teacher left the room crying and with a new perspective about her newcomer. She then decided to connect John with other children in her room and kept an open-door policy with him, so that he may be able to approach her for any questions that the young boy might have. She encouraged him to ask whenever possible and to take part in all types of classroom discussions. Though she could not fathom losing a child or being a refugee, she tried her best to make connections with her new student.

After-school opportunities 

Students can join activities that usually run after school. From baseball to soccer, and from the chess club to the student council, these are activities that any newcomer can be involved in to feel part of the school community. There are benefits for joining these co-curricular and/or extra-curricular activities, which are to help learn English outside of a regular classroom setting. Furthermore, it promotes working with a group and comradery and allows students to use other skills, encourages a greater sense of belonging, and allows for a stronger teacher-student bond extending outside the classroom. As a former volleyball coach, I would reap the benefits of coaching students, and these benefits would be seen in the day-to-day classroom operations. In fact, students would give me their best in the classroom when I coached them outside of the classroom. There was more work being done and less time wasted. Additionally, students would treat me with more respect when they realized that I genuinely cared for their wellbeing. Hence, after-school activities are a terrific way to help newcomers become part of the school community.

Providing opportunities to serve others 

When I was an ESL/ELD teacher, I had the opportunity to teach a group of 10 students who lived in a refugee camp in distinct parts of the world. Some of them came from Syria, while others from Nigeria or Thailand. Though all the learners had a diverse background, they all showed an enormous potential to learn. Coincidently, my classroom was taken away from me and a new environment for teaching was provided: the school kitchen. This new educational setting could have been seen as a major disadvantage given that there were many interruptions throughout the day. However, it was also an opportunity to work on our attention and focus on the task at hand and be able to use the kitchen for cooking purposes. The school ran a healthy snack program, and most of the donated items such as cheese, eggs, bread, bananas, strawberries, and other berries, were in the kitchen. This meant that my own students could partake in the management of the food by cleaning the snack bins, separating enough food for each class, distributing the bins to the classrooms, and then collecting the empty bins at the end of the day. It also meant that we, as a class, could use the leftover food (and we did). However, for the benefit of the school, particularly our neighboring classes, we would use eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, and wraps or breads to make smoothies, fruit shakes, and sandwiches. We would then eat what my students cooked and share the food with many different classes. It was a fantastic way to serve others. In fact, my students looked forward to the beginning and end of the day to help, and to the end of the week to create delicious and healthy foods. Much learning was experienced, which also included learning vocabulary through reading and following recipes, expanding their oral language skills, and learning how to cook. It was noted that the more the students felt useful (in the service to other children), the more they felt a sense of belonging.

Open-door policy 

 As an ESL and grade 8 teacher, I had the pleasure of being visited by former students. I often noted the need that these newcomers had, especially as they graduated from the elementary school where I taught. I began recognizing their needs to be heard and be given advice, and for this reason, I had student graduates come back to visit after school. Each student who decided to visit me at their former school would share their new experiences and ask for advice. I noticed that they needed to be heard. Some of them, whom I had coached in volleyball, would ask me if we could continue playing volleyball. Therefore, we established (with the principal’s permission) after school volleyball games on Fridays for former students and staff. We ran this after school volleyball program for a few years, and I noticed that the group would get bigger, given that more students would have graduated and come back to play. I also noticed that the idea of having a caring adult who would provide an opportunity to being heard was enough to help these immigrant children feel part of the community. In fact, several years after leaving this elementary school, my family and I were walking in a park close to home. We noticed that there was a volleyball tournament that extended in the flat and manicured turf with at least 4 to 5 different courts operating games. As we passed by, enjoying watching the kids play, a young adult who would have been closer to his 30s approached me and gave me a bear hug. I rapidly turned to face him and recognized his baby face, and his name came to me faster than I could have ever thought. He greeted me with a smile and yet another hug and asked me why I had left my previous teaching location, showing the fact that he missed me being a mentor and volleyball coach. I replied with “Well, you found me! And now you know where I walk every day.” When I was teaching at that school, I did not notice the impact that having an open-door policy for all students had on them. I had to leave this place and find out several years later.

The settlement curve shows a roller coaster of emotions, and if an educator recognizes the important need to support an ELL, and does so promptly, then the student will benefit. It is not to say that a teacher would be able to erase the settlement challenges, but rather that the teacher may be able to understand the emotional needs and the reason the student may behave in a negative way. As a newcomer, I would have loved to have a teacher help me understand the Canadian culture, way of living, rules, in addition to learning the language, in a way where I would feel welcome and accepted.

