If possible, talk with your ELL families about students’ previous educational experience and levels of reading and writing in the student’s home language. Keep in mind that educational background may vary widely and some students may have experienced interrupted schooling.


ELL teacher Michelle Lawrence Biggar: Supporting students with interrupted schooling

More Resources

10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners

10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners

High school student talking wtih classmate

If you have English language learners (ELLs) in your class, you may have questions about how best to teach and support them. Learning about ELLs — their strengths, challenges, and background experiences — is a critical step that can help you respond with the right support and instruction. Find out how to get started with these ideas!

If you have English language learners (ELLs) in your class, you may have questions about how best to teach and support them, especially if they’re struggling. You already understand the importance of getting to know your students. But learning about ELLs — their strengths, challenges, and background experiences — is especially important. Knowing these things will help you respond with the right support.

Read on to learn about the most important information to gather. Then, use this printable form from SupportEd to write down the information you learn all in one place.

Personal and Family Information

1. Student’s Name

The first piece of information to gather is the correct spelling and pronunciation of a student’s name. You can do this at the beginning of the school year by asking all students and their families for their formal name and the name they prefer to be called in school.

Keep in mind:

  • In Spanish-speaking countries, children may have two given names and the surname of the father and mother. Or the family may choose to use just the mother’s names or father’s names. Keep this in mind when you use students’ names in the classroom or see the names on forms. For instance, a child whose name is Juan Carlos would not be called “Juan.”
  • Parents may use different spellings of English names, like Jhonny or Yessica. Use those names exactly as they’re spelled and refrain from assigning a new, “American” name to a student on a form or in conversation.

With this information, you can make sure that forms and records from your school’s front office include the right spelling, punctuation, and order of the students’ names. Why is this so important? According to research, incorrect entries can lead to multiple entries for a student in a database. This makes it more likely for students to have incomplete records. That can impact a student’s eligibility for services such as English language or special education.

Just as important, pronouncing a student’s name correctly is a point of pride. It affirms the student’s identity. This set of naming conventions guides for multiple languages can help you. Plus, learn more about strategies for getting students’ names right.

2. Country of Birth

Knowing where your students were born can give you important information about them as learners, including:

  • Providing clues about what kinds of situations the student has experienced
  • Sparking ideas for making the student feel welcome
  • Making culturally responsive connections between students and classroom content

At the same time, it’s equally as important not to make assumptions about a student based on country of origin. In particular, avoid assumptions about a student’s religion, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or cultural affiliation. Each family’s situation is unique.

Many students and families will happily provide that information. They may welcome the chance to share information about their home countries. Others may be more reluctant to discuss this if they have endured trauma or if they are concerned about immigration issues.

If you have a relationship with the family, you may feel comfortable asking this question. You can explain that you’d like to get to know them better to support their child. Make clear that they don’t have to answer questions they don’t feel comfortable with.

If you don’t know the family well, keep in mind that asking where someone comes from can be off-putting. It might send the message that they don’t belong here. In this case, you can ask your school’s family liaison or English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher whether they know the student’s country of origin.

Remember: Never ask students about their immigration status. All students have the right to a free, public K–12 education, regardless of their immigration status, that of their parents, or where they were born.

3. Family Background

Who your students live with, what languages their caregivers speak, and any possible instance of family separation can be sensitive and difficult information to gather. However, knowing these facts can also provide insights on a student’s social-emotional health and progress toward meeting developmental milestones.

Start by speaking with a family liaison or counselor (ideally one who has established relationships with families of ELLs) if you have questions about this information. Keep an eye out for clues that indicate changes in a student’s living situation, such as a change in routine or indications of food insecurity, a lack of daily care, absenteeism, excessive tiredness, or the need for medical care.

4. Home Language

When students’ families fill out forms to register for school, they’re typically asked to complete a home language survey. Your school or district may have its own policy for how that information is stored and who can access it. (You can learn more about these home language surveys and view a sample survey from the English Learner Tool Kit from the U.S. Department of Education.)

The home language survey may only ask about the student’s primary language. In that case, you may want to ask students and families for additional information, including:

  • Whether the student speaks multiple languages and which languages are spoken
  • What language(s) the student and family use at home and with whom
  • At what age the student started speaking the home language
  • Whether they want their child to maintain and grow their home language

You can use this information to learn more about a student’s linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Keep in mind that some families’ number-one priority may be that their children learn English. But you can gently share some information about the benefits of being bilingual as time goes on.


