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 teach reading recovery and sometimes serve EL students on the program.

Making sure the students feel comfortable in a learning environment is key to their success. Having things in place for ELL students to understand the material and learn is key. Helping them bridge the gap from their understanding of the material and their current language.

I like the suggestion on the use of visuals. I have not used that yet. I have been using a high achieving student as a buddy to help my EL students.

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.

I am excited to welcome ELLs to my classroom

I would welcome my ELL students as I would all of my students. I would welcome them with a smile and warm words of encouragement, so that they feel safe in our classroom environment.

Understand that the student needs to be welcomed, feel at home, into the classroom and feel that you are willing to help them as much you can. Introduce them to other that speak their language.

I like these strategies provided to help assist the ELL students in our classrooms. It is important to be consistent with classroom rules and procedures so that the ELL students will know what is expected every day. Once that is established, they will feel more comfortable and can focus on learning.

article read

It is important to create an inviting atmosphere for the ESOL classes. Work needs to be explained in both languages. The student should feel free to try new things in a nonthreatening environment. Peer partners are very important for comfort. When at all possible try to add the students culture to a lesson , so they feel at home in your class.

Many of the above practices not only help support EL students, but all students. This was a good reminder of best practices we should engage in to help support different types of learners.

Interesting tips on how to make non-English speakers feel welcomed in the classroom.

It is important to allow your EL to bring their culture into the classroom. I also agree with having a peer helper, help the EL learner in the classroom.

ELLS really appreciate a teacher learning how to say their name correctly.

I am going to create a welcoming environment by using pictures and labels.

I work in a predominantly Asian school and would love to label classroom items with Korean as well as English words. There should be a common classroom word bank in different languages available to teachers.

Creating an inviting environment enables ELL learners to be more successful with the curriculum. By first making them feel comfortable by learning their names, offering tools for better understanding such as labels around the room in both languages, translators, evidence of their cultures, and a partnering with a buddy will allow a relationship to build between themselves and the teacher will build a foundation for trust and give the ELL learner an environment where they want to learn and thrive.

Very informative useful information; helps make the ELLs perspective more personal as well as highlights many of the ELLs struggles that may get over looked.

I agree with the fact that we need to make students feel welcome in our school and classroom. I practice saying their name and always give them a buddy to help them when I am not available to help, this ensures their success. When students feel welcome and you build a relationship, they will trust you and want to learn from you.

Good stuff. Good for all classes, not just ELL students.

I think this information will really help me.

thanks. great points

She gave me some good ideal to keep in mind as I get new students in my class.

This was very informative.

I agree that it is important to show your students that you value their cultures too.

I use these strategies with all of my EL students. They really help.

Making ELL students feel welcome is an important tool for future success. Even small things like learning a phrase in their language shows a caring an nurturing attitude.

Making ELL students feel welcome is an important tool for future success. Even small things like learning a phrase in their language shows a caring an nurturing attitude.

Making ELL students feel welcome and a part of their environment is key to their success. Even small things like learning phrases in their language to greet them or have some dialogue helps them to see you are willing to make the effort and try along with them!

Very informative. I would like to see if our school could have signs in different languages as well.

It is important to know the names of the students. Usually the EL students are Spanish speaking and I speak Spanish and I make a point to communicate with the parents in Spanish. I also teach in both English and Spanish so that the students are able to make connections to their native language.

I can certainly help my students my modeling.

Great information provided in these videos.

The videos were very helpful in showing me how to welcome new students to my classroom. By having their materials ready for them when come in to making sure you pronounce their name correctly makes for a safe and comfortable classroom.

Art is often an excellent environment for students who are ELL because much of the content is visual.

I like the idea of printed words in English everywhere. When learning another language, vocabulary building is huge for confidence. Of course, the welcoming environment, open body language, and smiles will always help.

I agree that it is very important to make EL's feel comfortable.

I agree that it is very important to make EL's feel comfortable.

Great informaton! Welcoming, making new ELLs feel safe and let them know we are here to help and do everything to help them succeed are good strategies. I would like to know how can we involve parents more, have them understand the importance of being involved in their children's education, helping with homework, making sure to check grade book, etc. I enjoyed the course!

It is important to make students feel welcome as they are transitioning into a new culture, area, and classroom.

Google translator on the projector has helped students understand our mini-lessons. I make sure that we are looking at each other when speaking to ELL students, and practice short phrases in their language to help create a welcoming atmosphere.

Vietnamese is the most difficult, so they giggle when I try. I accept any effort they make when communicating to help them feel comfortable and know that I understand their struggle.

Caring is the key. Learning their name and how to say "hello" in their language shows that your care. Assigning them a friend provides a safety net. A routine takes away some of the unknown and lowers stress. Sharing a SMILE is the universal language and lets everyone know that they are welcome.

I always call students by their names. I think this is important in creating an environment that is welcoming to all. I also like the strategy of going over and giving them one on one assistance. I have notice that EL students are likely to smile and nod just as is says in the article. I like the idea of inviting their culture into the classroom by letting them use their language some and bring in, to class, items that show their culture. Using visuals like pictures and symbols to show rule and procedures is a good idea too. The EL students that I currently have speak English pretty well, but I will use these when needed.

I should do a better job of getting to know my ELL students and making them feel welcome in my classroom.

I feel it's very important to make your new ELL students feel comfortable in their transition to a new school.

Great help!

I believe non-verbal representations are very important to help the students participate in classroom activities independently.

I had never thought about having books available to my student's in their language. This is different than I was taught about ELL many years ago.

I like the idea of having a peer tutor for the bilingual student. This person can be their go to if I'm not immediately available.

As teachers of multilingual students it is imperative to note that students come to us from many different backgrounds and we must remember that a student's lack of English fluency does not determine their level of intelligence. Many simply need more time to be immersed in learning the new language and soon the dots will begin to connect for them. Likewise, including artifacts in the classroom that are inclusive of multi cultural backgrounds can make a world of positive difference in a child's educational journey.


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