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.



It is assuring to know that my school has some of the things mentioned in the Welcoming video, such as bilingual signs throughout the school. To help me welcome non English speakers into my classroom, I often think about how it would be if I were in their country, entering a new classroom, and I didn't speak the language. I think that would be isolating and scary. With those considerations, I try to be mindful of the buddy that I assign to a non English speaker in hopes that would ease some of the fears and discomfort.

It's important to be cognizant of the fact that even the simplest of things i.e. opening a locker, finding the restroom, locating a classroom, etc... might be stressful for an incoming ELL student.

ELL students can sometimes be the hardest to acclimate into a new school. The language barrier is often mistaken for not having the intellect and students can easily become frustrated. Making sure that you have the class and classroom prepared for a new student is key. Teaming up a new student with one that speaks the same language is very helpful. Understanding school procedures like the bell schedule, lockers, lunchroom etc. can make the difference in the transition phase. Having materials in their language and learning a bit of each language will aid in making the students feel comfortable.

These video were really good refreshers as a elementary school teacher to help our new comers.

I agree with totally.

Great information. I have done some of what was suggested and the other I will add!

This article has some great tips about how to welcome ELL students into my classroom and make them comfortable and ready to learn.

I think the videos and reading are a great place to start with ELL students. Giving great strategies and resources to our ELL students will allow them to succeed while in our class. My favorites are learning a few words in the student's native language to make them feel welcome and pairing them up with a buddy that can help translating.

Great way to invite students from different cultures and languages into the classroom.

This was an interesting video. I think having signs posted throughout the school in multiple languages is one beneficial improvement to school climate.

I learned all of this when I took my certification.

I help EL's feel welcome in my classroom by assigning them more than one partner. This allows them to get to know several students at a time. That way when we are doing small group collaboration or activities they can feel comfortable with a group of students instead of just one. Also, I allow their peers to communicate instructions, class/school rules to them so they can adjust a little more easily.

I feel in order to make students feel comfortable in the classroom, no matter, the language, first and foremost a student needs to feel they are in a safe environment. Ways I learned to accomplish this is to learn things about the student's culture, learn a few phrases in their language, give extra modeling & one on one assistance, and assign a peer buddy.

I really liked the useful information such as greeting students in their native language when they come in everyday.

I have seen how students who speak English as a second language learn very quickly when we create this welcoming environment. Peer partners, signage in both languages with visuals, and incorporating their native language in the classroom in ways like reading books in both English and Spanish, helps instill a sense of confidence, security and pride.

This video was very helpful; I gained more tools to add to my toolbox to help me better address the needs of my students.

This is very useful information for classroom teachers and really help break it down to make applicable to every day teaching.

I do believe in everything stated here. It is important to know your students name to make them feel like you care. It is also important the they understand your expectations are no different for them then any other student.

There was one teachers took the time to learn 5 different languages to say "I don't know" They took the time

Keeping a welcoming environment help student to adjust to school culture and improve in academics

Whenever I receive a new ELL student, I regularly touch base with them during their first couple of weeks to make sure things are going well in all of their classes, as well as which classes they may be struggling with. Fortunately we have Peer to Peer tutoring to also assist with these students with their academics.

It is critical to make ELL students feel comfortable. We set the tone by learning the pronounciation of the student's name, connecting them with helpful peers and making them as comfortable as possible in this new environment.

I have two students in my class that have a home language other than English. I will provide more reading material to share their cultural background with others and make them more comfortable in the school environment.

The videos were very helpful and gave great ideas about welcoming new students to your classroom.

I have completed this section.

This year I have 4 ELL students who speak Spanish at home. I try and say something to them in Spanish at least once a day. The smile that comes across my students' faces is priceless. Pictures are used frequently for schedules and centers. I am sure to focus on new vocabulary when I read to the children. This helps all levels of students, not just my ELL students. Some of my parents feel more comfortable with an interpreter during conferences. This way they are able to ask any questions they might have about their child.

It is important to welcome the ELL child. Know that they are intelligent just do not know English. Get to know the exact pronunciation of their name and get to know some phrases that make them feel at home. Assign them a buddy. Understand that they may be coming from a very different place. Be consistent and fair and patient.

My student from Bosnia informed me that she never received formal lessons in English; rather, she loves watching American television, and she taught herself English this way. This gives me the idea that television in English can help to make transitioning easier to American life. I have to admit, that it does scare me a slight bit to think of what negative aspects of American life my student was exposed to. I concur that it's vital to include the child's culture into the classroom. This is a re-occurrence in my classroom each time we sing happy birthday to a student.

The TPR, or total physical response activities sound like a great idea. The student can learn the new English words much quicker when seeing them with a specific action. This can help the more visual ELL learners to learn quicker.
It makes sense also to touch base with your ELL student after directions are given, to make sure that they understand what is expected of them. Having a peer assigned to help them will help to make sure that they are always included.

Great article

This shows the need for teachers to relate to all students, and especially English learners. A welcoming environment will assist them in learning both the language and the subject matter.

In order to make my students feel more welcome in class I try to find a student that they are able to communicate with. I also make an effort to let them teach the class and I different native words and phrases. I send correspondence in the the students' language and provide a translator at conference.

It is important that the classroom be a comfortable place for EL students to learn and grow in all academics. I totally agree with what the presenters shared.

It is important to create a welcoming environment for ELLs by learning to pronounce their name correctly and when possible, assign a peer partner who speaks their language. Providing lots of visual clues around the classroom are helpful for ELLs.

I like the ideas of pronouncing their name the correct way and learning a few phrases in their language and giving them a buddy who speaks their language whenever possibl.e

Video and information was valuable to learning about the ELL population

Very interesting information with several strategies, some that I was familiar with and some new strategies.

I really loved this article and the videos. I had to learn English as second language myself and know how important it is to fell loved and accepted by teachers and peers.

Great idea to learn little bits of other languages to make students feel comfortable.

Asking students to share a part of their culture with a story is wonderful. A great way to learn another's culture is to share a food item that is special to their culture. Students love this!

This is very helpful

Being respectful of the culture of students in very important to making them feel welcome in an academic setting. Things that show respect include learning words and phrases in the native language of students, pronouncing students' names correctly, and using other students from the same culture to help familiarize the student to the classroom.

Using the techniques mentioned here do make our ESOL children more comfortable. I currently use several of these strategies in my classroom now.

I love the idea of learning basic phrases in each language represented in your classroom. It is also important to translate all communication the goes home to parents. Also, it is so important to pronounce the students' names correctly.

Very informative

Great video!

In my classroom I usually assign a peer partner and translator when possible. I use labels or visuals to help model common requests, items, and pharses.

I understand that it is very important to start the year off on helping parents and students our class procedures and use many visual prompts as needed.

I understand that it is important to bridge the gap here at school.

Great article. It confirms many things that I currently implement with my ELL's. I enjoy learning new languages so I'm always trying to learn theirs. My biggest take away is to label items in both languages.


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