Getting to Know Your ELLs: Six Steps for Success

Student smiling at camera

This article provides ideas for getting to know your English language learners. The article includes guidance on what information will be helpful to gather as well as ideas on how to find what you need, who will be able to help, and recommended resources. This article is part of our Strategies for ELL Success guide.


It sounds so simple, but if we as teachers put more effort into who we are teaching, more of the what would take care of itself.

– Katie, Elementary Teacher (Freeman & Freeman, 6)

When asking veteran teachers of English language learners (ELLs) to share the secret of their success, I usually hear the same answer. It is not the name of a particular language instruction model, learning strategy, or new district-wide curriculum. It is, instead, this: getting to know their students. As Katie observes in the quote above, it sounds so simple – and yet it is a necessary step that is often overlooked by teachers and schools at the beginning of the school year and as ELLs arrive throughout the year, leading to misplaced students and missed opportunities.

When these experienced teachers refer to "getting to know their students," it is true that they are referring in part to a student's English language proficiency, as well as strategizing the best way to assess the student's language and literacy skills with valid, reliable measures in order to place student in the appropriate classrooms. But they are also talking about much more than a number or language level – they are talking about prior academic experiences (or lack thereof), cultural and religious traditions, hobbies, personality, family circumstances, and background about the student's home community or native country that can inform their instructional decisions in the classroom.

Related Resource: Getting to Know ELL Families

This related excerpt from ASCD’s February 2016 edition of Educational Leadership, which focuses on ELLs, offers more ideas for building productive relationships with diverse ELL families. While the full digital edition is only available to subscribers, a hard copy of this issue can be purchased from ASCD.

Gathering this information not only opens the doors to more fully meeting the student's needs and addressing challenges that may arise, but it also provides an opportunity to create a welcoming classroom environment, engage the student and family, increase the student's confidence, and create opportunities for classmates to learn from each other.

It allows teachers to build upon the student's strengths and successes, which is particularly important as students are acclimating to a new classroom and potentially a new country and culture. And it has the potential to improve classroom management and teacher interactions with the student as certain behaviors are explained and understood (such as not looking a teacher in the eye out of deference and respect).

This article provides some guidance on what information will be helpful to gather about your students, ideas on how to gather what you need and who will be able to help, and recommendations for useful resources. You will also find the video clips below useful as they contain valuable ideas from veteran teachers.

When you are done reading the article, scroll down to the comments section where we welcome you to share your own ideas on how you get to know your students!

Whom to ask?


While it may seem challenging to gather the information you need from students who are still learning English, a little bit of effort can go a long way. Students' actions, body language, drawings, and behavior in the classroom can tell you volumes, even if they aren't speaking English yet.  As their English improves, they will be able to share more through speaking and writing. Here are some ideas for ways to learn more from students (with special thanks to Becky Corr and Susan Lafond for their input!):

  • Start with "get to know" you games and icebreakers at the beginning of the year but don't stop there – keep looking for opportunities to allow students to share information about themselves throughout the year.
  • Ask a lot of questions to continue building that relationship.  Ask about family members, pets, academics, sports, what they do outside of their school day, how they spend their weekends, after-school jobs and prom dresses!
  • Look for ways to build your student's trust.  Share (appropriate) stories of your own about topics such as your family, pets, or favorite activities.
  • Listen to your students and let them know you're listening by the questions you ask.  Tune in to what they are saying.  
  • Take notice of changes and talk to your students about what you are observing. 

You can also find ways to incorporate these topics into standards-based classroom assignments and discussions and continue learning about your students through their academic work. For example, you can give students the chance to write about their experiences through journals and autobiographical assignments, even if they start out with very basic information about themselves. (See Christine Rowland's video clip below about her autobiography assignment for her high school ELLs.)
In their 2011 book, Between Worlds: Access to Second Language Acquisition (3rd Edition), David E. Freeman and Yvonne S. Freeman share additional relevant ideas that teachers use when getting to know students:

  • Provide students with questionnaires that ask them how they feel about reading and writing in English, as well as about their individual strengths and challenges.
  • Have students interview each other about past schooling experiences and report to the group.
  • Ask students to submit writing samples and discuss them with students (p. 29)


In addition to building a relationship with your students, meeting with parents, guardians, or family members (referred to as parents in the rest of the article) can provide you with a rich pool of information. If the parents don't speak English, be sure to have an interpreter available when you meet with them in order to make your time together as productive as possible; you may wish to meet without the child present in case the parents want to share any sensitive information.


