If you have newcomer English language learner (ELL) students arriving at your school, there are some important steps you can take to welcome them and develop partnerships with families.
Here are a few ideas to get you started, as well as related resources and videos featuring ELL educators — including some who were ELL themselves!
Welcoming Students' Languages and Cultures
1. Welcome students and families to school
Look at your school and classroom from the eyes of families who speak different languages. From the moment families walk in the door, think about what they see:
- Are there signs in families’ languages?
- Would students see visuals of people who look like them around the school or in your classroom?
- Are there pieces of art, mementos, or other cultural items like flags that celebrate students’ cultures?
- Are there books in students' languages and about their countries in the school library?
If not, look for some ways to make students and families feel welcome, add meaningful and authentic items in your classroom, and talk with administrators about including some items and multilingual signs in more public spaces such as the front office, hallways, library, and cafeteria.
Note: Keep in mind that all K-12 students have a legal right to a free public education, regardless of their immigration status or that of their family members. If that information does not seem to be common knowledge among staff (particularly front office staff), talk to your administrators about your concerns.
- How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment for ELLs
- Making Students and Families Feel Welcome
- Building Community in the Classroom
Video: 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.
2. Ensure that families have information in their home languages
All families have a right to receive information in their home language from their child’s school. Make sure that families know how and when to get information from the school, how to communicate with their child’s teacher, and how to contact the school directly. Many multilingual families use texts, messaging apps, and social media to communicate. Find out what works for them, and if you haven’t tried it, you may wish to try a translation app service like TalkingPoints.
In addition, think about the staff that families will meet when they come to enroll their children or enter the school. Do they speak families' languages or know how to contact an interpreter in the school or through an interpreter line?
- Communicating with ELL Families: 10 Strategies for Schools
- How to Use Technology to Engage Multilingual Families
- Equity Through Language Access: Best Practices for Collaborating with Interpreters
Video: What do schools need to know about language access?
3. Get to know your students
Veteran teachers of ELLs frequently highlight this step as their most important piece of advice for working with students. This includes steps such as learning how to pronounce students' names correctly, getting to know their interests and talents, making time for informal interactions, such as one ESL teacher did with her "lunch bunch," and ensuring that students have information about extra-curricular activities.
In addition, it can be helpful to learn more about the countries your students come from, but keep in mind that refugees or students who have been displaced may not have lived in their home country for quite some time — or ever. In addition, students who have experienced hardship or trauma may not wish to share personal information, and some students may be hesitant to talk about their language and culture, as in the case of some Indigenous students from Latin America.
Keep things informal and look for small ways to build trust early on. You may also wish to consider home visits at some point.
- 10 Strategies for Building Relationships with ELLs
- How to Build Partnerships with Immigrant Families
- Building Bridges Through Storytelling: What Are Your Students' Stories?
Video: Extra time for ELLs with the "lunch bunch"
ESL specialist Elizabeth Varela describes the way she uses lunch as an opportunity to spend extra time with ELLs.
Video: Author Hena Khan on why pronouncing a student's name correctly matters
Video: A former ELL talks about how extra-curricular activities helped him fit in
4. Learn more about your students' language, literacy, and educational background
It’s important to find information related to students’ prior academic experiences, such as which languages students speak, how much schooling they have had, and whether students have learned to read in their home language. You may be able to identify some of this information in an preliminary interview with the family when they enroll their children. However, it’s also important not to ask too many questions at first, especially when first getting to know families. If families are hesitant to share information, don’t push them. Give them time and work on building a relationship first.
You can also collaborate with family liaisons to see if families may feel more comfortable speaking with a different staff member or if the liaisons can share some general information that’s helpful.
- 10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners
- How to Support ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFEs)
Video: Getting to know your students and why it matters
Teacher Omar Salem talks about how he gets to know his students and how it makes a difference.
