8 Strategies for Building Relationships with ELLs in Any Learning Environment

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Learn how educators can build authentic relationships with ELLs this year in virtual and hybrid settings, as well as how they can connect students' experiences to meaningful instruction. This article is part of our guide on distance learning with ELLs.

One of the biggest challenges that educators, including educators of English language learners (ELLs), are thinking about this year is how to build relationships with students in virtual or hybrid settings. Educators may be feeling anxious about how to create meaningful connections, especially in the midst of so much uncertainty and hardship.

The good news is that there are a lot of ideas educators can try now and throughout the year. You might think of it as "going slow to go fast" — a process that not only builds confidence and community but increases engagement and supports students' later academic success.

What's in this article

We have compiled some of these ideas and resources below in the following strategies — most of which can be used with all students as well!

Before getting started

As you read, keep in mind that many of the following activities can be differentiated for varying language proficiency levels. These strategies offer opportunities for:

Essential Question

As you read this article, consider the following essential question:

In what ways can I build strong relationships with multilingual students in a virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face setting this year?

Using These Strategies in Virtual Settings

If you are teaching with technology, we have included some ideas on online platforms you can use to support these activities. Most links in these sections go to reviews on Common Sense Media rather than the platform itself. Your district may have a similar platform or option, so look at what you're already using before adding more tools. Less is more!

We encourage you to:

Finally, consider how students without technology access might complete some these activities through offline instruction, such as conversations over the phone or written responses.

Strategies: Getting to Know Students

Share your stories!

If you try any ideas from this article, we'd love to hear how it went!  Post your story on social media here:

1. Learn how to pronounce and spell students' names correctly

Show respect for your students by taking time to learn how to pronounce and spell their names correctly. Ensure that students' names are written correctly in student databases, especially as schools move to more online systems. A misspelled name can impact the services and instruction a student receives.

  • When you ask students to say their name, listen carefully and repeat it until you get it right.
  • Ask students to record their names for you so that you can hear their pronunciation. (You can ask them to send you a voice recording or use an online platform like NameCoach.) Share recordings with colleagues who work with the students so that they also pronounce the students' names correctly.
  • Model the correct pronunciation of students' names to the class so that all students can say it correctly.
  • Use students' names when greeting them each day.
  • Consider asking students to share examples of how people mispronounce their name and how that makes them feel.
  • Learn more about different naming conventions in your students' cultures and languages.
  • Refrain from coming up with a nickname or a version of the name that's easier for you to say.

Project ideas:

Assign a multimedia or written project in which students share:

  • the meaning or story of their name
  • an acrostic poem of their name
  • an artistic presentation of their name.

If your students are using technology, this is a good way to introduce new online platforms they will be using this year.

You might also read aloud books from our booklists on names for children and young adults. After listening, students can record, write, or draw stories about their own names.

Using tech: SeeSaw can be used with primary grades. SeeSaw has related activities already prepared in their "Activity Bank," such as "Your Name is Everything You Are." 

For older students, consider using:

2. Get to know students' interests, strengths, and talents

What are your students' experiences, interests, hobbies, talents, goals, and strengths? Tapping into these "funds of knowledge" can:

  • foster relationships, friendships, and student confidence
  • make students' strengths more visible to peers and educators
  • engage students across the curriculum.

For example, the children of migrant farmworkers might have a wealth of knowledge about agriculture, seasonal harvest, and different regions of the country. (You can learn more about "funds of knowledge" from this helpful guide.)

Bring these topics into the class by:

  • giving students a chance to share their interests or strengths in surveys, peer interviews, writing prompts, and art projects
  • encouraging students to express themselves by decorating a virtual locker or bringing in something they can hang on the wall of the classroom
  • talking with family members about their child's interests and talents
  • talking with members of the students' communities about their insights
  • providing time for students to discuss current events of interest
  • learning more about culturally responsive practice (and what it looks like during a pandemic).

Note: See some great strategies from Judie Haynes and Carol Salva that incorporate these ideas into activities to start this coming new school year.

Project ideas:

Ask students to share a photo or drawing of themselves that is important to them and to explain why. (You can learn more about this strategy that ELD Team Lead Cindy Close in Douglas County, CO shared with us from Education Week.)