Another important source can be found within your building – your colleagues. ESL teachers, bilingual teachers, guidance counselors, previous classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, parent liaisons, or other bilingual staff members might have helpful information about the student or about the larger community to which the student belongs. These individuals are often an underutilized resource within their building, so don't hesitate to ask for their input!


Finally, you may also be able to find valuable information about a particular family or group of families from community members, staff from community organizations, or other parents whose children attend your school. These individuals are likely to have insights on language, religion, culture, or background information on a particular country or conflict. Building relationships with the community at large can also lead to other opportunities throughout the year for your students, and while you may be unsure of how to start the conversation, most people appreciate being given the chance to help their community.

Additional Strategies

Strategy: Home Visits

You may not be sure about how to plan a home visit to an ELL family, but Dr. Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Michele Mason from Washington State University provide some very helpful tips for before, during, and after a home visit with ELLs in this article written for Colorín Colorado. One teacher writes that, on one of her home visits, she learned that her 'Russian' student was actually Ukrainian!

Strategy: Parent Letters

Another effective strategy in gathering information is to ask parents to write letters about their children (which don't have to be in English if you have interpreters who can help you read them). Albuquerque teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza, featured in our Common Core instructional videos, asks her parents to write her a letter at the beginning of each school year telling her about the child's personality, interests, strengths, and anything else they think she should know. Not only does she establish a relationship with the parent on a positive note, she gathers useful information that can have a significant impact in the classroom, such as indications of a child's illness or a recent divorce.

Although it is true that many ELL parents are not literate, either in English or in their primary language, Clara has typically had a number of long-term ELLs in her class whose parents are literate and write lengthy, moving letters that are filled with detail as they express their hopes for their children.

Last year, the father who was the least proficient in English among all of her parents still managed to write a short letter – clearly he wanted to be involved in supporting his daughter's success in any way he could. (You can learn more about the letters and listen to Clara read a few aloud in our Meet the Expert interview with her under the "Parent Outreach" playlist.)

Strategy: Student Case Studies

Another helpful technique is writing detailed case studies about your students. One excellent model is the collection of eleven student case studies compiled in the first chapter of the Freeman and Freeman book mentioned above. As part of their graduate courses for teachers in training, the Freemans required their students to write a case study focused on a single English language learner over a period of time, in which their graduate students would get to know the child's background and track his/her progress in school.

The graduate students were surprised at how much they learned and how complex the factors were that were affecting the children they followed, and they agreed that the experience was eye-opening and provided a perspective that couldn't come from a textbook. Those case studies are available from the Heinemann website (pages 1-21 from the online version of Chapter 1) and they provide a useful orientation to the many, many factors that may be influencing an ELL's experiences in school and in learning a new language.

Guidelines for Meeting with Families

In addition to making sure an interpreter is available, there are some important considerations that can help your communication with families go more smoothly.

  • Start by talking with ESL teachers, bilingual teachers, or family liaisons. Ask them for guidance on partnering with families to learn more about their students' experiences.
  • Once you have a little context, you may wish to set up a conversation with the family to learn more about the student's educational background. Explain that knowing a little bit more about the students' past experiences can help the school provide the right kind of instruction.
  • Take some time to get to know the family a little bit rather than jumping in with a lot of questions. Keep the questions focused on your student's schooling, unless the families wish to discuss other issues.
  • Some families will welcome the chance to share information about their child's experiences. If families are reluctant to answer many questions, however, don't push. Look for clues and continue working on building relationships that will create trust.
  • Keep in mind that some families may not be comfortable talking about certain aspects of their experience, such as their immigration journey, past traumatic events, or even their cultural identity and home language, as in the case many Indigenous families from Latin America.
  • While each family's situation is unique and it's important not to make assumptions, families from the same country or region may also share some experiences in common that can inform your work. Noting these trends can help the school partner more effectively with students as they get to know students' better.
  • Never ask questions related to immigration experiences. All K-12 students have the legal right to attend public schools regardless of immigration status.

What do I need to know about my ELLs?

Learning to Pronounce Students' Names

Taking the time to learn to say students' names correctly can make a world of difference. Read more about why it matters and strategies for learning to pronounce names that are new for you in our related resource section.

Focusing on the following questions will help guide your research as you begin.

