ELL Strategies for Success

How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment for ELLs

Boy and girl shaking hands in kindergarten classroom

Learn how to create a welcoming classroom environment for your English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students — and why it matters — with these strategies from Colorín Colorado. This article is part of our Strategies for ELL Success guide.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

An important first step in helping English language learners (ELLs) succeed is making them feel welcome in the classroom.

This will:

  • increase their confidence
  • make them feel more comfortable in the class
  • build a foundation for positive relationships with you and their peers.

Here's how you can get started!

Stages of Cultural Accommodation

Use these ideas in PD!

ESOL specialist Becky Corr shares ideas on how to use these strategies for professional development in this video.

The ELL student population includes students who were born in the U.S. and students who have immigrated from another country. For ELLs who have recently arrived in the U.S., they will face the challenge of learning a new language in addition to adjusting to an unfamiliar cultural setting and school system.

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.

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.

What is the 'silent period'?

It is also common for students who are learning a new language to be 'silent' for a period of time, when they are listening 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

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 you as an authority – and not a sign of their inability or refusal to participate.

Experience with trauma

Students may also have experienced trauma or face different kinds of hardship in the U.S. You can better prepare yourself for this possibility by:

Learn more from the following:

Videos: You Are Welcome Here

This award-winning documentary highlights how the Dearborn, MI public school district is helping its immigrant students succeed. Learn more about this project and see related videos.

Getting to Know Students

Learn how to pronounce students' names correctly

Build relationships with students

Veteran teachers of ELLs always point to building relationships as the most important step in their work with ELLs. Not only does it increase engagement and support students' later academic success, it also provides invaluable information that can inform your instruction and family engagement.

In addition, it can help build bridges with students who may have particularly unique experiences, such as children in migrant farmwork families or Indigenous students.

See more ideas on how to build these relationships from the following:

Video: Showing students you care

Corpus Christi teacher Christine Price talks about the importance of showing students you care early on.

Identify students' strengths and interests

It's important to remember that ELLs bring lots of strengths, talents, and rich experiences to the classroom. Getting to know students' interests can help:

  • build rapport
  • engage students in learning
  • find connections with new friends.

Families are also an important source of information and are often happy to talk about the activities that their child enjoys.  They may also appreciate the fact that their child's teacher is taking an interest in the child's strengths and talents. (This is especially true in special education settings.)

Video: My students' many talents

Teacher Omar Salem describes a student who not only sings and dances but manages her own YouTube channel and edits all of the video she posts of her performances.

 

Video: Using parent letters to get to know my students

Albuquerque teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza 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. In this interview, Clara speaks more about this strategy and its impact on her relationships with parents and students.

Ensure that students have information about activities and clubs

Make sure that students have information about extra-curricular activities, sports, and clubs related to their interests. You can also encourage them to start their own club within the school.

ELL educator Christine Rowland notes, "Many students find involvement in school clubs and teams to be extremely helpful, as they are often experts in these areas, and they can provide a space where they more easily feel they belong."

Welcoming Students' Language and Culture

Invite students' cultures into the classroom

Encourage ELLs and their families to share their 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.

Invite students and families to:

  • share photographs, visuals, or meaningful artifacts such as flags or mementos
  • tell a popular story or folktale using words, pictures, gestures, and movements
  • share information about important holidays or celebrations.

Looking beyond the classroom

Imagine that you are walking into your school for the first time as a parent. 

  • What do you see on the walls?
  • If your first language weren't English, would you see signs in your language?
  • Would you see flags, maps, or books representing your home country?
  • Would you see your child’s work on display in the hallway?

If you think more could be done to make families feel welcome, consider:

  • sharing some ideas with colleagues or administrators and taking small steps that you can point to as successes
  • looking for opportunities to celebrate all families and their languages, customs, and cultures, whether in the classroom or at a school-wide event
  • keeping a lookout for a special part of their lives that other families might appreciate getting to know.

See more ideas in the following:

Video: What happened when the students realized the Yemeni flag wasn't on stage

ELD Specialist Diana Alqadhi tells the story of some students who realized that the Yemeni flag was not featured prominently enough on stage before a school show.

Invite students' languages into the classroom

Label classroom objects to allow ELLs to better understand their immediate surroundings. These labels will also assist you when explaining or giving directions, and it gives peers an additional opportunity to learn some words in their classmates' language.

  • Start with everyday items, such as "door/puerta," "book/libro," and "chair/silla."
  • You may wish to ask students who can write in their first language or family members to help you with this project.

You can also invite students to teach the class some words from their home language.

Learn more about the resources available in students' home languages

Students benefit from support in their home language — what Dr. Fred Genesee calls their "most valuable resource." You have may have access to learning material in students' languages, or you may be able to find resources that support those languages.

Language access for multilingual families

In addition, it's critical to understand what language access resources you have available through your school and district, particularly for communication with families. Keep in mind that all families have a legal right to information in their home language. Family liaisons, interpreters, ESL teachers, or administrators may have more information about what language access resources are available in your district.

Video: What Do School Districts Need to Know About Language Access?

