When asked for their favorite piece of advice, veteran ELL educators explain that getting to know ELLs builds a strong foundation for engagement and learning throughout the year. Look for clues about how long your students have been in the U.S. (without asking direction questions).


Taking time to get to know your students
Advice for teaching ELLs: Get to know your students
Getting to know your ELLs and why it matters

More Resources

10 Strategies for Building Relationships with ELLs

10 Strategies for Building Relationships with ELLs

Teacher playing with students outside

Learn how educators can build authentic relationships with ELLs, as well as how they can connect students' experiences to meaningful instruction. This article is part of our Strategies for ELL Success guide.

Image credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

One of the biggest topics that educators are thinking about this year is the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL). Building relationships with students is a key aspect of SEL for students of all ages.

The good news is that there are a lot of ideas educators can try now and throughout the year. You might think of it as "going slow to go fast" — a process that not only builds confidence and community but increases engagement and supports students' later academic success.

What's in this article

We have compiled some of these ideas and resources for building relationships with English language learners (ELLs) and their classmates below in the following strategies:

Before getting started

As you read, keep in mind that many of the following activities can be differentiated for varying language proficiency levels. These strategies offer opportunities for:

And we encourage you to keep in mind Kristina Robertson's popular piece of advice: try just one new thing at a time!


Note: This article was originally written for online and hybrid settings. For tips on using these strategies in distance learning, see our recommendations at the end of the article.

Essential Question

As you read this article, consider the following essential question:

In what ways can I build strong relationships with multilingual students this year?

Strategies: Getting to Know Students

Share your stories!

If you try any ideas from this article, we'd love to hear how it went!  Post your story on social media here:

1. Learn how to pronounce and spell students' names correctly

Show respect for your students by taking time to learn how to pronounce and spell their names correctly. Ensure that students' names are written correctly in student databases, especially as schools move to more online systems. A misspelled name can impact the services and instruction a student receives.

  • When you ask students to say their name, listen carefully and repeat it until you get it right.
  • Ask students to record their names for you so that you can hear their pronunciation. (You can ask them to send you a voice recording or use an online platform like NameCoach.) Share recordings with colleagues who work with the students so that they also pronounce the students' names correctly.
  • Model the correct pronunciation of students' names to the class so that all students can say it correctly.
  • Use students' names when greeting them each day.
  • Consider asking students to share examples of how people mispronounce their name and how that makes them feel.
  • Learn more about different naming conventions in your students' cultures and languages.
  • Refrain from coming up with a nickname or a version of the name that's easier for you to say.

Project ideas:

Assign a multimedia or written project in which students share:

If your students are using technology, this is a good way to introduce online platforms they will be using this year.

You might also read aloud books from our booklists on names for children and young adults. After listening, students can record, write, or draw stories about their own names.

Using tech: SeeSaw can be used with primary grades. SeeSaw has related activities already prepared in their "Activity Bank," such as "Your Name is Everything You Are." 

For older students, consider using:

2. Get to know students' interests, strengths, and talents

What are your students' experiences, interests, hobbies, talents, goals, and strengths? Tapping into these "funds of knowledge" can:

  • foster relationships, friendships, and student confidence
  • make students' strengths more visible to peers and educators
  • engage students across the curriculum.

For example, the children of migrant farmworkers might have a wealth of knowledge about agriculture, seasonal harvest, and different regions of the country. (You can learn more about "funds of knowledge" from this helpful guide.)

Bring these topics into the class by:

  • giving students a chance to share their interests or strengths in surveys, peer interviews, writing prompts, and art projects
  • encouraging students to express themselves by decorating a virtual locker or bringing in something they can hang on the wall of the classroom
  • talking with family members about their child's interests and talents
  • talking with members of the students' communities about their insights
  • providing time for students to discuss current events of interest
  • learning more about culturally responsive practice (and what it looks like during a pandemic).

Note: See some great strategies from Judie Haynes and Carol Salva that incorporate these ideas into activities to start this coming new school year.