1. Where is my student from?

This question may be easy to answer, but you may also find that it isn't as easy as it first seemed! Your students may have:

  • Recently immigrated from their country of origin
  • Recently arrived from a different country than their country of origin (as in the case of a refugee camp)
  • Been born in the U.S.
  • Moved frequently between multiple countries, such as the U.S. and Mexico
  • Moved around the U.S., as in the case of migrant farmworkers

Finding out this single detail will also provide your first clues as to the student's prior experiences with schooling, the family's socio-economic situation, and any previous traumas (see below for more information). To learn more about the dangerous conditions that children may experience on their journy from Latin America to the U.S., see this report from Buzzfeed.

Sources of Information: You may be able to learn about the student's background from students themselves, parents, siblings, the home language survey, or student records.

Once you know more, it may be helpful to learn more about:

  • Country of origin
  • Cultural and religious traditions
  • Political or historic situations that may be affecting patterns of immigration
  • "DOs" and DON'Ts" of social behavior and communication (Cary, 34).

It is easy to get overwhelmed, but focus your research on information that seems most relevant to your student and the family situation.

Recommended Resource: One useful tool is a set of books written by Jeffra JoAnn Flaitz about international students and immigrant/refugee students. Both books include profiles of the most common countries of origin for ELLs in the U.S. with information about culture, language, education, teaching styles, and classroom behavior.  A sample chapter about El Salvador is available online.

Note: Since the books were written in 2003 and 2006, they may not have recent information about ongoing global conflicts or trends that are affecting your current students, although they will provide useful background information to more recent developments.

Classroom Ideas: You may wish to have students share information about their background with classmates through use of a globe, world map or class projects. You can also look for related materials such as children's books to share with the class and ways to integrate information about other countries throughout the curriculum so that students can continue to share information about their background as their language skills progress during the year. This is also an important step in helping students develop pride in their heritage.

Keep in Mind: 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 another country, remember that what you learn may not reflect your student's experiences in that country. In addition, remember that students who speak the same language or who hail from the same country may not have all that much in common, and in fact may experience some tension if they come from different ethnic backgrounds or groups with histories of conflict.

For example, it is important to recognize the diversity within the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. Spanish speakers may hail from Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Spain, or another part of the world! Students are likely to identify more with their nationality ("Salvadoran" or "Colombian") as opposed to the broader term "Latinos."

In addition, Spanish may be the student's second (or third) language if the student grew up speaking an indigenous language, such as Quechua, a language spoken in the Andes. Remember that cultural traditions and language vary not only across countries but within countries, just as in the U.S.

Vignette #1: Teacher Amber Prentice Jimenez learned this lesson when she discovered that two of her Somali students came from different ethnic groups that had been directly linked to the violence that led them each to come here as refugees, and she was very careful about managing their work together as the students became more comfortable with each other. Learning more about each student's background and the history of the conflict that had affected each of them helped her address these challenges.

Vignette #2: ELL education professor Stephen Cary shares the story of Lenny, a teacher who received a new boy, Ka, in his classroom. Ka told the class that he was from Laos and was "Mung" (as Lenny understood it). Lenny's first search on information about the "Mung" people was fruitless, until he looked for information on Laos and discovered information about the Hmong people. Then the floodgates of information opened and he spent hours online, reading about the Thai refugee camps where many Hmong families waited to receive permission to come to the U.S., as well as learning about the Hmong language and traditional Hmong beliefs.

Lenny's efforts were quite admirable, but he became so absorbed with what he learned about the traditional Hmong beliefs about sickness (as documented in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) that he when he heard from an uncle that Ka was sick and would miss school, he envisioned an "evil spirit, animal sacrifice, and shaman scenario."

As it turned out, Ka had strep throat, and the uncle reported that they "went to the hospital and got antibiotics." It was a wake-up call for Lenny, who was reminded that adjusting to life in a new country takes place on a continuum and may not be an all or nothing proposition. (Cary, 22-32)

2. What brought my student and/or my student's family here?

People move to a different country for all kinds of reasons. Those might include a new job, a chance to reunite with relatives, cultural exchange, political asylum, or escape from a war zone. For students who were born in the U.S., their parents or grandparents may also have come to this country for the same reasons. When getting to know a student, it's important to ascertain the situation that brought the family to this country to the extent possible.

You may learn that the family is in a very comfortable position and is enjoying the benefits of a new position or scholarship. You may also learn that the family has recently experienced significant trauma, that a parent or sibling is still living in a different country, or that the parents are working multiple jobs here in the U.S. and are not able to provide much supervision to their children.

