How to Create a Positive Environment for English Language Learners

Students enter your classroom from a variety of backgrounds. You might meet some learners who only know a few English words and others who are nearly fluent but need help with writing and grammar. Whether you’re teaching an ELL class or general education class, it’s important to create a positive learning environment for English language learners at every level.

Follow this guide to help your students feel more comfortable and confident in your classroom. By adopting a few best practices, you can watch them grow throughout the year as they master the key concepts they need to thrive.

Learn Where Your Students Are Coming From

One of the first steps to take as you get to know a new batch of students – or simply one new student who enters mid-year – is to learn where they are coming from. Did they just recently enter the United States? What is their previous exposure to the English language? Are they considered newcomers?

“A newcomer student is someone who is new to the country and possibly has had little to no English language,” says Houa Yang-Xiong, an elementary English Speaker of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher. “Newcomers might have an immigrant or refugee background. An immigrant is someone who leaves their country to move to another, whereas a refugee is someone who is forced out of their country due to a danger in their life. There is a lot to unpack when working with newcomers.”

Moving to a new school or state can be scary for students. Moving to a new country can triple the emotional stress and nerves that your students are experiencing. If you know where your students are coming from, you can validate their experiences and accommodate their social-emotional needs.

“A unique activity that I always did with new ESL students was to create a flag from their native country,” writes Monica Berns-Conner at Jimmy ESL. “I would hang the flag next to other flags students had made for all to see. I could tell that it gave students a sense of pride and was a great way to first welcome students to your class by showing support for their culture and homeland.”

Validating a student’s culture can go a long way to making them feel comfortable in your classroom. Whether they are in a specific English language learners (ELL) environment or a general education class, this validation can make them feel less “othered” by their peers and reduce their pressure to conform to the American, English-speaking culture.

“I’ve had well-meaning families approach me with requests to interact with their child strictly in English,” writes educator Jackie Hostetler. “I’m not sure this sends a great message. We want students to be proud of their knowledge, proud of their heritage and proud of their language.”

Adult man and children looking at globe; English Language Learners concept

Follow Best Practices for Classroom Management

Before the first day of school, you can set your classroom up for success and create an environment that is safe for English language learners. First, consider how you lay out your room.

“The physical setup of your classroom is perhaps the most obvious place to start,” according to the team at Teach This. “If you are teaching a small class, perhaps using a horseshoe arrangement might work best, but for large classes, arranging the tables in groups may work better.”

Pronunciation and speech are two major elements of the language classroom, so it might make more sense to give your space a conversational layout to better enable discussions. Over time, you can move students to different parts of the room where stronger English speakers can help students who are not as familiar with the language.

Additionally, there are some best practices that you can follow that can help all students — even those fluent in English. Like adding captions to videos.

“Closed captioning isn’t just for the hearing impaired,” writes Joanna Schwartz, a bilingual grade school teacher and founder of Toolbox for Teachers. “If you’re showing video content, turning on closed captioning supports ELL students’ comprehension as well as everyone’s literacy skills… The simple act of using closed captioning improves learning, even for students without learning challenges.”

Adding captions helps language learners because they can confirm they heard the words correctly. This also provides both audio and visual instruction, appealing to different types of learners in your classroom.

Finally, a well-managed classroom reduces student stress. If you have a newcomer student, they can easily fall into the same routine as their peers if you’ve created a routine for the whole class to follow.

“Classroom routine alleviates anxiety for our ELLs because it enables them to know what to expect before they come to school,” writes teacher Madeleine Clays at Owlcation. “Rather than guess and worry about what they might be asked to do in class that morning, they can rest in the knowledge that they will follow the same overall classroom process as they did yesterday, the day before, and the day before that.”

Take Advantage of Icebreakers and Warm Ups

Your English language learners might feel a lot of stress to keep up with conversations throughout the day. Even talking to the bus driver in the morning or cafeteria staff at lunch can feel like high-pressure communication environments. Use your classroom to engage students in low-stress and fun activities to let them laugh and play with words.

