Post welcome signs in students’ languages, as well as pictures with bilingual labels. You can also invite students to teach a few words to the class.


ELD Director Rose Aldubaily: Using students' first language as a resource
The gifts that ELLs bring to school

More Resources

How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment for ELLs

ELL Strategies for Success

How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment for ELLs

Boy and girl shaking hands in kindergarten classroom

Learn how to create a welcoming classroom environment for your English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students — and why it matters — with these strategies from Colorín Colorado. This article is part of our Strategies for ELL Success guide.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

An important first step in helping English language learners (ELLs) succeed is making them feel welcome in the classroom.

This will:

  • increase their confidence
  • make them feel more comfortable in the class
  • build a foundation for positive relationships with you and their peers.

Here's how you can get started!

Stages of Cultural Accommodation

Use these ideas in PD!

ESOL specialist Becky Corr shares ideas on how to use these strategies for professional development in this video.

The ELL student population includes students who were born in the U.S. and students who have immigrated from another country. For ELLs who have recently arrived in the U.S., they will face the challenge of learning a new language in addition to adjusting to an unfamiliar cultural setting and school system.

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.

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.

What is the 'silent period'?

It is also common for students who are learning a new language to be 'silent' for a period of time, when they are listening to the language around them without speaking yet (much as a young child listens to language first before learning to talk). This is considered the first stage of language acquisition. 

Patience and creating opportunities for small successes in speaking with you and peers can help build students' confidence. In addition, keep in mind that students' silence could also be a sign of respect for you as an authority – and not a sign of their inability or refusal to participate.

Experience with trauma

Students may also have experienced trauma or face different kinds of hardship in the U.S. You can better prepare yourself for this possibility by:

Learn more from the following:

Videos: You Are Welcome Here

This award-winning documentary highlights how the Dearborn, MI public school district is helping its immigrant students succeed. Learn more about this project and see related videos.

Getting to Know Students

Learn how to pronounce students' names correctly

Don't forget to smile and use positive body language!

A lot of communication happens through expressions, body language, and tone. Smiling and using positive body language can go a long way in making students feel welcome and comfortable, particularly if they are newcomers, as seen in the vignette shared by a teacher below.

Build relationships with students

Veteran teachers of ELLs always point to building relationships as the most important step in their work with ELLs. Not only does it increase engagement and support students' later academic success, it also provides invaluable information that can inform your instruction and family engagement.

In addition, it can help build bridges with students who may have particularly unique experiences, such as children in migrant farmwork families or Indigenous students.

See more ideas on how to build these relationships from the following:

Video: Showing students you care

Corpus Christi teacher Christine Price talks about the importance of showing students you care early on.

Identify students' strengths and interests

It's important to remember that ELLs bring lots of strengths, talents, and rich experiences to the classroom. Getting to know students' interests can help:

  • build rapport
  • engage students in learning
  • find connections with new friends.

Families are also an important source of information and are often happy to talk about the activities that their child enjoys.  They may also appreciate the fact that their child's teacher is taking an interest in the child's strengths and talents. (This is especially true in special education settings.)

Video: My students' many talents

Teacher Omar Salem describes a student who not only sings and dances but manages her own YouTube channel and edits all of the video she posts of her performances.


Video: Using parent letters to get to know my students

Albuquerque teacher Clara Gonzales-Espinoza asks her parents to write her a letter at the beginning of each school year telling her about the child's personality, interests, strengths, and anything else they think she should know. In this interview, Clara speaks more about this strategy and its impact on her relationships with parents and students.

Ensure that students have information about activities and clubs

Make sure that students have information about extra-curricular activities, sports, and clubs related to their interests. You can also encourage them to start their own club within the school.

ELL educator Christine Rowland notes, "Many students find involvement in school clubs and teams to be extremely helpful, as they are often experts in these areas, and they can provide a space where they more easily feel they belong."

Welcoming Students' Language and Culture

Invite students' cultures into the classroom

Encourage ELLs and their families to share their 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.

Invite students and families to:

  • share photographs, visuals, or meaningful artifacts such as flags or mementos
  • tell a popular story or folktale using words, pictures, gestures, and movements
  • share information about important holidays or celebrations.

Looking beyond the classroom

Imagine that you are walking into your school for the first time as a parent. 

  • What do you see on the walls?
  • If your first language weren't English, would you see signs in your language?
  • Would you see flags, maps, or books representing your home country?
  • Would you see your child’s work on display in the hallway?

If you think more could be done to make families feel welcome, consider:

  • sharing some ideas with colleagues or administrators and taking small steps that you can point to as successes
  • looking for opportunities to celebrate all families and their languages, customs, and cultures, whether in the classroom or at a school-wide event
  • keeping a lookout for a special part of their lives that other families might appreciate getting to know.