Project ideas:

Ask students to share a photo or drawing of themselves that is important to them and to explain why. (You can learn more about this strategy that ELD Team Lead Cindy Close in Douglas County, CO shared with us from Education Week.)

For a more in-depth assignment, ask students to create a project focused on one of their hobbies, interests, or talents that they can share with the class. Some examples might include a collage, a short presentation, poem, or a short video.

Using tech: The platforms mentioned under strategy one will work well for these ideas. You might also consider:

  • a digital photo album site, such as Google photos
  • a digital collage site, like PicCollage
  • a photo finding mission app, like Plum's Photo Hunt
  • Flipgrid, where students can post their digital picture while they talk about why that picture or object is important to them.

3. Let students know that their languages and cultures are welcome

You can welcome students' languages by learning a few words or phrases, such as a greeting or how to say "thank you," or asking them to teach you and their peers some words. They will appreciate the gesture and enjoy being the teacher (and the expert) for a change!

This not only highlights the language skills that your student has, it celebrates the gift of multilingualism and gives other student a chance to think about what it is like to go through the day learning in a different language. (Learn more in our section on what it feels like to be a language learner.)

You might also look for places where you can display flags from students' countries or other photos that are meaningful for students.

Project ideas:

Create a classroom bulletin board, either online or on the wall, where students and families can add homemade signs to a world map with important words such as "hello," "friend," and "thank you." (Thank you to Amanda Goman for sharing this idea on Twitter!)

Tech ideas: Look for ways to create and decorate a shared virtual space or virtual bulletin boards with tools such as Padlet, Corkulous, or Bitmoji. (Note that some of Bitmoji's avatars are not appropriate for students, especially of younger ages.) Various Google Classroom tools include places to save images as well.

4. Encourage students to share their celebrations and family traditions

Provide opportunities for students to share important traditions throughout the year. You may wish to ask students early in the year what their favorite holidays are and then plan a lesson on that holiday with their family. Look for these opportunities throughout the year and across the curriculum, as well as including them as a part of family outreach events.

Project ideas:

Invite students and families to prepare a presentation or respond to a writing prompt about:

  • a family story, folktale, or local legend
  • a favorite saying, poem, or song from their native language
  • a recipe
  • a family or holiday tradition.

Tech ideas: Any of the creation tools mentioned above could be used for these projects.

5. Look for ways to interact with individual students or small groups when possible

The demands on teachers of ELLs this year will be many; however, making time for regular personal interaction with students will strengthen your ability to deliver effective, meaningful instruction and keep in touch with them during a fluid situation. To help carve out this time:

  • talk with colleagues and administrators about ways to fit that interaction into instruction, office hours, or family engagement
  • look for opportunities to co-teach or collaborate with colleagues or paraprofessionals to use time efficiently
  • consider using phone calls, blogs, messaging, or other forms of written communication with students as a way to check in
  • collect examples of success and share them with administrators to advocate for more time if needed.

Project ideas:

Ask students to prepare 3-5 (appropriate!) questions they would like to ask you in an interview, such as your favorite food, a favorite toy from childhood, or a book you enjoyed reading. After reviewing and approving their questions, schedule time for them to interview you, in person or online, which they can share with the class through a written summary, video, or presentation. If time allows, you may wish to interview them as well!

Tech ideas: Brainstorming questions would work well in small groups on Jamboard, a digital whiteboard that is a Google extension. Interviews could be done orally asynchronously via Flipgrid or Voxer, a voice messaging app for phone or desktop. Final video could be posted on any of the creation apps listed above (Seesaw, Nearpod, Peardeck, Buncee, etc.)

Strategies: Connecting Experiences to Learning

6. Engage students in planning their learning

Once you get a better sense of your students' life experiences, you can connect them to learning by:

  • looking for ways to connect these interests to the curriculum
  • asking students to brainstorm ideas on what they would like to study
  • using an inquiry-based or project-based learning approach that allows students to take the lead in identifying a question or problem to solve/research
  • assigning students research projects that focus on issues or concepts that apply to their own community
  • identifying community assets, guest speakers, or local organizations that can support this learning
  • offering students opportunities to present their work in public, whether to classmates, parents, or community members.

