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

Very concise explanation of this topic. Many concrete ideas for ELL support.

It is very important to bring the cultures of ALL students into the classroom. When students share their language and cultures with the class, it helps the ELL's and the other students become partners in the classroom culture. I have always made a point of being able to pronounce all students' names. Students feel much more welcome if the teacher and other students know their names.

Can relate! Very informative and accurate.

This was such an informative article and video. Making sure you put yourself in that child's position helps you see how they acknowledge things in the classroom.

very informative and great information

Very useful information. Will do all.

I include artworks from other cultures

It is important to encourage ELLs to share their language and culture with you and your class.

I like how they assign a peer partner. This is very helpful.

This is a review of the class I just took.

I like the idea of calling a student by their actual name instead of a nickname. I think it shows you actually care about the student and their culture rather than just "Americanizing" everything they do.

Having bilingual books in the classroom helps students to feel like their needs are important to you.

The reading was very informative. One takeaway is that the teacher should model the language to the ELL student, this will be very helpful to the ELL student. One more point is to remember to help the ELL students follow rules with visuals like pictures, symbols, and a reward system.

I agree on learning how to say/pronounce the student's name. It makes them feel important.

Its important to encourage ELLs to share their culture with their peers in order to build a classroom environment where all students feel valued.

I strongly agree that it is important to make ELL students feel welcome and to feel "safe" in class discussions. I loved all the strategies provided.

The tips for a welcoming environment was very helpful.

I like the idea of learning a couple of phrases, learning greetings and make sure I know how to pronounce all of their names. Also the importance of getting them a buddy to learn from.

THIS IS GREAT INFORMATION!

I firmly believe that our classroom environment needs to reflect the children we serve. It needs to be welcoming and our lessons also need to reflect their culture in a positive way.

I have been an administrator at a school where we would have many students with different languages spoken at home. I found all of the suggestions helpful and I'm happy that these ideas are being given to educators of ELL students.!!

I believe that the One on One is essential and needed.

Getting a peer partner for the ELL students and letting them working with a small group are very conducive in class. I have used an ELL paraprofessional in my class who can speak both language to help the ELL students. In some cases, these ELL paraprofessionals do provide very good emotional, social and academic support.

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