How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment

Chances are that your English language learners (ELLs) come from a culture with traditions and family values that differ from mainstream American culture. These young children not only have the challenge of learning a new language, but also of adjusting to an unfamiliar cultural setting and school system. Imagine what it would be like to step into a foreign classroom where you didn't understand the language, rules, routines, or expected behavior.

On a daily basis, ELLs are adjusting to new ways of saying and doing things. As their teacher, you are an important bridge to this unknown culture and school system. There are a number of things you can do to help make ELLs' transitions as smooth as possible.

Stages of Cultural Accommodation

In the same way that ELLs go through stages of English language learning, they may also pass through stages of cultural accommodation. These stages, however, may be less defined and more difficult to notice. 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.

  • Euphoria: ELLs may experience an initial period of excitement about their new surroundings.
  • Culture shock: ELLs may then experience anger, hostility, frustration, homesickness, or resentment towards the new culture.
  • Acceptance: ELLs may gradually accept their different surroundings.
  • Assimilation/adaptation: ELLs may embrace and adapt to their surroundings and their "new" culture.

Classroom Strategies: Helping Your ELLs Adjust to New Surroundings

Although there are no specific teaching techniques to make ELLs feel that they belong in a new culture, there are ways for you to make them feel welcome in your classroom:

Learn their names

Take the time to learn how to pronounce your ELLs' names correctly. Ask them to say their name. Listen carefully and repeat it until you know it. If a student's name is Pedro, make sure you do not call him /peedro/ or Peter. Also, model the correct pronunciation of ELLs' names to the class so that all students can say the correct pronunciation.

Offer one-on-one assistance when possible

Some ELLs may not answer voluntarily in class or ask for your help even if they need it. ELLs may smile and nod, but this does not necessarily mean that they understand. Go over to their desk to offer individual coaching in a friendly way. For convenience, it may be helpful to seat ELLs near your desk.

Assign a peer partner

Identify a classmate who really wants to help your ELL as a peer. This student can make sure that the ELL understands what he or she is supposed to do. It will be even more helpful if the peer partner knows the ELL's first language.

Post a visual daily schedule

Even if ELLs do not yet understand all of the words that you speak, it is possible for them to understand the structure of each day. Whether through chalkboard art or images on Velcro, you can post the daily schedule each morning. By writing down times and having pictures next to words like lunch, wash hands, math, and field trip, ELLs can have a general sense of the upcoming day.

Use an interpreter

On-site interpreters can be very helpful in smoothing out misunderstandings that arise due to communication problems and cultural differences. If an on-site interpreter (a paid or volunteer school staff position) is not available, try to find an adult - perhaps another parent who is familiar with the school or "knows the system" – who is willing to serve this purpose. In difficult situations, it would not be appropriate for another child to translate.

ELLs can make unintentional "mistakes" as they are trying hard to adjust to a new cultural setting. They are constantly transferring what they know as acceptable behaviors from their own culture to the U.S. classroom and school. Be patient as ELLs learn English and adjust.

Invite their culture into the classroom

Encourage ELLs to share their language and culture with you and your class. Show-and-tell is a good opportunity for ELLs to bring in something representative of their culture, if they wish. They could also tell a popular story or folktale using words, pictures, gestures, and movements. ELLs could also try to teach the class some words from their native language.

Use materials related to your ELLs' cultures

Children respond when they see books, topics, characters, and images that are familiar. Try to achieve a good balance of books and materials that include different cultures. Visit our recommended bilingual books section.

Label classroom objects in both languages

Labeling classroom objects will allow ELLs to better understand their immediate surroundings. These labels will also assist you when explaining or giving directions. Start with everyday items, such as "door/puerta," "book/libro," and "chair/silla."

Include ELLs in a non-threatening manner

Some ELLs may be apprehensive about speaking out in a group. They might be afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers. Their silence could also be a sign of respect for you as an authority – and not a sign of their inability or refusal to participate. Find ways to involve ELLs in a non-threatening manner, such as through Total Physical Response activities and cooperative learning projects.

Involve ELLs in cooperative learning

Some ELLs are used to working cooperatively on assigned tasks. What may look like cheating to you is actually a culturally acquired learning style — an attempt to mimic, see, or model what has to be done. Use this cultural trait as a plus in your classroom. Assign buddies or peer tutors so that ELLs are able to participate in all class activities. Also, check out these cooperative learning strategies you can use with ELLs.