Project ideas:

Consider taking on a classwide project (or group projects) that students help plan and design to address a topic or concern of interest.

Tech ideas: Use Jamboard to brainstorm questions students want to answer in their project or inquiry. Once the questions are posted on Jamboard, they can sort and categorize the questions. Jamboard allows students to post a sticky note and see what others are posting in real time. This can be used in break out groups and/or asynchronously.

7. Provide students with opportunities to share their stories

Sharing personal stories can be powerful experiences for students and their classmates as well. Provide opportunities for students to share their stories both privately and publicly, whether through artwork, in writing, or in conversation. If a student shares some difficult experiences, consider whether more support is needed through follow-up conversations with families or counseling.

Notes of caution

If you do invite students to share personal stories:

  • Attend to student cues on whether they wish to share their personal experiences with classmates: Many students have endured traumatic experiences that they may not wish to share. Explain at the beginning of any storytelling activity that it is voluntary and provide alternative assignments as needed. Some students may be willing to share their experiences with their peers or in a more public format such as school assemblies, the school newspaper, or self-published books.
  • Be aware of the "dangers of a single story": Be mindful of what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls "the danger of a single story" in her 2009 TED talk; in other words, when learning about a student's life story, remember that your own experiences and assumptions, as well as the stories of other individuals, may not reflect your student's life. In addition, students who have the same racial background, speak the same language, or who hail from the same country may not have much in common, and in fact may experience some tension if they come from different groups with histories of conflict.
  • Don't single students out because of their identity: Never put students on the spot as a "representative" of their race, gender, ethnic group, gender identity, country of origin, experience, or other aspect of their identity. Honor students' experiences and perspectives for what they are, especially if those experiences and perspectives challenge your assumptions.

Project ideas:

Work with students to present a brief personal story they want to share in writing, artwork, video, or audio. This small project may grow into a larger, longer project, such as an autobiography project or yearbook project (which could work well online!).

Tech ideas:

  • Storybird is an easy to use digital storytelling platform that allows students to create stories with characters and elements provided by dragging, dropping, and writing in your story.
  • Make Beliefs Comics is a comic strip storytelling platform.
  • Book Creator is an iPad app that can be used with young students.

8. Look for ways to embed social-emotional learning across the curriculum

There is a lot of attention on social-emotional learning right now for good reason. All students have experienced disruption to some level in their social and academic lives, and many students have also experienced hardship, loss, illness, trauma, and deep levels of stress and anxiety. As district leader Nathaniel Provencio notes in the video below, creating a supportive, nurturing environment for your students, regardless of setting, is a critical step in helping them navigate the uncertainty of the coming year. 

Some ideas include:

  • keeping a calm and predictable environment
  • creating calm corners
  • preparing students for transitions
  • giving students sensory and stretch breaks
  • teaching tools for mindfulness and stress relief, such as breathing exercises or visualizations
  • sharing resources such as this "virtual calming room"
  • encouraging students to show kindness, develop empathy, and share appreciation for each other
  • encouraging your students to identify and focus on their strengths and resilience, as discussed above

In addition, keep an eye out for situations in which students may need additional support from counselors. Learn more about the impacts of COVID-19 on immigrant families and these trauma-informed school strategies during COVID-19 from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Project ideas:

Ask students to share an experience through writing or discussion about a time that they overcame a difficulty or reached a goal. Ask them to reflect on what made that achievement possible.

Tech ideas: Use one of the storytelling platforms above so that students can share this experience as a story or their own superhero comic.

9. Create regular times for students to share updates.

Many educators use circle time as a chance to check in and learn more about how students are doing. We have also heard from middle and high school educators that advisory periods offer powerful opportunities to connect with students. One ELL educator shared that her colleagues at the high school level were reluctant take on advisory periods. However, in a survey at the end of the year, the overwhelming majority favored keeping the advisory periods as a way of getting to know students better throughout the year.

