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Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment

By: Colorín Colorado
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.

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. Browse these bilingual books from our sister site Colorín Colorado.

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.

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these 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.

Colorín Colorado (2009)

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Comments

I adhere to the article stated above. Teachers really have the responsibilities to make their English learners feel comfortable while learning the English language. Thus, teachers need to use a number of strategies for them to cater the needs of such learners.

There are a lot of great ideas in this section. There is not one correct way to work with ELL students and this article notes that. A lot of intervention strategies will vary based on the school, district, teacher, students, etc. The article does not discuss how school counselors can help. Counselors can train the staff on general education strategies in a multicultural setting with ELL students. Each student is different so the counselor can take the time to get to know the student and family to best figure an integration plan. It is important teachers make their classroom comfortable to all and counselor can facilitate that so that teachers can focus on their expertise.

ELLs are adjusting to the American culture and language everyday. It is important, as LD mentions, to “be the bridge this unknown culture and school system. The page provides helpful information for teachers, but it could also be translated to the counseling profession. Today, many counselors are also teaching courses. As a counselor in training, I would use visuals in my classroom and office. All students could benefit from having classroom rules represented visually. LD also mentions to label classroom objects to allow ELLs to understand their surroundings. It would be helpful to pair ELLs with students who are reliable. LD states, “It would be even more helpful if the peer partner knows the ELL’s first language.” As a counselor in training, it would be imperative to have a brochure about confidentiality in all languages spoken in the school. ELL should feel comfortable speaking with counselors, and be fully aware of informed consent.

There are a lot of great ideas in this section. There is not one correct way to work with ELL students and this article notes that. A lot of intervention strategies will vary based on the school, district, teacher, students, etc. The article does not discuss how school counselors can help. Counselors can train the staff on general education strategies in a multicultural setting with ELL students. Each student is different so the counselor can take the time to get to know the student and family to best figure an integration plan. It is important teachers make their classroom comfortable to all and counselor can facilitate that so that teachers can focus on their expertise.

I found this article to be extremely beneficial for teachers and school counselors. English Language Learners have an additional difficulty in adjusting to their new schools because they are also trying to adjust to their new culture, community and environment at the same time. The ideas listed in this article can be very helpful for a ELL student who is trying to adjust to their new settings. Therefore as school counselors we can help teachers get a better understanding of how to help their ELL students feel more at home. I agree that it's important for teachers and all school staff members to learn how to pronounce and spell each students name correctly because it can determine how accepted the student feels. In addition, these students may not be accustomed to asking for help, or may simply be shy to, therefore it's important to seek them out and check in regularly. Peer partners are especially a great idea to help the student become adjusted faster. It can also help foster friendships. Finally, I agree that bringing in some of the students culture into the classroom can go a long way in how accepted the student feels, once again, and it can normalize the situation for the student and the classroom altogether. The different stages presented at the beginning are also good to keep mind, for both teachers and school counselors, because as students progress through these stages they might display some of these behaviors and it's a good to know that they might be doing it for the stated reasons and not for any other problematic reasons.

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