For a more in-depth assignment, ask students to create a project focused on one of their hobbies, interests, or talents that they can share with the class. Some examples might include a collage, a short presentation, poem, or a short video.

Using tech: The platforms mentioned under strategy one will work well for these ideas. You might also consider:

  • a digital photo album site, such as Google photos
  • a digital collage site, like PicCollage
  • a photo finding mission app, like Plum's Photo Hunt
  • Flipgrid, where students can post their digital picture while they talk about why that picture or object is important to them.

3. Let students know that their languages and cultures are welcome

You can welcome students' languages by learning a few words or phrases, such as a greeting or how to say "thank you," or asking them to teach you and their peers some words. They will appreciate the gesture and enjoy being the teacher (and the expert) for a change!

This not only highlights the language skills that your student has, it celebrates the gift of multilingualism and gives other student a chance to think about what it is like to go through the day learning in a different language. (Learn more in our section on what it feels like to be a language learner.)

You might also look for places where you can display flags from students' countries or other photos that are meaningful for students.

Project ideas:

Create a classroom bulletin board, either online or on the wall, where students and families can add homemade signs to a world map with important words such as "hello," "friend," and "thank you." (Thank you to Amanda Goman for sharing this idea on Twitter!)

Tech ideas: Look for ways to create and decorate a shared virtual space or virtual bulletin boards with tools such as Padlet, Corkulous, or Bitmoji. (Note that some of Bitmoji's avatars are not appropriate for students, especially of younger ages.) Various Google Classroom tools include places to save images as well.

4. Encourage students to share their celebrations and family traditions

Provide opportunities for students to share important traditions throughout the year. You may wish to ask students early in the year what their favorite holidays are and then plan a lesson on that holiday with their family. Look for these opportunities throughout the year and across the curriculum, as well as including them as a part of family outreach events.

Project ideas:

Invite students and families to prepare a presentation or respond to a writing prompt about:

  • a family story, folktale, or local legend
  • a favorite saying, poem, or song from their native language
  • a recipe
  • a family or holiday tradition.

Tech ideas: Any of the creation tools mentioned above could be used for these projects.

5. Look for ways to interact with individual students or small groups when possible

The demands on teachers of ELLs this year will be many; however, making time for regular personal interaction with students will strengthen your ability to deliver effective, meaningful instruction and keep in touch with them during a fluid situation. To help carve out this time:

  • talk with colleagues and administrators about ways to fit that interaction into instruction, office hours, or family engagement
  • look for opportunities to co-teach or collaborate with colleagues or paraprofessionals to use time efficiently
  • consider using phone calls, blogs, messaging, or other forms of written communication with students as a way to check in
  • collect examples of success and share them with administrators to advocate for more time if needed.

Project ideas:

Ask students to prepare 3-5 (appropriate!) questions they would like to ask you in an interview, such as your favorite food, a favorite toy from childhood, or a book you enjoyed reading. After reviewing and approving their questions, schedule time for them to interview you, in person or online, which they can share with the class through a written summary, video, or presentation. If time allows, you may wish to interview them as well!

Tech ideas: Brainstorming questions would work well in small groups on Jamboard, a digital whiteboard that is a Google extension. Interviews could be done orally asynchronously via Flipgrid or Voxer, a voice messaging app for phone or desktop. Final video could be posted on any of the creation apps listed above (Seesaw, Nearpod, Peardeck, Buncee, etc.)

Strategies: Connecting Experiences to Learning

6. Engage students in planning their learning

Once you get a better sense of your students' life experiences, you can connect them to learning by:

  • looking for ways to connect these interests to the curriculum
  • asking students to brainstorm ideas on what they would like to study
  • using an inquiry-based or project-based learning approach that allows students to take the lead in identifying a question or problem to solve/research
  • assigning students research projects that focus on issues or concepts that apply to their own community
  • identifying community assets, guest speakers, or local organizations that can support this learning
  • offering students opportunities to present their work in public, whether to classmates, parents, or community members.

Project ideas:

Consider taking on a classwide project (or group projects) that students help plan and design to address a topic or concern of interest.