In addition, other educators use private mailboxes, student mood charts, journal entries, and other personal ways for students to let teachers know how they are doing.

As you work with ELLs, make sure that all students have opportunities to participate in these activities and scaffold their participating with strategies such as offering sentence frames for discussion to help scaffold students' participation.

Project ideas:

Think about different topics and questions to use during circle time or advisory, perhaps alternating between general updates and focused activities. You also wish to invite students to come up with topics and themes.

Another teacher, Jorge Bermudez, shares his alternative high school's experience with rethinking their advisory periods in the video below.

10. Consider how you will talk about identity in a safe way in the classroom.

Offering students opportunities to reflect about own identity can help create an “identity-safe classroom” and also lay important groundwork for later discussions. It can also challenge the notion of “color blindness,” a perspective which ignores important aspects of students’ identity and experiences. When discussing identity:

  • Honor students’ experiences and perspectives for what they are.
  • Avoid assumptions. Dr. Ayanna Cooper speaks more about this in her interview clips below about Black immigrant students.
  • Never put students on the spot as a “representative” of any aspect of their identity or experience.
  • Become familiar with some of the myths related to ELLs and immigrant students. If needed, share these with colleagues.
  • Keep in mind that students may be masking some part of their identity. For example, some Indigenous students from Latin America may not share their Indigenous culture or language with the school, or the fact that Spanish is not their first language.

Project ideas:

Look for ideas that fit your classroom in the following collection of resources:

Elementary School

Middle and High School

Professional development and collaboration


Closing Thoughts

There will be a lot of trial and error in the coming year. As Kristina Roberston says below, if something doesn't work, go back to the drawing board and try again!  Don't let those bumps discourage you from continuing to build the critical connections that you, your students, and your families need this year. They may just be what helps everyone get through a school year like no other!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is one takeaway that resonates with you from this article?
  • What is one activity you might try?
  • What strategies have you used in the past to build strong relationships with students? How might you adapt them this year?
  • What will be hardest about building relationships this year with students and families?
  • What are you feeling nervous about year?
  • What are you looking forward to this year?

More Recommended Resources

Culturally responsive teaching during COVID-19

Social-emotional resources

Interactive strategies for building relationships & distance learning

Recommended blogs

Getting to know your ELLs and their families


Special thanks to Kristina Robertson, Becky Corr, Susan Lafond, Areli Schermerhorn, and Beth Skelton for their contributions to this article.



Building Bridges Through Storytelling: What Are Your Students' Stories?

Building Bridges Through Storytelling: What Are Your Students' Stories?

Student reading writing assignment to class

Laura Grisso is currently serving as the Executive Director of Language and Cultural Services for Tulsa Public Schools.  In her current position, she works with the local schools and community leaders to support the growing population of English Learners, immigrant students, and bilingual students around the city. In this essay written for Colorín Colorado, she shares two experiences that she had back-to-back that made her reflect on the power of personal storytelling and her students' experiences in the midst of polarizing conversations about topics such as immigration.

As an educator serving English learner and immigrant students in our current political environment, I often find myself in conversations with people who may or may not share viewpoints similar to mine. I know the wonderful assets that my students bring to the classroom. I know how their families contribute to our community. But sometimes I find myself at a loss when I'm in a conversation with someone who does not know the amazing gifts of my students and families or who holds a different political view on the value of my students and families.

Challenging conversations during challenging times

Recently, a friend at church asked me "so what's really up with this immigration situation? Is it really as bad as they say?" My husband and I facilitate a table group at church and this question was brought up by a friend as we cleaned the table up after a study session. The question caught me off guard. The friend knew that my husband and I work in education serving English learner and immigrant students and their families. But still it surprised me that he would ask.

Video: Writing student autobiographies

Veteran ELL teacher Christine Rowland describes an in-depth project she does with her secondary ELLs in which they write their own autobiographies.