Help your ELLs follow established rules

All students need to understand and follow your classroom rules from the very beginning, and ELLs are no exception. Teach them your classroom management rules as soon as possible to avoid misunderstandings, discipline problems, and feelings of low self-esteem. Here are a few strategies that you can use in class:

  • Use visuals like pictures, symbols, and reward systems to communicate your expectations in a positive and direct manner.
  • Physically model language to ELLs in classroom routines and instructional activities. ELLs will need to see you or their peers model behavior when you want them to sit down, walk to the bulletin board, work with a partner, copy a word, etc.
  • Be consistent and fair with all students. Once ELLs clearly understand what is expected, hold them equally accountable for their behavior.

Video: Creating Welcoming Classroom Environments


To see the complete interviews of the featured experts, see the following.

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Adapted from: Eastern Stream Center on Resources and Training (ESCORT). (2003). Help! They don't speak English. Starter kit. Oneonta, NY: State University College.

And from: Tharp, R., Estrada, P., Stoll Dalton, S., & Yamauchi, L. (2000). Teaching transformed. Achieving excellence, fairness, inclusion, and harmony. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


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


In order to make sure your classroom environment is appropriate and welcoming for an ELL learner there are a few essentials. I believe that one of the most important things to do is to make the student feel comfortable. In order to do this, bringing their culture into the classroom is a must. It is also important to place them with a respectable and trustworthy partner to help guide when the teacher is not available. Other helpful things might include posting names for objects around the room in both languages. This may help the ELL to feel like they are not an outcast, but apart of the class.

Do you mind telling us the name of the author?

I have experienced that assigning a peer partner not only benefits the ELL, but the partner as well. My child was a peer partner to an ELL student and she was so intrigued she started learning simple words in his language to help communicate with him.

This was a very informative video.

I enjoyed hearing her ideas.

To welcome EL students into my classroom, the first step is to learn their names and the correct punctuation. This give each student a comfortable feeling and establishes a good relationship. After students are acquainted, a peer partner should be assigned... hopefully, someone who speaks the same language or has some connection to the student. For the classroom setting, important parts of the room should be labeled. Every effort should be made to bring any part of the student's culture. My goal is to generate conversation at any level. Instructions should be clear and simple. Pictures are very helpful for understanding directions and vocabulary.

Very helpful reflection of how to help EL's adjust to our schools.

It’s fundamental to make the students feel welcome to the school, and especially to the ESOL class by pronouncing their names correctly, try to speak their language, and body up the student with someone who speaks the same language.

Great article. I have incorporated all of those in my classroom. My last year in the classroom, I had a great number of Vietnamese-speaking and Spanish-speaking students. I labeled everything in three languages. It was fun to see how the students taught each other new words in a different language. My Vietnamese students would love to pull out their Vietnamese grammar workbooks during free time. It was great to see students so engaged in language learning. :)

This article was very informative and it provides support as to why certain things are encourage in my classroom. I do have to say that I am a Pre-K teacher and the visual schedule, and labeling in both languages in the our centers would provide additional support. I look forward to improving my classroom environment.

I enjoyed hearing the tips from Amber Prentice with tips to making EL students feel welcome in our classroom. I will make sure I use their correctly pronounced name and label my classroom before arrival.

Imagining myself in another country is a good reminder to the anxiety held by EL students. Making them welcome sets the tone for a successful relationship going forward.

What an eye opener. Every teacher of ELL students should view this information and use it.

I am a adjunct professor at California State University Northridge, and often use your website because it is an amazing resource for the credential students. How do I get a reprint?

This is a great indicator of what an ESOL school should look like. It is important to have labels in different languages to make the environment more inviting to all

I implement music from various cultures including singing in different languages.

It was interesting to hear just how small things can make such a huge difference in making new ELL students feel more comfortable.

This was a helpful video. It reassured me that I was already using many of the ELL strategies in my classroom. These are tips that can be used immediately in the classroom.

Many ELL's may go through various stages as they get used to being in the classroom. Strategies that teachers my use in order to assist their English language learner is provide a visual schedule, one-to-one assistance, assigning a partner, providing a welcoming cultural environment, and providing an interpreter if available.

Many ELL students will have a better understanding of the English language if both thei native and new language is being used in the classroom. For example, you can use books, vocabulary, and partners who use the same language to bridge the English and native language gap.

This information is very helpful and will help guide my teaching with my ELL students. I especially like what was said about learning to pronounce their names correctly.

