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Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom: Making Students Comfortable

By: Portland Public Schools (OR) and Colorín Colorado (2009)

Note: This article was adapted from excerpts of the ESL/Bilingual Resource Guide for Mainstream Teachers, published by the Portland, OR Public School District.

Learning a new language is an overwhelming experience for anyone — especially if you are supposed to be learning in that new language at the same time! Here are some ideas for helping students feel more comfortable in the mainstream classroom.

Prepare English-speaking peers for the arrival of a newcomer.

Sensitize mainstream students to the newcomers' challenges. If possible, share some background information on the newcomer's native country with the class. Ask your students to imagine that what it would be like to move to a new country where they didn't speak the language. Brainstorm with them about the challenges the newcomer may face when they arrive, and ways they can help make the new student feel welcome in the classroom. You will find some great ideas in Sensitize Your Mainstream Students (EverythingESL.net)

Create a welcoming environment.

You can do this by learning to pronounce students' names correctly, encouraging students to share their language and culture with the class, and adding books in students' languages (or about their native countries) to the classroom environment. Colorín Colorado offers a number of additional ideas in How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment.

Establish a regular routine for newcomers.

At first, everything will be chaotic to your newcomers. Give them help in organizing time, space, and materials. Give them a copy of the daily schedule, and make sure they understand where they need to go when they eat lunch or catch the bus. Depending on students' age, you may wish to post a copy of their schedule at the front of the room each morning, tape it to their desks, or have them keep it at the front of their notebooks. Send a translated copy home if possible so that parents can help their children feel more connected to the classroom. It may also be helpful to have an interpreter or parent liaison call home at the beginning of the school year to talk through the student's schedule with the parents.

Recruit "buddies" to help newcomers find their away around the school.

Students who speak the newcomers' first language will be especially helpful during the first few weeks, but English-speaking buddies are invaluable as well. Help your English-speaking students understand that newcomers may not be able to speak very much English at first, but that they will learn more as time goes on. Learn more in Pair Your Newcomers with Buddies (EverythingESL.net). Buddies may be able to help by:

  • taking newcomers on a tour the first day
  • showing students how to use lockers
  • sitting together at lunch
  • spending time together at recess
  • walking newcomers to their classes for the first few days
  • walking students to the bus.

Increase your knowledge about your students' native countries and cultures.

Learn as much as you can about the country, language, religion, customs, family situation and experiences of your student — these are the things at her core. Encourage students to express their points of view and opinions on different issues and share information about their culture if they feel comfortable doing so.

Be aware of the stages of cultural accommodation.

These are summarized in "How to Create a Welcoming Environment." ELLs may pass through the different stages at varying rates, and being aware of these stages may help you to better understand "unusual" actions and reactions that may just be part of adjusting to a new culture.

Encourage your students to continue to use their first language.

Whether it's through speaking with family members at home, reading a book or an online newspaper in their native language, or listening to some of their favorite music, encourage students to keep their native language skills strong. Discuss the benefits of being bilingual, as well as some opportunities that students who are multilingual may have in the future.

There are academic benefits to maintaining native language skills as well. While students, parents, and teachers may feel pressure for students to learn English as quickly as possible, research strongly supports the positive effect of native language literacy on English literacy. Reading, academic, and content-area skills can often be transferred from one language to another, and it is generally easier to transfer those skills than to learn them while simultaneously learning English. Helping your students maintain their native language will in fact support their English language development.

Create frequent opportunities for their success in your class.

Give lots of encouragement and praise for what the students can do, and be careful not to call on them to perform alone above their level of competence. When students are ready to be called on in front of the class, increase wait time, and respond positively to students' attempts. Offer one-on-one support when possible so as not to embarrass students or make them fearful about making mistakes in public. When students are ready, begin to model correct grammar during one-on-one sessions.

Visit your students in other classrooms or during school activities.

All students have strengths and weaknesses; with ELLs, it is often difficult to get to know their interests or areas where they struggle because they can't discuss them very easily. Visit the ESL, art, or music classroom, or attend an activity or sports session if your student is involved. You may learn something new about your student or discover an interest that you can help stimulate in the classroom! And once you learn about that interest, encourage your student to get involved in clubs, sports, or school activities based on that interest, and point out some related books or resources.

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