Academic and Language Skills

5. Educational Experiences

It’s important to know how much time your English language learners have spent in U.S. schools, what their educational experiences were in their home country (if not the United States), and if there were any interruptions in their schooling. You may be able to find out this information from your school’s family interview or home language survey.

Refugees or students with interrupted schooling may have big gaps in educational skills or content knowledge. Migrant students may have moved frequently from school to school with limited record-keeping. (Students from military families encounter similar challenges.) These gaps should be taken into consideration when reviewing their data.

Yet ELLs, including those with gaps in their education, bring important experiences and background knowledge to the classroom. Identifying those “funds of knowledge” is an excellent way to build rapport, increase student engagement, and identify their strengths.

6. Reading and Writing Skills in Home Language

Your school district may conduct a family interview when an ELL first enrolls in your school. A person who speaks the family’s first language will typically be part of that interview. Interviewers usually ask the family about the student’s ability to read and write in the home language. Your school’s ESL teacher may be present for the interview and able to share this information.

One informal way to get a better sense of your student’s home language literacy is by providing a picture prompt. Ask the student to write a story based on the prompt. Invite your school’s ESL teacher or a bilingual staff member to help you read the student’s writing. In the process, the student will create an artifact that you can refer to if a special education referral is later needed. This will help you determine if the student can write in the home language, and if those writing skills seem to correspond with the number of years of schooling.

You may also wish to ask the student’s family questions about literacy activities at home, such as:

  • Does the child have a favorite book?
  • Does the child read the book or is the book read to her or him? In what languages?
  • Does the child talk about what happens in the book?

These questions provide insight into the print-rich environment at home and typical vocabulary-rich experiences that can be used in the classroom.

7. English Language Proficiency (ELP) Level

English language learners must develop proficiency in the four domains of language: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. Every state has its own set of English language proficiency (ELP) standards and assessments. The standards describe what a student should be able to do in English in each of the four domains and at each level of English proficiency.

Remember that most of the time, schools only measure how much English the students know—not how literate they are in their native language. Some students will come fully literate in their native language, while others may come with limited literacy skills or interrupted formal education.

You can learn more about the standards used in your state from Colorín Colorado’s ELL Resources by State guide. The names of these levels will vary depending on your state but will look something like this, moving from most basic to most advanced:

  • Starting/Beginning/Entering
  • Emerging
  • Developing
  • Expanding
  • Bridging
  • Reaching

Talk with your school’s ESL teacher to find out your English language learner’s level of proficiency. Then, collaborate with that teacher to find out ways to support your students at their level of language proficiency.

8. English Language Proficiency Scores

English language learners typically take two types of assessments. These are aligned to a state’s ELP standards:

  • Screener assessments: A “screener” is an assessment tool that helps to determine whether a student is eligible for English language development services. It usually includes both an oral component and a literacy component. But it may also include assessments of all four domains of language. Students can take the assessment online or on paper at any time of the school year.
  • Annual English language proficiency (ELP) assessments: Federal law requires all ELLs in grades 1–12 to take an annual assessment of English proficiency in the four domains of language. This assessment is used to determine what language services they’ll receive and at what level. These assessments are often given during a specific window of time determined at the district level.

Work with your school’s ESL teacher to access and interpret the results.

  • Look at the composite (total) score of the annual ELP assessment. This will tell you how the student performed across all four domains.
  • Analyze how the scores compare across the four domains. There may be some differences. Perhaps the student is stronger in comprehension (reading and listening) than expression (speaking and writing). This data can be powerful information for planning lessons. It can also help you understand why a student might be struggling in a content area. ESL teachers have many strategies you can use to target instruction in each of these areas.

Strengths and Interests

9. Student Interests

Getting to know students’ interests is one of the most important ways to fuel your connection with students and inform your instruction. You can learn about student interests by asking students and families to complete these questionnaires (either in writing or in conversation), available in both English and Spanish.

For students with limited English and/or students who have learning and thinking differences, make time to meet with them individually. Allow them to share information about themselves by showing photos, drawing pictures, sharing in their first language, or sitting together and sharing a snack.

