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

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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