See more ideas in the following:

Video: What happened when the students realized the Yemeni flag wasn't on stage

ELD Specialist Diana Alqadhi tells the story of some students who realized that the Yemeni flag was not featured prominently enough on stage before a school show.

Invite students' languages into the classroom

Label classroom objects to allow ELLs to better understand their immediate surroundings. These labels will also assist you when explaining or giving directions, and it gives peers an additional opportunity to learn some words in their classmates' language.

  • Start with everyday items, such as "door/puerta," "book/libro," and "chair/silla."
  • You may wish to ask students who can write in their first language or family members to help you with this project.

You can also invite students to teach the class some words from their home language.

Learn more about the resources available in students' home languages

Students benefit from support in their home language — what Dr. Fred Genesee calls their "most valuable resource." You have may have access to learning material in students' languages, or you may be able to find resources that support those languages.

Language access for multilingual families

In addition, it's critical to understand what language access resources you have available through your school and district, particularly for communication with families. Keep in mind that all families have a legal right to information in their home language. Family liaisons, interpreters, ESL teachers, or administrators may have more information about what language access resources are available in your district.

Video: What Do School Districts Need to Know About Language Access?

This helpful overview about what language access means for school districts is a great introduction to the requirements, best practices, and funding streams related to language access in public education. This interview features Dr. Jennifer Love, the Supervisor of Language Access and Engagement in Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland.

Video: Language Access for Multilingual Families

What does appropriate language access mean for multilingual families? This interview also features Dr. Jennifer Love.

Ensure your students see themselves reflected in the classroom

Ask yourself if students can see representations of their culture, race, gender, and other aspects of identity reflected in your: 

  • classroom materials and library
  • lesson plans and activities
  • classroom visuals (both in-person and virtual).

In addition:


Success in the Classroom

Encourage your students

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. Offer one-on-one support and encouragement as much as possible. For convenience, it may be helpful to seat ELLs near your desk.

Assign a buddy

Identify a classmate who will make a good buddy for new students — someone who is friendly, patient, and a good communicator to be a buddy. This student can make sure that the new student understands what he or she is supposed to do during class activities. It is helpful if the peer partner knows the ELL's first language, but not necessary. However, remember to never use another student as an interpreter in any situation.

Learn more about ways to increase peer interaction and collaboration in these related strategies.

Ask the class how they can help welcome new students

Ask students to brainstorm ways to help ELLs in particular. You may wish to make a list of ideas on how to welcome new students at the beginning of the year so that students have these strategies in mind if a student comes with little advance notice.

Be vigilant about health issues, dietary concerns, and allergies

Students may have specific health issues or dietary restrictions due to health, cultural, or religious reasons.  Be sure that you learn all essential information you need to know about student health and diet from parents or guardians. For ELLs, be sure to confirm and clarify this information with the help of interpreters. 

If you learn information about a student that would be helpful for other staff to know, particularly regarding health or food allergies, talk with administrators about how to keep the child safe.  In addition, be sensitive to cultural or religious norms, such as fasting for religious reasons.

Keep an eye out for signs of culture shock

Moving to a new country and leaving a familiar life, relatives, friends, and language behind can be traumatic for children in the best of circumstances. Those challenges are compounded if children have experienced trauma, violence, or upheaval. Learn more about how culture shock can impact students in the classroom and affect student behavior so that you recognize signs if newcomers act out.

Creating a Shared Classroom Culture

Encourage students to take ownership of the classroom culture

Ask students to answer the following questions through drawings or written responses.

  • How can I be a good classmate to others?
  • What are examples of unkind or disrespectful behavior in the classroom?

To support ELLs in their discussions of these questions:

  • Encourage students who speak the same language to discuss their ideas in groups.
  • Provide scaffolded materials such as graphic organizers, sentence stems, and sentence frames.
  • Use a picture book to talk about different kinds of behavior with students.

Create a shared set of classroom expectations together

  • Return to your earlier discussion of what a respectful classroom looks like.
  • Brainstorm ideas on possible class rules based on that discussion.
  • Streamline the list of class guidelines or rules.
  • Add any rules or guidelines that are missing.
  • In order to establish appropriate consequences for disrespectful behavior, you may wish to come up with ideas with the class or determine those consequences yourself.
  • Post the final list classroom rules in the classroom.
  • Translate the rules into ELLs’ native languages so that they can keep the list handy and share it at home.

To see an example of this proces in action, take a look at ELL expert Carol Salva’s process for developing a community contract each year.

Help your ELLs understand expectations for the classroom

ELLs may need some extra support in understanding expectations for classroom behavior. Helping them understand these expectations can avoid misunderstandings, discipline problems, and feelings of low self-esteem.