10. Plans or Goals

Ask your students and their families their plans or goals for the future. Without knowing those goals, you won’t be able to help students achieve them. Provide encouragement and maintain a positive attitude. ELLs and immigrant students—including those who learn and think differently—can thrive when they receive support from their teachers.

Use these sentence starters as prompts, making sure to allow students and families multiple means to express themselves. For instance, some students and families may prefer to speak than to write. Other students may prefer to draw.

  • By the end of the year, I want to _____.
  • After I finish high school, I want to _____.

The Benefits of Information Collection

It may seem like a lot of work to gather this information about a student, but you just have to do it once. You can also share information you learn with colleagues and even pass it on to the student’s teachers the following school year.

The benefits can pay off throughout the school year for you and, most importantly, for the student. This information can also give you a more complete picture of the students to help inform conversations if they struggle with academics or behavior. Together with your colleagues, you can develop a shared understanding of how best to support the ELLs in your classroom.


This article originally appeared on Understood as part of a partnership between Colorín Colorado and Understood. ©2019 Understood For All, Inc.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

How to Support ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs)

How to Support ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs)

Girl in headscarf looking at board

This article provides a profile of students with interrupted formal education, their strengths and needs, recommendations of best practices, and examples of different kinds of support that will accelerate their academic achievement.


Another related term that educators may see is "Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education" (SLIFEs).

When immigrant students enroll in a new school, their prior educational experiences may vary widely. Students who have not had an opportunity to attend school or have had multiple interruptions in their education are commonly referred to as "Students with Interrupted Education" (SIFEs).

While educating students with interrupted education may seem daunting, they bring numerous talents and strengths to their new schools and communities. And they can indeed obtain a high school diploma with the right kind of support and go on to future academic and professional success.

In fact, each spring, we read about SIFEs who are at the top of their class or who have been chosen to give a commencement speech, such as Juliane Lukambo, who spent her early years in a refugee camp before coming to the U.S. and graduating as class valedictorian. And, in this video clip, Canadian ELL expert Paula Markus talks about a special Somali student who had also been in a refugee camp before arriving in her classroom. Today, the world knows him as the artist K'naan.

This article provides a profile of SIFEs and their needs, recommendations of best practices, and examples of the kinds of quality support and resources that will accelerate their academic achievement.

A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office

Norieah Ahmed, the Child Accounting Secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school from the moment they walk in the door.

Who are SIFEs?

While there are some general characteristics that SIFEs share, students' situations will vary widely:

  • Some SIFEs may be refugees fleeing violence or conflicts, while others may have had interrupted schooling due to poverty, migration, or crises such as natural disasters.
  • Some SIFEs may have had no schooling, while others may have had some education or long gaps in their education.
  • Many are English language learners (ELLs), but some may come from countries where English is a primary language.
  • Students who come from the same country and speak the same language may have had vastly different experiences related to schooling.

For this reason, it is crucial to learn about each individual student in order to identify their strengths and needs. You can learn more about specific characteristics in the articles below. And you read more about how different states define SIFEs from this data map.

Related resources

Where do SIFEs come from?

SIFEs may come from countries where poverty, disaster, and civil unrest affect the development of literacy and opportunities for education. According to UNESCO, the number of children missing out on any schooling now numbers 250 million, according to figures released in 2023.

Students may also come from countries where persecution or strict rules about gender, social class, or ethnicity prevented them from attending school. Girls in many nations still don't have equal access to education, which is particularly concerning in nations where girls can only attend classes taught by women. UNICEF estimates that 129 million girls are out of school worldwide.

In addition, SIFEs may have been born or raised in a developed nation but in impoverished circumstances that affect their family's stability. For example, many migrant workers in the U.S. move frequently based on agricultural seasons, and as a result their children move from one to school to another, making it nearly impossible for children to stay caught up with their peers.

What are SIFEs' strengths?

It's critical to identify SIFEs' strengths and talents, as well as the value of their unique perspectives and life experiences. These strengths make include resilience, resourcefulness and responsibility, as well as their multilingual skills, which they may be using to translate for their families. Starting with an asset-based perspective can make an important difference helping students get settled. In addition, it can provide more opportunities to connect content and learning opportunities to students' background knowledge. You can find additional ideas in Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress.

