Tips for Welcoming your ELL Students at the Beginning of the Year

by - August 08, 2017

(Plus a FREE download of Nonverbal Cues posters for your classroom!)

So it's that time of year again! Everyone is scurrying around gathering materials and supplies for their classrooms, decorating everything, and preparing for the arrival of a new group of students.

You get your class roster and feel a little knot in your stomach when you discover that you will have some ESOL students in your classroom this year. This will be the first time that you have had an ESOL student, and you have a lot of questions. Sure, you took a few courses in college that addressed teaching students with limited language proficiency, but you haven't encountered it yet.

You want your ESOL students to feel welcome in your classroom and you want to ensure that they are walking in to a welcoming environment, so what do you do? Here are some tips to help ensure the your ESOL students start the year on the right foot!

Keep scrolling to the end of this post for a FREE DOWNLOAD of Nonverbal Cues Posters for your Classroom!

01. Learn Everything You can!

Don't be afraid to do some research on your students beforehand. Find out how long they have been in an ESOL program how long they have been in the United States, what language they speak at home, their previous language proficiency test scores - this information is going to be invaluable. Just like any student, building positive relationships is going to be the key to successfully reaching your ESOL students. Know a little bit about their story before they ever enter your classroom.

02. Learn Some Phrases in their Native Language

Grab a language app like DuoLingo or Mango and learn some phrases in your students' native language. I have found that when a new ESOL student comes to my door, and I can say "good morning, how are you?" in their native language, their faces light up. They certainly don't expect that I can speak their native language fluently, but they certainly notice and appreciate that I tried!

This can be difficult if you teach in a metropolitan area where many different languages are spoken, so definitely don't beat yourself up trying to learn how to say "good morning, how are you" in 15 different languages!

03. Don't be Afraid to Look Silly

Don't be afraid to ask your students how to say things in their native language! They LOVE this. Don't be afraid to mispronounce words. Let them help YOU say the words correctly. They will appreciate your effort and this will help to build relationships. I spent a lot of time last year trying to beef up my Spanish, and my ESOL students loved to help me learn new words and phrases, and laughed when I said things incorrectly. We would have a good laugh, and then they would teach me how to say it correctly. It is important to show them that you value their native language and culture.

04. Label Things

Label things in your classroom with name labels in English. Objects, structures, supplies - label them with the English word. This will provide vocabulary support and allow for students to have some independence when asking for what they need or finding things in the classroom.

05. Use Non-Verbal Cues for Student Needs

Have a list of non-verbal cues that students can learn quickly that allow them to ask for what they need. You can use hand signals for things like "I need to go to the bathroom" or "Can I sharpen my pencil?" When students are first learning English, they can often be afraid to try to ask for what they need. Nonverbal cues alleviate some of that fear and allow students to ask for what they need. As they start to learn these cues, you can start teaching them how to ask for these things by having them repeat the phrase after you. It's a learning process.

Honestly, using non-verbal cues for all of your students is a great classroom management tool! 

Keep scrolling to the end of this post for a FREE DOWNLOAD of Nonverbal Cues Posters for your Classroom!

06. Ask a Lot of Questions!

Ask your ESOL students a lot of questions! Ask them how things are done in their culture, what their family is like, what their country is like, how they feel about being in the United States - just ask questions. I think that we feel uncomfortable asking questions like this because we do not want to offend students, but by inquiring about them, you are showing interest, showing that you care, and building that relationship with them. Some ESOL students can be angry about leaving their country, they can be angry about and resistant to learning English, and the best way to break down that wall is by having a really positive report with them.

In fact, it is far more important to build a trusting relationship with your ESOL students than it is for them to learn English quickly. The phrase "you catch more flies with honey" really applies here; the better your relationship is with that student, the less reluctant they will be to try. Learning a new language is hard - but not nearly as hard as being in a new place and feeling completely lost. They need solid relationships and the feeling of security more than they need English. Don't try to put the cart before the horse!

07. Do not Isolate Them!

Obviously when you start a new year, you don't really know any of your students very well, so your seating arrangement is going to be pretty random. Of course, as the next week or two passes and you get to know your students and begin to recognize who is chatty, who is quiet, and who-will-work-best-with-whom, you will make adjustments. It is probably a good idea to sit your ESOL students with outgoing students who will include them and encourage them to interact with the group. Of course, if you teach a sheltered class as I do, you can always sit students with the same native languages together!

Definitely make sure that you do not isolate your ESOL students or single them out. The more they become integrated into the classroom community, the more they will interact and begin to build those social English skills.

08. Send Home Handouts in Native Languages

Do you use a class newsletter? Consider making a version in the native language of your ESOL students. Sending home newsletters in English to families who do not speak English doesn't make a lot of sense. See if you can get someone to help you translate your newsletters into other languages and print them on the backside of the English version.

Be careful when using programs like Google Translate because those programs use direct translation and do not account for phrases, analogies, idioms, and slang that we might use in English that does not exist in other languages. Try to have someone who knows the language look over these for you. Maybe ask a parent of one of your ESOL students to volunteer to help you translate these, or find a tutor or translator in your district who can help you.

The extra effort will go a long way. It signals to your parents that you care enough to include them and keep the lines of communication open despite the language barrier.

09. Invest in a World Map!

Putting a world map in your classroom is a great way to include your ESOL students. Use thumbtacks or stickers to indicate what countries your students are from! This way, you can show your other students where they are from and show them where that is in relation to where you are! You can also use this as a way to encourage your ESOL students to talk about where they are from. Not only will this make them feel like everyone cares about their culture, but your other students will learn about another culture, and you will be having a stellar geography lesson - so it's a win for everyone!

In my ESOL classroom, I have a world map hanging on the wall where I mark where everyone is from - including myself! I tell my students about Pennsylvania and how there are lots of Amish people where I'm from! The more that I talk about my own cultural background, the more that they are willing to share - and it all starts with geography!

10. Don't Beat Yourself Up!

Be kind to yourself, too. You became a teacher because you want to do the absolute best that you can for your students. Do not beat yourself up if you ESOL students struggle socially or academically. It is a difficult journey for them, and there are going to be ups and downs. Celebrate the ups, and support them as much as you can during the downs, and go home at night knowing that you are doing the absolute best that you can. Self care is important for ALL teachers to remember - when we spend all day caring for your minds, we can often forget to care for ourselves. How many of us skip ("forget") lunch, or work straight through our lunch time because the copier was broken yesterday and you HAVE to get those copies made today? How many of us go home after a long day of teaching, only to sit at our desks until midnight grading or planning? I get it. We all do it. Just remember to be kind to yourself. Take a bubble bath, give yourself a facial, get a pedicure - whatever. Just remember - it's like when you are on an airplane and they tell you that you have to put the air mask on yourself before you can assist others. :)

I hope that you find these tips helpful! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or hit me up on social media. I will be glad to help you!


And now, without further adieu, your FREE DOWNLOAD! This is listed on my TPT Store for $1.00, but through this link, you will be able to download it for free from my Google Drive.

These are great if you print them on colorful cardstock. Mine are laminated as well so that I can reuse them year after year. They are 8.5"x11" in size.

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