This helpful overview about what language access means for school districts is a great introduction to the requirements, best practices, and funding streams related to language access in public education. This interview features Dr. Jennifer Love, the Supervisor of Language Access and Engagement in Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland.

Video: Language Access for Multilingual Families

What does appropriate language access mean for multilingual families? This interview also features Dr. Jennifer Love.

Ensure your students see themselves reflected in the classroom

Ask yourself if students can see representations of their culture, race, gender, and other aspects of identity reflected in your: 

  • classroom materials and library
  • lesson plans and activities
  • classroom visuals (both in-person and virtual).

In addition:

 

Success in the Classroom

Encourage your students

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. Offer one-on-one support and encouragement as much as possible. For convenience, it may be helpful to seat ELLs near your desk.

Assign a buddy

Identify a classmate who will make a good buddy for new students — someone who is friendly, patient, and a good communicator to be a buddy. This student can make sure that the new student understands what he or she is supposed to do during class activities. It is helpful if the peer partner knows the ELL's first language, but not necessary. However, remember to never use another student as an interpreter in any situation.

Learn more about ways to increase peer interaction and collaboration in these related strategies.

Ask the class how they can help welcome new students

Ask students to brainstorm ways to help ELLs in particular. You may wish to make a list of ideas on how to welcome new students at the beginning of the year so that students have these strategies in mind if a student comes with little advance notice.

Help your ELLs understand expectations for the classroom

ELLs may need some extra support in understanding expectations for classroom behavior. Helping them understand these expectations can avoid misunderstandings, discipline problems, and feelings of low self-esteem.

At the same time, it's important to remember that students bridging two cultures may need guidance which behaviors are appropriate in which setting (such as eye contact, physical proximity, etc.). If you have questions, talk with a cultural liaison in the school to learn more about appropriate responses and ideas for helping students navigate a new culture. You can also learn more about cultural norms of your students, particularly related to schooling, to help inform your approach.

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.
  • Post a 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.

Finally, remember 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 — and remember that you will learn a lot from this experience too!

Be vigilant about health issues, dietary concerns, and allergies

Students may have specific health issues or dietary restrictions due to health, cultural, or religious reasons.  Be sure that you learn all essential information you need to know about student health and diet from parents or guardians. For ELLs, be sure to confirm and clarify this information with the help of interpreters. 

If you learn information about a student that would be helpful for other staff to know, particularly regarding health or food allergies, talk with administrators about how to keep the child safe.  In addition, be sensitive to cultural or religious norms, such as fasting for religious reasons.

Keep an eye out for signs of culture shock

Moving to a new country and leaving a familiar life, relatives, friends, and language behind can be traumatic for children in the best of circumstances. Those challenges are compounded if children have experienced trauma, violence, or upheaval. Learn more about how culture shock can impact students in the classroom and affect student behavior so that you recognize signs if newcomers act out.

Considerations During COVID-19

Ensure that students have a copy of their schedule and know where they need to be

As we all know, the schedules that students have to follow during virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning can be very confusing — and they may continue to change through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensure that students and their families have all of the information they need to attend their classes at the correct time. See the resources related to language access above as needed to facilitate communication with families.

Ensure that students have the technology access they need

When new students enroll, it's important to ensure they have access to learning devices and internet so that they can continue with any hybrid or virtual instruction. It's also important to help them get familiar with the technology early on in case they need to learn from home remotely. For ideas on expanding technology access for ELLs, see the following:

Video: Using technology with newcomer ELLs during COVID-19

Patrick Synan is a high school ELL teacher for newcomer students and students with interrupted formal education in Boston, MA. Many of his students are unaccompanied children from Central America. In this clip, he talks about the experience of teaching students how to use technology remotely and how far they have come since the beginning of the pandemic.

Videos: How can we make ELLs feel welcome in our schools?

These videos highlight helpful examples and ideas from educators across the country.

What to Do First: Creating a Welcoming Environment

Learn about these important first steps from teacher Amber Jimenez that will help ELLs feel welcome and get them on the path to academic success. Strategies include creating a print-rich environment and connecting content to students' cultures and experiences.

Top Tips for a Strong Start in a Newcomer Classroom with Carol Salva

ELL-Friendly Classrooms: What to Notice

Valentina Gonzalez shares things you should see and hear that help support English Language Learners as well as many other students as you walk through classrooms.

 

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References

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.

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Comments

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.

It is essential to invite and emerge the culture of ELLs into the classroom and their learning environment.

I think all this is important. Probably the best thing is to make the student feel welcome.

Coming from my own bilingual background, I think having bilingual signs posted around the classroom would be helpful, especially signs that point to bathroom, trashcans, and supplies. I also think having a peer helper who can assist with the daily routines would also be helpful to our ELL students.

I think it is very important to have the ELL student feel invited. This article has given me some good ideas. Now I will make sure to speak individually with my ELL student at the start of each assignment. Hopefully, this will illustrate my concern and encourage them to seek help when confused.

Interesting content because it points out things that we can easily overlook in dealing with EL students.

Learning to allow ELL students to work cooperatively with other students helps me and them.I was so focused on them learning for themselves that I was afraid of cheating, but this helps me see that cooperative learning is a huge benefit to them.

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