Using culturally relevant resources 

There are many novels written by immigrants that depict the challenges that newcomers have. I find it important to use these novels in the classroom to raise awareness, to incorporate other cultures, and to show the struggles that an immigrant may have to endure prior to coming to Canada. As a teacher, I would use different novels such as A Long Walk to Water (2011) written by Linda Sue Park, Refugee (2017) by Alan Gratz and my book, Our Silent Journey (2020), with the intention of helping my class see and understand the struggles that many of their peers had. On one specific occasion, I was reading a novel about the diaspora of the Southern Sudanese people due to attacks from a militia group from Northern Sudan.  Without going into too many details, I remember reading the part of the book where many young Sudanese children walked hundreds of miles to a nearby country seeking refuge. As I was pronouncing those words from the novel, a student raised his hand asking permission to participate. I gave him the opportunity to speak, and he said: “Sir, that was me and my family.” Though I understood what he was referring to, I asked him to clarify what he was saying, and he did: “Teacher, my family and village were attacked. I was a small child. My family and I had to flee the village for our lives. Then we walked hundreds of miles to Kenya seeking a refugee camp that might take us in for safety. Just like us, tons of people left our villages but many more did not make it from the horrendous attack that violently removed us from our home.” I remember shutting the book, as the entire class, including myself, sat quietly listening to every word; asking questions only when the time was right and being 100% committed to listening to this student’s journey. At the end of the lesson, there was not one dry eye in the class, and my Canadian students mentioned that this peer of his was a champion and a warrior. They all commended him and never looked at him in a negative way. As for that student, he was able to share his story (whatever he wanted to share) and give thanks for being a new Canadian.

Our Silent Journey is the story of my family told from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy named Martin, who comes to Canada with his mom and sister to reunite with his father who sought out a better life for his family. His father had sacrificed his lifestyle and career in Peru for the wellbeing of his family. It is known from the beginning of that story that Peru was under attack by a terrorist group called Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path). Martin’s family had been targeted several times. Therefore, his father decided to travel the Americas with the idea to land in the United States of America, to provide a safe future for his family. The story takes a journey from the past to the present and takes place in both Lima, Peru and in Mississauga, Ontario in the middle of winter. Being only 11-years-old, Martin struggles to make friends. Most of the time, he is quiet and alone, often thinking about his past, his country, and his beloved relatives and friends in Peru. It seems that every time he faces an obstacle, his mind takes him back to warm memories. It is not until the arrival of his ESL teacher that Martin starts to feel understood and not criticized, included not isolated, and an active member of his school community, not a troublemaker who does not show the will to learn. It was precisely when his ESL teacher came to help him and meet him at his level, when learning finally began – when he felt safe to learn and participate. Though his pain from the past did not go away, he was able to look beyond and focus on what lied ahead.


It is no secret that when a person realizes that the outcome is greater than the fears associated to the goal, they will pursue that specific dream. When the individual realizes that the goal is tangible, this is when we see growth, both emotionally and academically. For this reason, it is crucial to continue supporting our newcomers while learning the language, and as they feel established in the school community, and henceforth, become a contributing member of society.

Canada continues to open its borders to thousands of newcomers. People who have endured several obstacles, crime, and have even lost a loved one. There are immigrants that are willing to come to Canada and embrace its culture and way of living. Many more stand waiting for a miracle. That is, the opportunity to come to Canada. Our school systems are trying to meet the academic and social needs of our ELLs. Moreover, some schools are welcoming students who do not speak English for the first time, and these students are coming in large numbers. School boards are trying their best to build capacity among their educators to help newcomers feel welcome, safe, and included. Government groups and academic organizations such as East-York and Scarborough Reading are incorporating meaningful sessions to help educators learn how to support newcomers. There is no secret that in helping newcomers feel safe and integrated into the community and becoming contributing members, the entire society profits. The same goes for a school where its teachers take time to build a positive and safe environment for their newcomers. As an immigrant and former newcomer (I have been in Canada for more than 30 years), I am passionate about discussing the many ways to help all newcomers, especially as they realize that there is no more ice cream in their freezer.




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Park, L. S. (2020). A long walk to water: Based on a true story. Thorndike Press.

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Statistics Canada. (2022). Immigrants make up the largest share of the population in over 150 years and continue to shape who we are as Canadians. The Daily. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/221026/dq221026a-eng.htm

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Author Bio

Ricardo Marroquin is a professor for Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario and the assessor for the Hamilton-Wentworth School Board. He is also an author and has written 3 novels, which include Our Silent Journey, Memoirs of an Inner-City Teacher and El sobrino de las tías (Spanish). Furthermore, in Our Silent Journey, he advocates for newcomers by sharing a common story in which immigrants might see themselves.


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