At the same time, it's important to remember that students bridging two cultures may need guidance which behaviors are appropriate in which setting (such as eye contact, physical proximity, etc.). If you have questions, talk with a cultural liaison in the school to learn more about appropriate responses and ideas for helping students navigate a new culture. You can also learn more about cultural norms of your students, particularly related to schooling, to help inform your approach.

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.
  • Post a 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.

Finally, remember 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 — and remember that you will learn a lot from this experience too!

Related Videos

Videos: How can we make ELLs feel welcome in our schools?

These videos highlight helpful examples and ideas from educators across the country.

What to Do First: Creating a Welcoming Environment

Learn about these important first steps from teacher Amber Jimenez that will help ELLs feel welcome and get them on the path to academic success. Strategies include creating a print-rich environment and connecting content to students' cultures and experiences.

Top Tips for a Strong Start in a Newcomer Classroom with Carol Salva



Back to Top

Related Resources



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.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

The Home Language: An English Language Learner's Most Valuable Resource

The Home Language: An English Language Learner's Most Valuable Resource


In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Fred Genesee discusses the research supporting the importance of a child's home language. In addition, Dr. Genesee explores the question of why an approach that is well-supported by research has been largely ignored in the era of "research-based" policy.


Webcast: ELLs and Reading

Learn more about using the home language to support ELLs' reading instruction in our Teaching ELLs to Read webcast featuring Dr. Genesee!

The education of English language learners (ELLs) is one of the most important issues facing U.S. educators. ELLs are a large and growing proportion of the school-age population — according to National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2007, about 10.8 million (or 20%) school-aged children in the U.S. spoke a language other than English at home (Planty, Hussar, Snyder, Kena, Kewal Ramani, Kemp, Bianco, & Dinkes, 2009). This situation is not likely to change because ELLs are currently the fastest growing population in U.S. schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004), with the number of ELLs expected to increase another 50% by 2025 (Passel & Cohn, 2008).

The importance of the issues goes beyond the sheer number of ELLs, however. It has been shown in numerous national studies and surveys that, on average, ELLs under achieve in comparison to their English-speaking peers in academic domains and that the achievement gap tends to increase the higher the grade level (e.g., Fry, 2007; Rumberger, 2007; McNeil et al., 2008). As we consider ways to help ELLs increase their academic achievement, then, it is clear that educators need all the resources at their disposal to meet these challenges.

Policy and Home Language

Until recently, significant efforts were made to enhance the educational outcomes of ELLs by offering alternative forms of education that incorporate use of ELLs' home language (Genesee, 1999, for a review). These programs were justified on the grounds that educating ELLs in English only posed a triple threat to their educational success since it would require that they simultaneously:

  • learn academic English to high levels,
  • master challenging academic skills and content taught through English,
  • adopt new social skills that would permit them to integrate with their English-speaking classmates and teachers.

However, in recent years, recent political and legislative initiatives that disfavor bilingual education have made these educational options difficult to access, despite evidence of their success (Goldenberg, 2009). Along with these politically-motivated changes, it would appear that educators and policy-makers no longer recognize the native language skills of ELLs as an important educational resource and, indeed, it would even appear that they discredit it having any role in the education of ELLs.

What does the research say?

At the same time that the role of the home language is diminishing in public education policy, there have been growing political and legislative expectations that educational policies and classroom practices be backed up by scientific, empirical evidence. With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success. There are multiple sources of such evidence. First, recent meta-analyses have shown that educational programs that systematically incorporate use of ELLs' home language result in levels of academic success, including achievement in literacy and other academic subjects, that are as high as and often better than that of ELLs in English-only programs (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, in press). In a review of these meta-analyses, Goldenberg (2008) notes "Readers should understand how unusual it is to have five meta-analyses on the same issue conducted by five independent researchers or groups of researchers with diverse perspectives. The fact that they all reached essentially the same conclusion is worth noting. No other area in educational research with which I am familiar can claim five independent meta-analyses based on experimental studies — much less five that converge on the same basic finding." (p. 15).

Second, in a study of ELLs in two-way immersion programs, Lindholm and Aclan (1991) found a significant positive relationship between individual student's level of bilingual proficiency and their achievement in math and reading in English. Furthermore, the students who were classified as "high bilinguals" were able to attain grade level results by fourth grade in English reading and by third grade in English math.

Third, a growing body of evidence from researchers around the world has shown that bilingual children exhibit significant cognitive advantages in comparison to monolingual children (e.g., Bialystok 2006; Chin & Wigglesworth, 2007; Kovaacs & Mehler, 2009). These advantages have been demonstrated in executive control processes related to selective attention and inhibition and monitoring of attention when, for example, children are engaged in problem solving.

Fourth, and finally, extensive research, again from around the world, has found that children who are learning to read in a second language are able to transfer many skills and knowledge from their first language to facilitate their acquisition of reading skills in the second language. The best evidence of this comes from studies showing that students with strong reading skills in the home language also have strong reading skills in their second language. Much of this work has been done on ELLs in the U.S. (August & Shanahan, 2006; Riches & Genesee, 2006).

