Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment for Pre-K–5 ELs

At the start of the new school year, classroom and ESL teachers will be meeting English learners (ELs) who are attending school in the United States for the first time.  Teachers can alleviate many fears experienced by beginning ELs by creating a welcoming environment in their classes. A nurturing teacher and welcoming classmates can greatly help beginning ELs cope with the challenges they face. The more comfortable new arrivals feel in your classroom, the more quickly they will be able to learn. The more anxiety students experience, the less language they will comprehend.

Help ELs develop pride in their language and culture

Tie the cultures of your ELs to your curriculum whenever possible. ELs will bring a wealth of experiences from their families, homes, neighborhoods, and communities to school. Children with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have stories and experiences that are unique. Teachers should use these experiences to help children begin to understand other cultures. They should build on the knowledge their students and families have of the countries they come from and the cultures they represent.

Here are some simple things teachers can do to help ELs acclimate to their new environment:

  • Learn a few words of the languages of your ELs and have them teach a few words to their classmates.
  • Ask bilingual parents to do cultural demonstrations in your classroom.
  • Display pictures  from your students’ home counties.
  • Post a daily schedule using icons for content subjects and special area instruction.
  • Have newcomers write in a home-language diary, read books in their home language, draw pictures of people and places in their home countries, and share music from their culture.
  • Include the culture of your students in your curriculum.
  • Encourage the maintenance of the home languages of your students. Whatever your students learn in their home languages will eventually be transferred to English.

Pronounce newcomer’s name correctly

Avoid the temptation to create a nickname or Americanize a child’s name. Ask the parents or a native speaker to help you learn the correct pronunciation of your student’s name. I suggest that you record the student’s names on your phone so that you can practice it. Determine which part is the given name and which is the family name. Some Asian names are given in reverse order from ours. The family name is first followed by the birth name. Two-part first names are common in many cultures, and may appear to be a first name and a middle name. Use both parts of a two-part name. Write the new student’s name on the board (with a phonetic version if necessary) to help your students pronounce the name properly.

Take ELs and their parents on a school tour

If possible, have bilingual aides or older students take ELs and their families on a tour of the important places in your school. This should include the main office, the nurse’s office, cafeteria, and the place where they catch the bus home. Show new learners of English immediately where the restrooms are and explain what the rules are for leaving the classroom. An accident can be a devastating embarrassment for a young student.

Explain emergency drills that your school has in advance

Before newcomers start school, ask a bilingual person to explain what fire or other emergency drills are. Schools in many countries do not conduct  fire or other drills and the noise from the alarm can be very frightening to a new arrival. Practice fire drill routines in advance of an actual drill.

Label classroom objects

Build up a supply of bilingual signs for your classroom. Label items such as door, chair, and clock in English and in the languages of your ELs. Even if a student is not literate in their first language, they  will likely recognize the written form.

Assign a bilingual buddy

A buddy who speaks the EL’s  language is a wonderful asset at the beginning of the school year. During the adjustment phase, the buddy can explain what’s going on. This is a good self-esteem builder for a bilingual buddy and a new friend for the EL. You may want to rotate buddies so that students do not become too dependent on one person and the bilingual buddy does not miss too much work. Keep in mind that peer buddies have a more limited use when students are 4–8 years old. Young bilingual students are not reliable interpreters of important information. Here are some ways a bilingual buddy can help.

  • Teach ELs the classroom routine so that they know what is going on.
  • Sit with new student in the lunchroom.
  • Communicate by using gestures and short phrases.
  • Include ELs in games on the playground.
  • Walk home with new students or sit with them on the bus.
  • Learn a few words of the newcomer’s language.

Schedule an extra period of ESL for beginners

Your school needs to provide more ESL instruction to beginning ELs. This is the time that the ESL teacher can teach basic routines and vocabulary to ELs. Beginners will struggle in an ESL class when they are grouped with second year ELs.

Focus on the positive

Give lots of encouragement and praise for what the student can do. Don’t dwell on all that they can’t yet do. Create frequent opportunities for their success in your class. Don’t call upon ELLs to perform alone above their level of competence. Prepare mainstream students to welcome them into the class.

Haynes, J. (2007) Getting started with English language learners: How educators can meet the challenge. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers (ASCD)

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and has been providing professional development for teachers of ELs around the United States since 2008. She is the author and coauthor of seven books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners“ with Debbie Zacarian. She is founder of the website everythingESL.net and was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher." She is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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