You may also find, however, that students are afraid to talk about what brought their family here or where they came from. If questions about the student's past provoke anxiety, don't pressure students to respond. You may find the answer from another source or from the student in time.

Sources of Information: Some students or families may be reluctant to share too much information about their personal lives at first, particularly if they are unable to discuss it in English. With time, they may feel more comfortable sharing information with the help of an interpreter when they understand that your primary aim is to support their child.

You may also be able to learn more from community members or organizations who have ties to the family's country of origin. Did a refugee placement bring the family here? Is a new food processing plant opening up in town that is hiring workers? Is the family attending a religious institution where they are receiving support? Look for answers in your community, and keep your eyes and ears open in the classroom as well may to look for clues through the student's conversation, artwork, writing, or play.

3. What should I know about my student's family?

Some questions that may be helpful to answer about the student's family include the following:

  • With whom does the student live?
  • Is there a family member at home who speaks English and can serve as a primary point of contact?
  • Does the student have family members who are living far away?
  • Does the student have responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or relatives?
  • Does the student have a job?
  • Are there any other stressors that may be affecting the student, such as financial difficulties, immigration status, pressure from parents, difficulty fitting in, or an unstable home life?

Sources of information: If the student is in a fluid situation (such as in a family of migrant farmworkers or in a family where the parents are separating), it might be difficult to determine where the student lives and with whom. Even if the basics can be learned, however, it may not tell the complete story. Nevertheless, it is important to know who the adults are in the student's life with whom you can begin to build a relationship, such as a grandparent or an aunt or uncle.

Some ways to get to know your student's family include:

  • organizing home visits at the beginning of the year
  • holding parent meetings in the communities where ELLs live so that it makes it easier for families to attend
  • looking for ways that parents can help out or volunteer in the classroom.

Keep in Mind: Even young students may have big responsibilities in their family; being aware of those responsibilities and establishing a line of contact with the families may provide an opportunity to find solutions together if those responsibilities conflict with the student's schooling or extra-curricular activities (think Ana's after-school job at her father's restaurant in Stand and Deliver!).

4. What language(s) does my student speak?

Learning about your student's home language or languages can be useful because you can:

  • Determine if the language is closely related to English (such as Spanish) and if so, build on those similarities with cognates
  • Find clues to the student's syntax, pronunciation, or communication style in English (called "language transfer")
  • Look for materials such as books or other educational resources in that language to have available in the classroom
  • Discover that an otherwise quiet student with "limited" English is in fact fluent in 2, 3, or 4 other languages! Such was the case of one of Michelle Lawrence's students from Buffalo, NY featured in the beginning of our Watch and Learn Story Set-up clip. She was very shy, but we soon learned that she spoke 4 languages, and we finally convinced her to list them on camera!

Sources of Information: You might find information about the student's home language on the home language survey, although it is important to take that information with a grain of salt in case the family is reluctant to have a child placed in ESL or bilingual classes. Speaking with the student and family in person is likely to give you a better picture of their language background; however, they may need more information about the kind of language instruction and its goals available at the school first before they disclose much detail about their language background.

Keep in Mind: Students who have been living in the U.S. may have moved between different kinds of language programs and classrooms even within the same school, and there may be significant gaps in both their home language and their English skills. As you learn more about their language proficiency levels, look for signs of both social and academic language in both languages in order to inform your instruction. Remember, too, that even if students can read in English, they might not be literate in their home language if all or most of their prior schooling was in the U.S.

Classroom activities: Once you know what languages your student speak, give them opportunities to teach their classmates and teachers words or phrases from their language.

Vignette: Stephen Cary describes the approach in Dolores Espinosa's K-1 class, in which students take turns being the "language teacher" for one week at a time. Students teach informal phrases to the class, which the students naturally incorporate into their interactions with each other over time. Native English speakers also have the opportunity to teach a heritage language of an earlier generation. Phrases are posted around the room, and a parent or relative will come in to do an activity with the class in the language of the week, such as a game or song. (132-133)

Not only does Dolores' approach provide a rich, multilingual experience for all students, it validates the student's background and identity, creating an opportunity to be an "expert" – a welcome break from being the one learning (and learning in) a different language all day long!

Recommended Resources: Jeffra Flaitz's books on understanding international, refugee, and immigrant students, mentioned above, include a guide to the linguistic systems of the featured languages as well as information about nonverbal behavior.