This information will help me greet and work new students who are ELL. This information will be helpful in making me help new students feel welcomed.

I liked the comment that she made regarding getting books in the students native language.

All these ideas seem simple enough to do in the school and the classroom.

I agree that creating a welcoming classroom by the school and the homeroom teacher is extremely important. It sets the tone for the entire experience of the ELL student. If the administration and teachers create a positive environment, the other students will follow. In this way, the ELL student will feel more comfortable in his/her new setting.

The stages of concern is really good to know. Teachers often are confused when a student moves from the Euphoria period of excitement about their new surroundings to the culture shock period where they are angry, hostile or have resentment towards the new culture. Another eye opener is learning to pronounce the students name correctly. That is something we could do easily to take a load of stress off the student.

It's important to make our students feel welcomed and comfortable in their new environment. Ways to do that include using their given names, learning phrases in their native language, labeling classroom objects in both languages, and give students classroom buddies.

Pair them up with a partner for activities, display vocabulary with pictures, and continually encourage/assist students to do their best.

There are many useful tips that I can use in my classroom for ELL students.

In order to make a change feel welcome it has to be sincere! They all have to feel the warmth that you offer. They are all equal even with the language barriers.

In this section we learned about creating a welcoming classroom environment. It included ideas like having books in their language in the class, using phrases in the language sometimes, saying their name correctly, pair students from the same background together, reviewing the schedule, and inviting and including them in areas in or out of the class. I learned to model for them, to have signs in different languages posted, and to have staff members who speak multiple languages available to help them when possible.

So many people think that by saying it louder or slower will help the understanding. It is by going at it multiple ways with lots of patience that has worked best for me. From working in Title I for the majority of my career, I have learned a lot about cultures and strategies for the many ESL students that have been in my room. I try to keep in mind what it would look like for my own children if we were to move to Mexico and send them to school in a Spanish speaking world. I would only pray that someone would figure out how to teach them creatively and patiently.

Pronouncing ELL’s names correctly is so critical. Since I have a hard times with names, I have to spend more time on this anyway. I think having an enthusiastic attitude about correct pronunciation is important as I’ve seen people (teachers) get frustrated in front of the students when struggling with their names. I also liked the list of books from the students’ cultures. I’m sure they feel a sense of connection just with the pictures from their own countries. I can’t image what these kids must feel and be going through. I can’t imagine sending my own daughter to a school where English isn’t spoken (and she doesn’t speak that language – AND I don’t have the ability to teach her that school’s language either.

This was helpful.

I really like the idea of using total physical response activities. I think that it could be used will all ages to help them see and understand the words used in the classroom.

A welcoming environment is key to creating a relationship with ELL students. You can do this by learning some of their language and offering books in their language. You can prepare the class by telling them that we will have a new student. Assign the student a buddy that speaks their language to help them around the school with procedures of the class. Remember that most ELLS are just ignorant of our language but are very bright.
Family nights and putting signs in different languages help to welcome the families to the school. Always be consistent and fair with all students.

It is extremely helpful to understand how moving into a new culture can affect students and how we can make the transition less stressful

I totally agree that you need visual cues, showing students that you respect them and their culture and representation of all your students in your classroom makes them feel welcome and loved in the classroom.

The STEM Lab is a wonderful place for ELL students to work with others to practice their English in a non-threatening environment. Students are able to practice vocabulary within the context of group work and hands-on activities allow students to explore science concepts further their own knowledge and experiences.

I appreciate the advice for creating a welcoming environment for new EL students. I especially like the use of a same language buddy system to help the EL student get adjusted to the routines of the classroom and the school.

I feel it is extremely important to make both the child and his/her family welcomed. They should feel that you care about them and want them to be there. There should also be a feeling of openness that you are there in anyway you can be to support and help them. In the past, parents are more forthcoming if they know you care about their child.

These students need to feel comfortable and safe when they are at school. Helping each student feel welcomed from the moment they enter your room, until the moment they leave to go home, is crucial for them to adapt to a new environment. I need to bridge the gap of the unknown culture by incorporating their own culture in my room and connecting it to a new culture.

A few things that really stood out to me and will help me in my classroom is to remember to learn the student's name, post visuals and add words in both languages, allow them to have a "buddy" in the classroom to aid them with the parts they do not understand, and speak slowly with clear body language while allowing them extra attention from you.

Mostly common sense stuff it seems, but good reminders. It's easy to forget how it might feel to be in their shoes.

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