The Essentials of Welcoming Classroom for English Language Learners

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Written by David Campos

Often English language learners find the first days of school intimidating because they are insecure about how to best navigate their classroom. To relieve some of the uncertainty they are experiencing given their varying levels of limited English proficiency, it is critical to creating classroom environments that are warm and inviting. Consider some of these essential strategies that can help facilitate students’ academic, social, and emotional achievement in your classroom.

Make a Connection

As a starting point, make a concerted effort to instantly connect and bond with students. More specifically, maintain a positive body language. It’s important that you shake their hands, maintain eye contact, and smile often. Offer a warm hello and welcome in English and in the languages represented in your room. Compliment their fashions, hairstyles, or prominent features (for example, “You have such a pretty smile,” or, “That’s a cool haircut.”). Encourage friendly conversations by nodding, expanding on what they’ve said, and asking open-ended questions that prompt them to elaborate. Call students by names they prefer. If their names are hard to pronounce, ask them how to say them and practice repeatedly with their guidance. If the opportunity presents itself, consider putting them on the back or giving light hugs if their own body language conveys a need for such a form of endearment.

During the first few weeks of school, help the students as they work in class even if they don’t ask for it. As most teachers can attest, ELLs are quiet in class or they may pretend to understand. Some students fear asking questions, seeking clarification, or starting conversations; others are reluctant to participate because they don’t want to stand out. In your communication with them, be sensitive to their developing language needs and speak slowly and clearly, repeat and rephrase important concepts, and define/redefine key vocabulary using visual representations as needed, especially terms associated with the specific content.

Use Photos

There are many ways to use pictures of students to build community in the classroom. For example, take photographs of individual students following the rules, compile them into a PowerPoint slide, set it on looping, and show it as a reminder of the behavioral expectations. The photos could be assembled with the steps they should follow for the morning routine: “Rodrigo says to put your backpack in your cubby; Nakita says put your clip in the basket so the teacher orders you a lunch; Charlies says to sit at your desk quietly and read a library book,” and so forth. Or, for high school classrooms, the routine to follow can incorporate photos that show students turning their cell phones off, putting them away in their backpacks, and accessing them at appropriates times.

Other headshot photos can be used to create an “About Me” bulletin board that showcases the students’ cultural background, family life, and interests and talents. Students in middle and high school can create collages about their lives, which can then be displayed around the classroom. Encourage them to bring photos of their family, friends, or pets they cherish, and post these in a prominent area of the classroom.  Keep in mind that students want to know about your life, too. So, include photos of yourself when you were their age and of people and pets that are important to you.

A group photo can also be used to augment a classroom pledge created with student input, which can guide students to embrace working cohesively and helping one another learn.

Engineer the Classroom Environment

Environmental variables are critical for English language learners, too. Nearly all students are positively affected by colorful displays of content-related posters, anchor charts that document their contributions to lessons, and their own artwork and assignments. Keep in mind that pictures of celebrities, actors, cartoon characters, and music groups the students hold in high regard can motivate them to learn especially if a saying that conveys a positive spirit, builds community, and encourages collaboration is printed on it. Survey your students to determine who is meaningful to them, but be sure to post role models from different cultures who have made a significant impact in society. A Google image of these individuals with a superimposed saying of your choice can be printed and posted in the room. English language learners can help translate the sayings into their heritage language.

Stock your classroom libraries with books that reflect the students’ cultures, experiences, and daily lives, which can help them develop a positive cultural identity. Include biographies of men and women from different cultures who contribute significantly to the content areas. Balance the library with books that teach readers about people from all walks of life. For middle and high school classroom libraries, consider including interesting magazine and journal articles that celebrate the diversity represented in the community.

Craft Interactive Learning Experiences

Use cooperative learning exercises that require students to work in pairs or as a team. Start off by teaching them the procedures for collaborative work. This can be accomplished by explaining the rules and following with a demonstration where the students work together to learn about their individual lives and interests. The students can interview one another by using survey inventories (e.g., What’s your favorite song? What’s your favorite food?) or creating questions they can ask each other. The goal is to create a learning environment where students learn to appreciate diverse talents and abilities and work together in harmony. Remind native speaking students to increase their wait time, speak clearly, use gestures, be encouraging, offer positive feedback, etc. as they interact with their ELL peers.

Also, have the students participate in activities that require them to document their learning. These strategies, otherwise known as visible thinking/visible learning strategies, validate student responses because their contributions are written on anchor charts and posted for the class to see. Such strategies honor what ELLs have to say, and more importantly, draws attention to the rich background knowledge and assets they bring to the classroom. If ELLs are hesitant about making contributions, assign them a buddy who can help compose their ideas. Graphic organizers are just as important and can help ELLs build on their visual understanding or simplify content matter that may otherwise be overwhelming.

Finally, design lessons that include fun activities to assess how well the students have achieved the learning objective. Consider having the students complete art projects where they can draw, sketch, or paint; show their talents by acting, dancing, writing/reciting poetry, and playing/singing music; and solve real-life math and science problems. These sorts of activities afford ELLs the opportunity to show you and their peers how their abilities are not limited to what they can say, read, or write in English.

In sum, ELLs enter our classrooms with rich cultural background and cultural experiences. If teachers implement strategies such as those described above, they create classroom environments where ELLs feel welcomed to showcase their assets. Given ample opportunities to do so will further facilitate their English language acquisition.


David Campos began his education career more than 15 years ago when he started teaching 2nd grade. He later entered graduate school, taught ESL, and worked in corporate training and development. He has written three books grounded in youth sexuality: Sex, Youth, and Sex Education; Diverse Sexuality in Schools; and Understanding Gay and Lesbian Youth. Additionally, his most recent book is Expanding Waistlines: An Educator’s Guide to Childhood Obesity. He has also co-authored a resource text and evaluation instrument for teachers of English language learners titled Practical Ideas That Really Work for English Language Learners. His peer-reviewed articles focus on constructivist teaching and authentic assessment by way of African American visionaries. Dr. Campos traveled to China in 2004 on a Fulbright grant. Dr. Campos can be reached at 210-283-5029 or campos@uiwtx.edu.

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