Additional information about language transfer for particular languages can be found in these tip sheets from Cengage Learning and MacMillan.

5. What kind of schooling has my student had?

This question may be fairly straightforward if a student arrives with a transcript or summary from previous schools, or if the student can demonstrate proficiency in other academic subjects such as math (even without advanced English skills). However, the picture may also be incomplete; records may not be available or the lack of information may reflect inconsistent, interrupted or limited schooling experiences, as in the case of refugee or migrant students.

Sources of Information: The student might be able to tell you about prior schooling experiences, but the input of a parent would probably yield more information. In addition, having another adult from the child's home country, such as an interpreter, school aide, or community member present may offer more context on a likely schooling scenario.

For students who have been in the U.S. at least a year, you may also be able to glean useful information from prior student records, portfolios, or teacher notes, particularly if the student attended your school the previous year.

What to look for: Useful information to determine includes:

  • Years of schooling
  • Types of school attended
  • Literacy background
  • Academic record
  • Prior English instruction
  • Any learning disabilities or special needs
  • Areas of giftedness
  • Favorite subjects

If possible, it may also be useful to find out about the student's school experiences; did the student like independent work or group activities? Did the student struggle with any subjects in particular? What was the student's behavior like?

Learn more: To learn more about other countries' educational systems, take a look at Jeffra JoAnn Flaitz's books mentioned above, which include detailed information on educational approaches, classroom behavior, teacher and student interactions, and how schools operate in the profiled countries.

6. What are my student's interests?

Last but not least, don't forget to find out about the fun things! What are some favorite hobbies, sports, and activities? In some cases, those activities may be a hook to student engagement, speaking more English or to making new friends – although there are no guarantees!

Vignette: In chapter 4 of his book (also available online through the Heinemann website), Stephen Cary shares the story of Cathy, a second-grade teacher who tried using her students' personal interests to engage them in the classroom. In the case of Erica, who loved music, some encouragement to look through the class CD box and write music reviews brought her out of her shell and provided a foundation for what soon became rapid language development; however, in the case of Gustavo, an avid soccer player, all of Cathy's soccer-themed activities fell short. Then over winter break, Gustavo made a friend who was also a soccer player, and his English took off (Cary, 53-55).

Even if your efforts don't yield big dividends in the classroom, though, knowing what those favorite activities are and talking about them with your students will show your student that you care about him or her as a person and that you see the student as more than an English language learner.

Sources of information: Look for signs of student interests in book selections, writing assignments, conversations, and artwork. Even if your student can't communicate very much about those interests at first, the signs may still be there. Parents are also an important source of information and will likely be happy to talk about the activities that their child enjoys when given a chance, such as in the case of Clara's parent letters mentioned above.

Concluding Thoughts

There is never enough time to do as much as you would like, and at first you may feel discouraged at all the information that you won't be able to learn. Nevertheless, taking some small steps may yield big results in your classroom and you will learn information that will serve you well when teaching other students in the future as well. Just remember Katie's message – if you focus on the who, the what will start to care of itself!

Video Clips: Meet the Experts

This video playlist is also available on YouTube.

The following educators are featured in the above videos. Full interviews are available in our Meet the Experts section:

About the Author

Lydia Breiseth is the Manager of Colorín Colorado. Ms. Breiseth manages content, web production, outreach, and partnerships on behalf of the project. Prior to working at Colorín Colorado, Ms. Breiseth served as the Community Affairs Liaison at Telemundo Washington DC. Ms. Breiseth has taught both English and Spanish as foreign language to elementary, high school, college, and adult students and spent a year in Ecuador teaching English to graduate students with the educational exchange program WorldTeach. Ms. Breiseth received her Bachelor's Degree in English with a Minor in Latin American Studies from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She resides in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.

Special thanks to Dr. Karen Ford, Susan Lafond, Amber Prentice Jimenez, and Becky Corr for their contributions to this article.


Cary, Stephen. (2007). Working with English Language Learners : Answers to Teachers' Top Ten Questions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Flaitz, Jeffra JoAnn. (2003). Understanding Your International Students: An Educational, Cultural, and Linguistic Guide. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Flaitz, Jeffra JoAnn. (2006). Understanding Your Refugee and Immigrant Students: An Educational, Cultural, and Linguistic Guide. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Freeman, D. and Freeman, Y. (2011). Between Worlds: Access to Second Language Acquisition (3rd Edition). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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Hello I would like to use the information for research. Thanks

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