Principal Nathaniel Provencio: The gifts that ELLs bring to school

Principal Nathaniel Provencio talks about some of the gifts that ELLs bring to schools, including multilingualism and emotional intelligence.

Enrolling SIFEs

It's important to ensure that all staff working with SIFEs understand the following:

  • K-12 students in the United States have the legal right to enroll in a public school, regardless of their immigration status or that of their caretakers and family members.
  • Families have a legal right to enroll their children in school in the maximum age set by each state even if they have recently arrived in the country and even if they do not have documents like birth certificates.
  • Many families may be living in shelters or in unstable housing; these students may have additional rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.


What do SIFEs need?

When students who have grown up with little or no education experience enroll in U.S. schools, they have much more to learn than a new language; in order to be fully functional at school, they need to learn how to:

  • read and write
  • complete assignments and follow instructions
  • use school supplies
  • follow a school schedule
  • take the bus
  • interact with students from different cultures
  • participate in school activities

All of this is happening while they adjust to a new country and new social norms and possibly take on family responsibilities such as working, caring for younger siblings, or doing a significant share of housework. They also may have experienced trauma and need mental health support or additional social and emotional support.

Older siblings' responsibilities during family separation

Teacher Diana Alqadhi discusses the responsibilities her students have when caring for younger siblings during extended family separations.

What makes SIFEs' needs unique?

While needs of the SIFE population may overlap with those of ELLs in some ways, SIFEs are likely to need additional support and instruction. In an article adapted from their book about SIFEs, Brenda Custodio and Judith B. O'Loughlin write, "Students with interrupted education need specialized programming and assistance, above and beyond what is normally provided to ELLs."

They continue, "This belief is supported in a recent statement from WIDA...about SIFE: 'Students with this background often need their emotional, psychological, and physiological needs to be met before they are able to engage fully in the educational setting.'"

Social and emotional factors impacting SIFEs may include:

1. Stress and trauma: SIFEs may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, may be under severe distress, or may be completely overwhelmed by the need to assimilate to a new school environment in a new language. In addition, some SIFEs may have traveled her as unaccompanied minors, alone or carrying for younger relatives, and may be reuniting with family members they have not seen for a long time or have never met.

2. Frustration: A SIFE may be very excited to finally attend school regularly, and may have high hopes for his ability to work and support his family; however, the discovery that he is in fact far behind his peers can be a source of great frustration. Even as he makes great academic progress throughout the year, he is still chasing a moving target because English-speaking, grade-level peers are continuing to learn as well, and the realization that meeting his goals will be harder than expected may be devastating.

3. High risk of dropping out: SIFEs are considered to have a high risk for dropping out of high school given the precarious nature of their relationship with school.

While these reasons present numerous challenges to school educators and administrators, students with limited or interrupted schooling can succeed if their school makes a commitment to help them achieve that goal. The following lists of suggestions offer some ideas that educators can implement to support SIFEs throughout the school and in the classroom.

Principal Susan Stanley describes how creating a calm and safe environment helps students and staff alike, especially in a school where many students have experienced trauma.

10 Ideas for Teaching SIFEs

Here are some things you can do in your classroom to support SIFEs:

1. Activate prior knowledge.

Once you know what prior information your students have, you can link new information to what they already understand. Not only can this stimulate student motivation, but it can also determine where to start instruction as well as lay out the next steps. Some strategies include: word associations, wordsplash relationships, KWL charts, and anticipation guides.

2. Provide a print rich environment.

Cover your walls with lots of visuals that correspond to text (maps, charts, signs, posters with motivational phrases, the alphabet in print and script, etc.). Include appropriate texts that are written at a basic reading level, high interest/low ability books, native language materials, and bilingual glossaries.

3. Engage students in hands-on learning so students are physically involved.

Have students write, illustrate, and record their own books, let them create their own picture dictionaries and flash cards, incorporate drama to act out events and stories, use interactive activities on a SMARTBoard, use manipulatives, reciprocal teaching, and teach to the multiple intelligences. In addition, look for ways to include and support SIFEs in project-based learning.