I looked at our friend and I said "It's scary." Before I knew it, I had begun telling stories of the students and the families that have come here. I told him of students and the villages or rural areas from which they came. I told him about the limited resources, like clean, running water and electricity. I recalled the experience with a student who had just seen a stapler for the first time in his classroom here. I spoke of the stories that students and families had shared regarding the violence they were escaping and the fears they had for their children if they stayed. "As a parent, I have no doubt what I would do to protect my children," I said.

What truly seemed to surprise my friend was when I shared with him the fears that our students have when they come to school if their parents are picked up by ICE before they return home. I explained that local community organizations were offering free power of attorney clinics and that families were really having to make emergency plans which is a burden children shouldn't have to bear. He said, "But don't the children get to go to the holding facility to say goodbye?" I told him that wasn't an option or a possibility. In most cases, if a parent was picked up they would be moved quickly towards deportation and even more so with recent federal guidance. It was at that point that I saw a sad and bewildered realization in the eyes of my friend. He truly did not know of the reality in which so many students and families now find themselves.

The power of student's stories

A week later I was observing in the classroom of one of our first year English language development teachers at a junior high. The teacher was very concerned for his newcomer students and situations they might find themselves in over the upcoming break. He worked with his school administration team and local resources to craft an informational lesson for seventh grade newcomer students on what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be undocumented, and what their legal rights are if they found themselves in a situation with ICE outside of school. The classroom was full of diverse students, speaking French, Hmong, and Spanish. The teacher started the lesson with a free write exercise. Students were free to write in whatever language they chose but the class discussion was in English. As students began to share their responses, I found myself surprised at the number of seventh grade newcomer students who thought that "immigrant" and "undocumented" meant the same thing.

As the teacher proceeded through the lesson, you could see every student following him and engaging in this topic so current and relevant to their lives. Four students then stood up to share their stories with their peers. Each one told a personal story, sharing details of a sick mother who needed to come across to get necessary medical care; riding in freight train cars for days; walking in the dessert under the moon; and not seeing his mother for eight months since she had been picked up as they crossed. It was incredible to see the respect, understanding, and maturity demonstrated by the 23 seventh graders as they listened and shared. Seventh graders aren't always known for their maturity and respect but these students shared a powerful knowing and understanding of their lives and their stories.

In reflecting on both of these situations, the one in which my friend at church asked me about the reality of the immigration situation and the one in which these newcomer students so freely and safely shared with and listened to their peers, I recognized the power of storytelling. These weren't fictional stories. These were real-life stories. These stories weren't told to argue "for or against." These were just real stories. These were lived experiences. These stories put a face and a reality on the immigration situation and conversations happening across classrooms, churches, offices, and the grocery store on a daily basis. Storytelling can be a powerful tool to engage in conversations with others who may not share your view point on difficult issues.  Although I entered the conversation with my friend with some trepidation as to how it might have been received, my stories wouldn't have had that impact if I hadn't told them.

As educators we know our students and we know their stories. It can be challenging and uncomfortable to enter conversations with those whom we disagree.  Yet it is more important now than ever that we listen to our students' stories and that we empower them to tell their stories – and that we tell them on their behalf when we can. Storytelling provides a way into those difficult conversations and an opportunity to remind us of the common ground that we do share. And, when we find ourselves being asked about our students' reality, we must be prepared to share their stories so that our greater community understands what a critical reality this is for all of us together.

Tips for helping ELLs tell their stories

Consider using a variety of kinds of activities for student storytelling: drawing, poetry, digital storytelling, student essays, or in-depth activities tied to a larger unit. Here are some related resources and suggestions.

