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

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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