Tech ideas: Use Jamboard to brainstorm questions students want to answer in their project or inquiry. Once the questions are posted on Jamboard, they can sort and categorize the questions. Jamboard allows students to post a sticky note and see what others are posting in real time. This can be used in break out groups and/or asynchronously.

7. Provide students with opportunities to share their stories

Sharing personal stories can be powerful experiences for students and their classmates as well. Provide opportunities for students to share their stories both privately and publicly, whether through artwork, in writing, or in conversation. If a student shares some difficult experiences, consider whether more support is needed through follow-up conversations with families or counseling.

Notes of caution

If you do invite students to share personal stories:

  • Attend to student cues on whether they wish to share their personal experiences with classmates: Many students have endured traumatic experiences that they may not wish to share. Explain at the beginning of any storytelling activity that it is voluntary and provide alternative assignments as needed. Some students may be willing to share their experiences with their peers or in a more public format such as school assemblies, the school newspaper, or self-published books.
  • Be aware of the "dangers of a single story": Be mindful of what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls "the danger of a single story" in her 2009 TED talk; in other words, when learning about a student's life story, remember that your own experiences and assumptions, as well as the stories of other individuals, may not reflect your student's life. In addition, students who have the same racial background, speak the same language, or who hail from the same country may not have much in common, and in fact may experience some tension if they come from different groups with histories of conflict.
  • Don't single students out because of their identity: Never put students on the spot as a "representative" of their race, gender, ethnic group, gender identity, country of origin, experience, or other aspect of their identity. Honor students' experiences and perspectives for what they are, especially if those experiences and perspectives challenge your assumptions.

Project ideas:

Work with students to present a brief personal story they want to share in writing, artwork, video, or audio. This small project may grow into a larger, longer project, such as an autobiography project or yearbook project (which could work well online!).

Tech ideas:

  • Storybird is an easy to use digital storytelling platform that allows students to create stories with characters and elements provided by dragging, dropping, and writing in your story.
  • Make Beliefs Comics is a comic strip storytelling platform.
  • Book Creator is an iPad app that can be used with young students.
  • StoryBoard makes storyboarding easy for students.

8. Look for ways to embed social-emotional learning across the curriculum

There is a lot of attention on social-emotional learning right now for good reason. All students have experienced disruption to some level in their social and academic lives, and many students have also experienced hardship, loss, illness, trauma, and deep levels of stress and anxiety. As district leader Nathaniel Provencio notes in the video below, creating a supportive, nurturing environment for your students, regardless of setting, is a critical step in helping them navigate the uncertainty of the coming year. 

Some ideas include:

  • keeping a calm and predictable environment
  • preparing students for transitions
  • giving students sensory and stretch breaks
  • teaching tools for mindfulness and stress relief, such as breathing exercises or visualizations
  • sharing resources such as this "virtual calming room"
  • encouraging students to show kindness, develop empathy, and share appreciation for each other
  • encouraging your students to identify and focus on their strengths and resilience, as discussed above.

In addition, keep an eye out for situations in which students may need additional support from counselors. You can prepare for the year by learning more about the impacts of COVID-19 on immigrant families and these trauma-informed school strategies during COVID-19 from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Project ideas:

Ask students to share an experience through writing or discussion about a time that they overcame a difficulty or reached a goal. Ask them to reflect on what made that achievement possible.

Tech ideas: Use one of the storytelling platforms above so that students can share this experience as a story or their own superhero comic.

Closing Thoughts

There will be a lot of trial and error in the coming year. As Kristina Roberston says below, if something doesn't work, go back to the drawing board and try again!  Don't let those bumps discourage you from continuing to build the critical connections that you, your students, and your families need this year. They may just be what helps everyone get through a school year like no other!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is one takeaway that resonates with you from this article?
  • What is one activity you might try?
  • What strategies have you used in the past to build strong relationships with students? How might you adapt them this year?
  • What will be hardest about building relationships this year with students and families?
  • What are you feeling nervous about year?
  • What are you looking forward to this year?

Culturally responsive teaching during COVID-19

Social-emotional resources

Interactive strategies for building relationships & distance learning

Recommended blogs

Getting to know your ELLs and their families

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Kristina Robertson, Becky Corr, Susan Lafond, Areli Schermerhorn, and Beth Skelton for their contributions to this article.

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