Recommended Resources

Tips for the Classroom

  • Keep in mind that remembering or sharing personal stories may be a difficult experience for students who have lived through traumatic events. It may also not be appropriate culturally for students to share those memories with their classmates.  When you prepare for a unit or activity on personal writing, take a close look at topic ideas. Are the topics appropriate for your students?  Are there any red flags?  Even a topic that has been successful in the past may not work with a new group of students – especially if you are teaching a group that includes ELLs as well as native English speakers. (This is another reason that getting to know your students and their experiences throughout the year can help you plan the most effective lessons for your students and avoid potential pitfalls.) Note: To learn more about the dangerous conditions that children may experience on their journy from Latin America to the U.S., see this report from Buzzfeed.
  • Present a range of topics when asking students to do personal writing, including some topics related to their lives today. For example,
    • Option A: Who is someone that you admired when you were a small child?
    • Option B: Who is someone you admire today?

(This is comparable to thinking about creative approaches to units on family trees; kids who are adopted or who live in diverse family structures may not be able to complete a family genealogy assignment.)

  • Explain that students do not have to share their stories with anyone in the class – including you – and that you will respect their privacy.  If this activity is part of a graded assignment, suggest a different topic for a student who wishes not to share the writing with you. Encourage students to write for themselves, however, and explain that writing about a difficult event can sometimes help a person understand it better over time.
  • On the other hand, some students may be willing to share their experiences with you as part of a private presentation or with classmates in small, informal settings like a class discussion or a history or current events class.  Some students may even be willing to present in even larger, more formal settings like school assemblies or public events.
  • For students who are open to it, personal stories can also be published in school newspapers or self-published books. In the "Saving Stories" project below, bilingual books written by refugee families are added to local libraries. ELL veteran teacher Susan Lafond writes, "I would do a yearbook project at the end of the school year, which was a form of a personal essay. It was a mandatory assignment with specific prompts, and students were graded using a rubric. We published that with each person's photo as well as a group photo and an autograph page. Kids really treasured these 'books' and found them more relevant than the school yearbook."
  • Technology can also be an exciting tool. See more tips in the digital storytelling articles above as you think about ways to produce, present, illustrate, record, or share a version of the story that can be shared with classmates and family members - Susan notes that this can be a great showcase event for the end of the year.
  • Approach the topic of personal storytelling with creativity so as not to wear out the theme. Larry Ferlazzo details ideas of engaging students as civic participants by studying the history of different immigrant groups in the U.S. and then connecting them to their own stories.  Teacher Betsy Hansel suggests a variation on the theme with topics such as "something you played with when you were younger" or "the worst food you ever tasted" in this comment on a blog post on Education Week about the possibility of overdoing the personal story idea.
  • Personal narrative writing can be an accessible way to introduce students to writing while still aligning assignments to college- and career-ready standards. In fact, many of the topics of the Common Application college essay focus on personal experiences.
  • Personal writing can also be taught through poetry or other formats; Susan writes, "I had a book with poems/short stories  written by ELLs from many different countries. I would try to pick ones that I thought my students could identify with so they felt safe and not alone. Having them write their own personal stories as a poem of shorts (haiku, blank verse, etc.) allowed me to weave ELA content into the lesson. We published this collection too and also did a cookbook, which was a great way to make classrooms more culturally responsive. The hard part was translating words for ingredients that we don't use in the U.S.!"
  • Getting to know your students and their families is an important step to helping to meet their needs – both academic as well as social/emotional. Learn more from these tips on getting to know ELLs from Colorín Colorado.
  • Think big! Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, took the opportunity to share a stack of her immigrant/refugee students' stories with the White House when she received her award.

Student Stories: Examples and Projects to Share


Laura Grisso is currently serving as the Director of English Language Development for Tulsa Public Schools.  In her current position, she works with the local schools and community leaders to support the growing population of English Learners, immigrant students, and bilingual students around the city. In Tulsa Public Schools, Grisso led the implementation of the first one-way dual language classes in the state of Oklahoma. In November 2013, Grisso was inducted into the Oklahoma Bilingual Education Hall of Fame.  Grisso has also served as the National Liaison and Vice-President of the Oklahoma Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages association.  She earned a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from Northeastern State University, a master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Oklahoma State University, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership through Liberty University.

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