4. Keep the amount of new vocabulary in control.

When using new vocabulary or explaining new concepts, you may need to rephrase, define in context, and simplify your explanation so as not to confuse students. Limit your sentence length, but don't patronize students by raising your voice as if they were hard of hearing. Instead, use intonation and pauses for emphasis.

5. Give frequent checks for communication.

Try to avoid Yes/No answers. Instead, ask that students summarize what they understood. Increase your wait time, because students will need extra time to process your question, think of the answer, they find the words they need in English.

6. When assessing understanding, be open-minded.

Provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding (instead of writing: explain, act out, discuss, defend, draw, compare, predict, etc.). Emphasize formative assessment versus evaluative assessment and individualize what you ask students to do.

7. Allow students to work in cooperative groups.

There are a number of ways to support peer learning. Remember to teach the necessary social skills they need to interact productively with one another. Forming skills such as getting into groups, taking turns, and encouraging one another provide the foundation for higher-order thinking in collaborative groups.

8. If possible, build the native language content and literacy instruction in order to build on English.

Use of graphic organizers is very helpful to make learning visual and incorporate thinking skills, and can be done without any writing. Use reading logs and journals to incorporate reading and writing.

9. Use teaching strategies that weave together language and content instruction, such as the SIOP model (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol).

Often when SIFE student enroll in a U.S. school, the gaps in their educational record lead to them being placed in remedial courses. While this kind of instruction may be necessary or helpful for some students, native-language instruction and sheltered instruction may provide a viable alternative to remedial instruction (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, p.13).

Look for ways to relate material to students' prior knowledge and experience, and start with the concrete before building up to the abstract. What they don't have you can try to create for them through visuals or by using technology. In addition, teach students learning strategies that they can use in the future. These strategies may include how to recognize cognates, looking for the heading of a chapter in pre-reading exercises, using a dictionary, or how to take effective notes (p. 28). Remember that SIFEs haven't learned the basic skills that many students have learned at a young age, and may have no background knowledge in the areas that you expect them to have learned.

10. Provide intensive literacy/language instruction.

SIFEs will need explicit instruction in literacy skills in an age-appropriate manner, access to literacy-rich environments and print materials, and unified language and content instruction (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, p.30). SIFEs may also benefit from increased time in language development or ESL courses, particularly if the class sizes are small.

11. Use culturally and linguistically responsive instruction.

Consider how you might make your instruction more culturally and linguistically responsive to reflect students' home cultures and languages. That might mean tying content to students' background knowledge or prior experiences, posting some signs in students' languages with welcoming or useful phrases, and inviting students’ to share their culture with the class.

12. Keep your expectations realistic at the beginning of the year.

Raise your expectations up as students reach them and keep them high enough that students will stretch to reach for them, but not too high that they give up. If you expect success from your students, supply them with the necessary tools, remain optimistic, and offer to help as they need it, they will gain the self-confidence to be successful.

For additional ideas, see WIDA's Focus Bulletin on SLIFEs.

Why Collaboration Matters

A collaborative instructional model reinforces student learning and accelerates SIFEs' academic progress. For elementary-level teachers this may come more easily since classroom teachers are responsible for more than one subject, and they often work collaboratively in grade-level teams. For secondary-level teachers this may be more challenging and may require a review of the instructional system, curriculum and content, school resources, and teacher planning schedules (Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education, p.1).

In the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition's Interrupted Formal Schooling Toolkit, DiCerbo and Loop write,

Schools that are prepared to meet the needs of students with interrupted formal education do not require classroom teachers or individual resource teachers to take on these responsibilities alone. Instead, administrators, counselors, classroom teachers and resource teachers need to work together to ensure that the students and their families have the necessary information needed to provide school supplies, documentation for meal programs, and other requisites for assimilation. Working together to create a climate of acceptance and accountability ensures that the student's academic success is secured on many levels. (2003)

Regardless of how the collaboration is done or at what grade level, the important thing for teachers to keep in mind is how to continually reinforce new concepts and language in academic instruction and integrate concepts across content areas and language/literacy classes. For example, if students are learning about aquatic life in science, the math teacher can teach mathematical examples that reinforce the scientific concepts while applying math skills, and the language arts teacher can review the language structures and vocabulary used in the math problems and science lessons being taught. Teachers who collaborate have the opportunity to be intentional about the academic language and skills they want students to learn and practice, and they will begin to make connections across content areas to reinforce learning.