What we see in the U.S., then, is a push for research-based policy but the creation of policies that contradict the research. Debate concerning the value of using ELLs' home language in specially-designed programs, such as two-way immersion, will undoubtedly continue, and so it should since it makes little educational sense to diminish U.S. students' opportunities to become bilingual in an increasingly globalized community.

Back to top

Home Language in the Classroom

In the meantime, teachers and students can't wait for these policy debates to be settled before deciding how or whether to draw upon ELLs' home language. The question arises how can schools and teachers, even those who are monolingual, act on evidence that clearly shows the personal, cognitive, linguistic and educational value of using the linguistic resources that ELLs bring to school. There is no simple or single answer to this question, but a number of options are worth exploring that, at the moment, are often overlooked and discounted. Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan (2009, Chapter 3) offer a number of suggestions:

  • To encourage students to see connections between their languages and, thus, to better understand how languages are structured and organized, talk to ELLs about their home language — ask them:
    • How is the home language the same and how it is different from English?
    • Are there words in the home language that sound the same and mean the same thing in both languages?
    • Are there words in the home language and English that sound the same but mean different things?
  • As part of phonological and metalinguistic awareness exercises to facilitate reading acquisition, ask students:
    • to say words that start with the same sound(s) in English or the L1.
  • how words are changed and formed in the home language — singular and plural forms, present tense and past tense forms of verbs — to enhance their word knowledge
  • who are new to your class, to read books in their home language to show you what they know about reading.

By using the collective skills and knowledge of all students (both ELL and English-L1 students) in the classroom, even a monolingual teacher can tap into these valuable language resources that ELLs have and do so with the confidence that these methods will promote their language development — in English as well as the home language.

Back to top

Education for All

A hallmark of public education in the U.S. is respect for and appreciation of the individual skills and backgrounds of students as a foundation for furthering their education. Taking advantage of ELLs' home language resources is asking no more than the same respect and appreciation for this group of learners. At the same time, parents, teachers, educational leaders in local school districts, and politicians should discuss how best to provide all students in the U.S. with high quality educational programs that promote competence in additional languages. At stake is not only the competitiveness of individual students once they enter the work force but, indeed, the ability of the U.S. itself to compete in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

Back to top

Video: Using the Home Language as a Resource

Dearborn Public Schools ELD Director Rose Aldubaily discusses the value of using students' home language as a resource.

About the Author

Fred Genesee is Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal. He has conducted extensive research on alternative forms of bilingual and immersion education for language minority and language majority students. His current research interests also include language acquisition in pre-school bilingual children, internationally-adopted children, second language reading acquisition, and the language and academic development of students at-risk in bilingual programs. He is the recipient of the Canadian Psychological Associate Award for Distinguished Contributions to Community or Public Service and the 2-Way CABE Award of Promoting Bilingualism. Publications include:

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago (Eds.) (2010). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, 2nd Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., and Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher's Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Back to top


Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners. Report of the national literacy panel on minority-language children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bialystok, E. (2006). The impact of bilingualism on language and literacy development. In Bhatia, T.K., & W.E. Ritchie (Eds.) The handbook of bilingualism (pp. 577-601). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Chin, N.B., & Wigglesworth, G. (2007). Bilingualism: An advanced resource book. London: Routledge.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fry, R. (2007). How far behind in math and reading are English language learners? Washington, D.C.: Report of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Genesee, F. (1999). Program alternatives for linguistically diverse students. Educational Practice Report #1. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.

Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (in press). The education of English language learners. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds), APA Handbook of Educational Psychology. Washington DC: APA Books.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does — and does not — say. American Educator, 32, 8-23, 42-44.

Kovacs, A.M., & J. Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6556-6550.

Lindholm, K.J., & Aclan, Z. (1991). Bilingual proficiency as a bridge to academic achievement: Results from bilingual/immersion programs. Journal of Education 173, 99-113.

McNeil, L., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., & Vasquez-Heilig, J. (2008).Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16(3):

National Center for Education Statistics (2004). Language minority learners and their labor market indicators: Recent trends.

Passel, J.S., & Cohn, D. (2008). U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends.

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., Kewal Ramani, A., Kemp, J., Bianco, K., & Dinkes, R. (2009). The Condition of Education 2009 (NCES 2009-081). Washington, DC.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Riches, C., & Genesee, F. (2006). Cross-linguistic and cross-modal aspects of literacy development. In F. Genesee, K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, & D. Christian, D. Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence (pp. 64-108). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rumberger, R. (2007). Lagging behind: Linguistic minorities' education progress during elementary school. University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Newsletter, 16(2), 1-3


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact