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.



I try to this with all of my students. I have taught at a school with various language barriers and a lot of what this article suggested were things that I automatically did.

I love the part about bring the culture of the students into the classroom. It is so important to encourage ELLs to share their language and culture with the class.

Being a part of the Cultural Immersion Program through GCPS was instrumental in my understanding of what students are experiencing when they enter a new environment, in which their language is not spoken. Google Translate is my best friend. It helps me to communicate information and expectations to my students without overloading or burdening my Spanish-speaking students.

This is a great article that assist teachers in creating a comfortable, welcoming environment for students from other countries or who speak a different language. I totally agree with "buddying" the new student up with a partner to provide instant support and care for the newcomer. Also being sensitive to their native name also offers a connection and symbol of genuine care.

Good reminders of the things we need to include when we have an ELL. I had forgotten a couple of them...

I like to use cooperative learning with my EL students, too.

There were several interesting points presented in the video. Connecting with the student's family and understanding their family background is very important. Is this a child who suffered the horrors of war? Educators need to be sensitive to this. It was also enlightening that we respect the intelligence of the student and "Honor the knowledge they have".

Some very good points, although some appear to be more "immediate" than others

Great ways to create welcoming environment.

I loved the idea of learning "I don't know" in as many languages as possible.

Even though most of my ELLs have exited the program, I still see them perk up and respond positively when I use a bit of their home language. They are pleasantly surprised when I do.

Pronouncing a student's name shows respect.

I definitely understand the significance and importance of leaning names and attempting to communicate with my EL students by incorporating their native language.

Make their first days positive. Have them feel comfortable and welcome. Take time to learn their names (real names). Make sure they are adjusting to a new culture and language. Have up posters that are bilingual.

Students coming to the country face many challenges. As well as trying to learn a new language, they also may be trying to learn a new way of life. One way to help them is to make is easy for them the first few weeks. Instead of giving them a nickname because you find their name difficult, take the time to learn their name and try learning some of their common phrases. Also team them up with a buddy.

You should make the first days of an ELL student's days as positive as possible. The students are adjusting to a new culture and a new language. They are trying to figure out how to act in a new environment. It is good to have a helper student to translate for them. It is welcoming to know how to pronounce their real name. You should have posters that are bilingual and welcoming.

Great information, very helpful

This information was helpful!

Making sure that ELL's have a welcoming classroom is great and having peers that speak the language is very important to students.

Show ELL students I care by meeting them where they are at in their journey of learning English. Respect their ideas, thoughts, and knowledge. I need to know how to say their name correctly because it makes them feel seen and respected.

As with all students, learn their names is the most important trait to assisting ELL students! I believe in doing so, they will be more willing to ask questions and have an open communication with the teacher. I like the idea of assigning a student mentor! I will continue to work to make my classroom visuals more ELL friendly.

It is important to be welcoming by pronouncing their name correctly and finding a peer to help them throughout the day.

It is important to make ELL students feel comfortable in our classrooms.

As I listened to the interviews of the experts, I took great pleasure in knowing that I have been implementing most of their strategies to help my ELL students feel welcome in my classroom. I have even been trying to add more key words to my limited vocabulary of their language.

Great suggestions to help the ELL's feel comfortable in a new environment for learning.

I have watched the video, and reviewed the article.

This article gave lots of crucial information

I think that the above strategies will build a great foundation for a classroom with Early English learners.

I think the above strategies will be a good foundation for ELLs.

I understand the importance of creating a positive and welcoming environment in my class. It also important to celebrate and recognize diversity throughout the school.

The video has great ideas about how to make new ELL learners feel more comfortable.

Creating a welcoming environment is an essential component for the success of ELL students.

Very good practices were covered to make our ELL students part of our classroom and school community.

Great suggesting in how to make our ELL students and parents feel part of our learning community.

The video gives great ideas of how to engage with an EL. The video is a good reminder for returning teacher as well.

It is important to be consistent and fair with all students, especially ELL students. Visuals are particularly effective at helping students understand what is expected of them in the classroom.

I'm using Google translator now to create labels around my classroom in English, French, Vietnamese, and Spanish.

This was a very informative article.

It is very important to create an inviting and positive classroom environment when welcoming ELL students. Learning the successful strategies explained in this module is vital in the learning of ELLs.

I do many of things in my classroom. I am a physical education and health teacher and they can certainly feel out of place. We do our best to welcome all into our class.

Great suggestions for making them feel welcome.

Under the subheading Involving ELL in Cooperative Learning, I like the comment about how cheating is a learning style that ELL use to help them complete assignments.

Great information to help our ELL succeed.

I agree with this article that creating a welcoming environment to EL learners. I strive to make my room welcoming to my students by creating assignments that are engaging to all my students. I want to learn about them, so I make assignments that they can create things that show me about them and where they come from. I also like to pair my EL students with friends that speak the same language so that in case they are not getting what I say then I can have a student help in the translating the assignment to make them feel I care about what they do.

I will 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.

I love the idea of learning a few little phrases in different languages to make the students feel welcome in your classroom.

The videos were very informative and I have obtained additional strategies that I can apply to my classroom to assist my ELL students.

The videos were very informative and I was able to obtain additional strategies that can help me to better facilitate my ELL students in my classroom.

I love seeing the ELL students work with peers. I have a niece and nephew that speak another language and it can be difficult for them.


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