Eight Ideas for Providing School-Wide Support to SIFEs

Schools can support SIFEs in a number of ways. The ability to implement these measures will vary greatly by school and district, as well as by the involvement and investment by administrators, teachers, counselors, and staff. Consider reviewing these ideas with your colleagues to see which suggestions may be viable options in your school.

1. Ensure that all chool-wide staff understand SIFEs' unique experiences and needs.

An educational environment that is supportive of SIFEs will have staff members who are well-educated on the needs and backgrounds of their students, and highly attuned to the emotional strain these students may experience as they adjust to a new country, language, and customs. Students may be facing complex identity issues, culture shock, and a sense of loss of having left their home behind, particularly if they didn't want to move to a new country (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, 2004, p.12). It's also important for staff to understand students' legal rights access a public K-12 education, detailed in Immigrant Students' Legal Rights: An Overview.

A supportive environment is often created by one or more of the following:

  1. bilingual/bicultural staff from the students' home country
  2. a teaching staff highly trained in cross-cultural communication, the cultural and historical backgrounds of the students, and instructional methods that are designed to accelerate the academic achievement of SIFEs.
  3. student and parent access to support services (ideally in the family's native language) provided by counselors, tutors, mentors, and parent coordinators. (Walsh, 1991, as cited in Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education, p. 10)
  4. a buddy system with peers or classmates who can show students around and help them adjust to the daily schedule (p.4)

2. Parter with community organizations to provide social and emotional support.

Community resources can be a very powerful tool in meeting the needs of SIFEs. SIFEs will benefit greatly from contacts with community resources such as after-school tutoring, job programs, and ethnically/linguistically based community groups. In addition, schools can connect students and families with basic need and services related to health, wellness, housing, food and clothing security, employment services or other areas that can help with resettlement and acclimation in a new community.

Isolation and discouragement can be two negative and powerful influences on a SIFE student's education. The more SIFEs feel connected and supported, the more likely they will be to rebound from health, economic, or cultural challenges. A Newcomer Center is often well-connected with such community resources and likely offers community organization services on-site to the students.

3. Look for ways to address students’ trauma and stress.

SIFEs may have experienced (and may still be experiencing) trauma, stress, hardship, family separation and other daunting challenges. In order to maximize students' access to mental health support:

  • Make sure that students and families are aware of any counseling and mental health services that are available.
  • If language access is a barrier, work with administrators to find ways to help families access support in their home languages.
  • Work with family liaisons or community members to come up with some culturally responsive practices to support families' well-being.

If counseling itself isn't something that families feel comfortable with, talk about other ideas that might be more effective, including supports that are available in group settings. In addition, talk with administrators about whether more staff need training in trauma-informed practice and how to accomplish that training if so.

4. Keep in mind that students may have significant responsibilities outside of school.

These responsibilities might include caretaking, jobs, or translating for family members. One way to help students manage multiple obligations is through flexible scheduling, which can help support the real needs and obligations of high school immigrants (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, 2004, p.11). A flexible schedule allows students with interrupted schooling the opportunity to balance home and school responsibilities, a chance to spend extra time in school to accelerate learning, and the opportunity to keep working while attending school. Many SIFEs come to the U.S. with the goal of working and financially supporting their families (p.13). Without an education or fluency in English, students may not have a lot of choice as to what kind of job they find or the hours they work. It is common for SIFEs to have to work very late hours or two jobs, and this becomes a barrier to education due to fatigue and conflict with the school schedule.

If there comes a point in which the students cannot both work and attend school, they may choose to drop out of school in favor of working without realizing that "the educational sacrifices made for short-term financial gain tend to lead to limited long-term financial success." (p.13) Schools that can offer "non-traditional" school hours, such as afternoon, evening, or Saturday schedules, will help more SIFEs have access to education. Also, schools that offer longer school hours and a year-round school calendar ensure that there are many opportunities for students to make up for lost time (p.14).

5. Consider developing a newcomer center or program within your setting.

Newcomer centers and programs are very effective when a district needs to meet the needs of many SIFEs. A newcomer center may provide numerous services included in the newcomer program, such as academic support, language instruction, an introduction to basic school activities and skills, and community resources for immigrant families (Spaulding, Carolino & Amen, p.13). Enrollment in a newcomer program, which is often transitional, allows the student time to adjust to the U.S. educational system in a supportive environment with instructors who understand their needs and have been specially trained to assist in accelerating SIFEs' academic achievement while monitoring cultural and emotional adjustments.

