5 Ways School Principals Can Support English Learners

English learners (ELs) 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 and will enrich the culture of your school. School principals need to use these experiences to help general education staff and students begin to understand other cultures. They should build on the knowledge their EL students and families have of the countries they come from and the cultures they represent.  Here are some five additional thoughts on what school principals need to do to support the ELs in their school and build an optimal educational environment for them.

1. Create a schoolwide environment of welcome and respect for students and parents who are new to the United States.

Principals need to use the expertise of their ESL staff to help their school create an atmosphere of welcome and respect for people from diverse cultures. They need to support teachers to provide a strengths-based environment for ELs.  ELs need a real sense of being safe and valued members of their classroom communities. The need to be seen as capable learners who have something to contribute. These four essential experiences—feeling safe, valued, capable, and worthy—are the basis for creating a strengths-based classroom, especially those who have experienced trauma. Advise your staff not to dwell on what ELs can’ yet do and inspire them to give lots of encouragement and praise for what ELS can do.

Here are some strategies to help prepare mainstream students to welcome ELs into the school and the classroom:

  • Have students 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 classrooms or at a schoolwide program.
  • Display pictures and maps from your students’ home counties around your building.
  • Include funds in your budget for materials in the languages of your school. This includes books, music, and photographs.

2. Get to know your ELs.

Your ELs are not a homogenous group. You may have some newcomers who have interrupted formal education (SIFE) and others who demonstrate grade-level literacy in the home language. You may have a majority of students who are in ESL but were born in the United States. Some ELs may be long-term ELs (LTE).

Ask staff members to avoid the temptation to create a nickname or Americanize a child’s name. Ask parents of ELs 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 them. 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. Be sure to use both parts of a two-part name.

3.Develop quality programs for ELs, especially those who are newcomers.

Schools need to provide more ESL instruction to beginning ELs. They need daily instruction in academic English listening, speaking, reading, and writing. This instruction should be tied to what’s going on in the general education classroom. It is not enough for beginning ELs to sit in content-area classes with English speakers. They need to have extra ESL time and should have instruction at their English language development level.

Take the needs of ELs into account when you make decisions that affect all students. For example, one school that I know developed an essential question that excluded the ELs in their school. They asked, “What does being American mean to our school culture?” Decisions made at the district and school level must include all students.

 4. Include parents of ELs in the education of their children.

When families of ELs are actively engaged in the education of their children, those children will attend school more regularly, be less likely to drop out, and be more successful academically. Many administrators and teachers do not know how to communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices, but it is important for schools to engage the parents of ELs.

5.Provide professional development for all staff members on English language development and the culture of your students.

It’s important to provide a specialized program for all staff members who come into contact with your ELs. This includes support staff, school secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and security. The culture of your ELs needs to be respected outside of the classroom. This includes on the bus, in the hallways, cafeteria and playground.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to 5 Ways School Principals Can Support English Learners

  1. Danielle Sisson-Jones says:

    I love how this article includes key points about including our EL students in the culture of the school environment. Teachers are responsible for making out students feel accepted and safe in the classroom, but administrators are tasked with making sure these students feel safe and welcomed in the whole school. I like several of these points, especially making sure that all essential questions include everyone. It would be devastating to see students being asked to learn something that was not even possible for them to learn (“what does being American mean to our school culture?” is exclusive of students who are not American). I additionally really liked the stance on Americanized names. I have always felt it distasteful for a teacher or school to ask a student to change their name. A name is identity and so much more, and we should never ask our students to change that.

  2. Meredith says:

    I love this blog! I am currently a graduate student and am studying how to best work with EL students. I found this to be very interesting because I have been learning on what teachers can do to support EL students, but love the perspective on what the principals can do as well. I loved the section about how to create a comfortable environment for both the EL student and their parents. I believe that another way to create a safe and comfortable environment for both the EL student and their parents would be to have labels throughout the school in their language. This allows them to have familiarity in the environment and also allows learning opportunities for students who’s native language is English. Knowing the correct pronunciation of a student’s name is so important. Their name is what makes them unique and so it is very important for the staff to be able to know the student’s name and to also know how to correctly say it. This simply action will allow the EL student to feel valued and worthy. I also agree with your statement on how it is very important to include the parents of EL students in the education of their student. Communication can unfortunately be a huge barrier between the teacher and the parent. One suggestion could be to have a form full of important information for the parent in their native language. This will allow them to feel both connected and comfortable because they are now on the same page as the teacher when it comes to their child’s education. Finally, I loved the point about having all of the staff professional development on EL students and their culture. I never realized that it is more than just the teacher who interacts with these EL students and having the entire staff on board will be an overall benefit for our EL students!

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