5. Look for ways to help students feel more comfortable in the classroom
Feeling comfortable is important for students as they acclimate to a new environment. It also is a key factor in whether students feel ready to take risks as they learn a new language. It can be helpful to help a student feel more comfortable in the classroom by:
- Talking with the class about how to help students feel welcome
- Assigning a buddy
- Helping students understand the schedule
- Helping students understand classroom routines and classroom behaviors
- Allowing students to work with students who speak their language in peer groups and activties
When possible, use scaffolds such as visuals and translated materials to help students get to know the routines and classroom rules.
Video: Student ambassadors who welcome newcomers
Award-winning ELL teacher Anne Marie Foerster Luu shares the example of a counselor who arranged student ambassadors for new children arriving to the school.
Video: How routines can help newcomer ELLs succeed in the classroom
Amber Prentice describes some of her own routines in the classroom, as well as the importance of clear expectations in the ELL classroom.
6. Learn more about the "silent period" and stages of language acquisition
It is common for students who are learning a new language to be 'silent' for a period of time, as they listen to the language around them without speaking yet (much as a young child listens to language first before learning to talk). This is considered the first stage of language acquisition.
Having patience and creating opportunities for small successes in speaking with you and peers can help build students' confidence. In addition, keep in mind that students' silence could also be a sign of respect for the teacher as an authority figure — and not a sign of their English proficiency level or refusal to participate.
Video: What I remember about being an English learner
Areli Schermerhorn is a peer evaluator for the Syracuse City School District. In this interview, she remembers coming to Seneca County, New York from Puerto Rico and her experiences as an English learner.
Social and Emotional Support
7. Ensure that students have access to social and emotional supports as needed
Newcomer students may be going through a lot of adjustments to a new country, culture, and language. They may have left their home under difficult circumstances, and they may have endured a traumatic journey to get to the United States.
Consider for a moment the experiences of:
- a child whose family fled Afghanistan after the fall of the government and scrambled to get a flight out of Kabul
- a child who has been exposed to violence in the war in the Ukraine and has left loved ones behind
- a child from Central America who family is being threatened by gangs and has traveled on foot to the U.S. to seek asylum
While their experiences may be very different, each of these children may have experienced trauma, hardship, family separation, or other challenges. This is another reason relationships matter. Be sure to connect students with social and emotional supports, make counseling available if needed, and stay in contact with the family about their concerns. It’s also important to understand how families may approach emotional support from a cultural perspective so that you can work together with the family to find supports they feel comfortable with. This is an another area in which liaisons can be helpful.
In addition, you may wish to advocate for staff-wide training in trauma-informed practice in order to build the school community's capacity for responding to trauma.
Events in the news
- Understanding the Backgrounds of Venezuelan Students & Families (Immigrant Connections)
- Partnering with Ukrainian Families: Tips for Schools
- The Invasion of Ukraine: Resources for Educators and Families
- How Schools Can Partner with Afghan Refugee Families
- Welcoming Afghan Families: Lessons Learned from Austin ISD
- Supporting Families Impacted by a Global Crisis
- Discussing Political Violence with ELLs, Immigrants, and Refugees
Addressing trauma, stress, and social and emotional health
- How Immigration Issues Can Impact Students
- Using a Strengths-Based Approach with ELs: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress
- Addressing Student Trauma, Anxiety, and Depression
Principal Sue Stanley: Why creating a calm, safe environment in schools matters
Principal Sue Stanley: When loud noises in school cause post-traumatic stress
8. Connect with community partners
Community partners can be valuable allies in so many ways, such as by providing:
- Language assistance and volunteers
- Culturally responsive support for families
- Medical and mental health services
- Supports for families around food, clothing, lodging, and employment
Find out who is already working with families in your community and what some priority areas of concern are for your families. The school does not need to do this work alone! You can learn more from our resources on community schools.
Video: How a Community School Helps ELLs Succeed
Visit Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD, a school with more than 76% ELLs, to see how this community school is supporting its students and families through programs and services that include dental screenings, food giveaways, after-school activities, and much, much more!