And even as SIFEs learn the basics such as the alphabet or how to hold a pencil, they can also begin developing academic content concepts and language through bilingual or sheltered instruction content courses. When SIFEs leave an effective program at a newcomer center after 1-2 years and transition to a mainstream educational environment, they will be much better prepared to participate successfully.

You can learn more about newcomer centers by reaching out to existing newcomer programs and visiting with a team of colleagues to see what they are doing. While some newcomer programs may be school-wide, others are house within traditional school settings as a focused support for newcomers or students with interrupted schooling. You may be able to identify some small steps your school community can take to move in that direction.

6. Ensure that SIFEs have specialized guidance counseling.

SIFEs need access to ongoing and personalized guidance support, particularly in middle and high school, to help them map out their coursework, the kinds of credits they need to graduate, and their opportunities beyond high school. This will take a very specialized kind of expertise. If there is not a dedicated counselor for newcomers or students with interrupted education in your setting, ensure that the counselors who are working with this population not only have appropriate training but have the persistence and inclination to support SIFEs navigate many kinds of obstacles.

7. Provide information about extra-curricular activities.

It’s important for SIFEs to become familiar with the extra-curricular activities that schools offer, understand how to sign up and participate, and understand that they are eligible to participate. Activities and sports can be an important bridge for students who can tap into their interests and make new friends.

8. Build partnerships that will support students’ future options.

It can be very helpful for schools to make a partnership with local businesses, adult basic education, or higher education programs in order to provide a seamless transition for SIFEs who will need more than four years to graduate or are older and will "age-out" before completing high school graduation requirements (p. 11, Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education, p. 4). Students are allowed to attend high school until the age determined by their state, and if a connection exists with the adult basic education or local higher education institution, SIFEs are much more likely to continue their education and complete a high school degree. A connection with a local business may also boost students' confidence and provide opportunities that might not have been available.

Related resources

Closing Thoughts

As you work with your students, keep in mind that many came to U.S. ready to get a good education, become successful citizens, and leave a troubled past behind. They may be discouraged and frightened when they find out exactly what is entailed in order to reach their goals.

Don't let frustration and the seemingly insurmountable barriers affect the instruction and support they receive from you or your school. It may take your students longer to achieve what they wanted; they can succeed, however, if they have quality support and continue to believe in themselves.

Recommended Resources

Resources from Colorín Colorado

Resources from SupportEd

Resources from Dr. Carol Salva

Dr. Carol Salva is an ELL expert based in Texas with extensive experience in serving refugee students and students with interrupted schooling. She has also supported numerous schools in their efforts to partner more effectively with SIFEs and their families.

Guides and Reports




Podcasts from Teaching MLs with Tan Huynh


Organizations and Initiatives


American Federation of Teachers. "Teaching English-Language Learners: What Does the Research Say?" AFT Policy Brief Number 14. 2002. http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/12932

Calderón, M. "Innovative Policies and Practices for Developing Teachers to Work with English Language Learners", Powerpoint Presentation, Slide 12. As presented at the Educational Testing Services's 2008 English-Language Learners Symposium (ETS-sponsored) . http://www.ets.org/Media/Conferences_and_Events/pdf/ELLsympsium/Calderon.pdf

DiCerbo, P. & Loop, C. "Interrupted Formal Schooling." National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition Toolkit. 2003. http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/practice/itc/ifsinfo.html

Hansen, D. "A Tough Beginning." The Vancouver Sun. September 25, 2008

Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education: Indiana Department of Education. Effective Programs for English Language Learners (ELL) with Interrupted Formal Education. 2008. www.doe.in.gov/englishlanguagelearning

Spaulding, Carolino, & Kali-Ahset. Immigrant Students and Secondary School Reform: Compendium of Best Practices. Written on behalf of The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). 2004. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED484705.pdf

UNICEF Global Databases, 2007.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Global Education Digest, 2007.

WIDA Consortium, Focus on SLIFE: Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (Madison, WI: 2015), 2.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.