“A short warm-up task provides an opportunity to learn about students’ interests and respond positively to create connections,” says Matina Gatsou, a teacher training manager at EF Teach Online. “Everyone likes talking about things they are passionate about, so why not give students the chance to connect with us and each other through their interests?”

As you learn more about your students’ interests, you can tailor these discussions to engage them. Is there a major sporting event they’re following? Is there a new TikTok dance that your class can try out before settling into a grammar lesson?

These ice breakers can also be used to introduce lessons and ideas before you start your planned activities.

“Take an engaging picture and display it for all students to see,” writes education consultant Valentina Gonzalez. “Ask students to look carefully at the picture. After a few moments, have them discuss in pairs or groups: ​What do you see? … What’s happening in this picture?”

A daily image is a good way to introduce concepts while letting students practice vocabulary. It is also a low-stress opportunity to involve new students who are still uncomfortable speaking up.

The team at All ESL lists multiple activities you can use as classroom icebreakers, while also offering advice to debut them successfully. For example, playing charades works well for students who tend to be outgoing, but can be uncomfortable for introverted students. However, because everyone involved is doing the same thing, shy students can feel less exposed and may be more likely to participate.

Child at desk in classroom wearing headphones; English Language Learners concept

Develop Lessons to Support English Language Learners in the General Classroom

If you don’t exclusively teach English to students, you can still create a classroom that is welcoming for language learners. This can be as simple as spending more time developing the vocabulary of students before you get into advanced concepts.

“For multilingual learners, vocabulary can sometimes be an entryway into the math,” says former math teacher Richard Blankman, now marketing director at education technology company HMH. “Students may have existing notions about words such as ‘product,’ ‘times,’ and ‘one,’ for example, and by discussing them, you are connecting about ideas on both language and mathematics.”

It’s not that students don’t know the math concepts, but rather they need to connect them to the English terms that we use.

You can also accommodate English language learners by letting them prove their understanding in different ways. You can offer choices when completing a homework assignment or classwork activity.

“Lessons that involve all the skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) and drawing, for example, would give students several opportunities to enhance their understanding of the concept,” explains Bhavana Ganguly, a curriculum lead for ELA at SplashLearn. “For ELLs, those additional interactions provide a little breathing space so they can negotiate the communication block.”

For example, a student might feel like they trip over words when trying to give an oral report but can feel more confident writing down their thoughts in a reflective journal.

Options are also essential when helping students feel comfortable expressing themselves. If a student thinks they have no way to communicate with you or ask for help, they will shut down. You might not see how much a student is struggling if they don’t know how to seek assistance.

Just having reference tools available in the classroom can help. “Ensure that students know they have options,” advises Sarah Cason at Education to the Core, a resource site for primary teachers. “If students don’t know the answer to a question, it’s important to have resources they can use for help. They also should know they have the choice to say they don’t know or aren’t sure.”

This approach moves your lesson plans away from rote memorization and toward skill building. If a student encounters a language problem in the real world, they’ll be comfortable either asking for help or using resources around them to solve it.

Student at desk in classroom with open book; English Language Learners concept

Know That Every Day Isn’t Going to Be a Good Day

There are 180 days in the school year. There will be times when your English language learners feel less confident about their skills or frustrated by a particular concept. When this happens, their affective filters are high.

“The affective filter is a metaphor that describes a learner’s attitudes that affect the relative success of second language acquisition,” writes Courtney Morgan at The All-Access Classroom. “Negative feelings such as lack of motivation, lack of self-confidence and learning anxiety act as filters that hinder and obstruct language learning.”

It can be hard to break through this filter — especially if the causes of it are external. A student might get bullied for their culture or have to deal with problems at home. You will need to use activities and lessons that direct their focus to the material and make them feel like they are capable of succeeding.

“The best-planned lessons are worthless if engaging delivery is not evident,” says Talia Kelly at One Stop English. “Teacher enthusiasm for a subject is hugely motivational as is content relevant to students’ contexts.”

Not every concept is fun or exciting. There also might be some days when your heart and energy aren’t able to keep up with the needs of your students. Do the best you can and try to revisit the material tomorrow.

“If no other strategies are used to support an ELL on a particular day — and it happens — teachers can always ask for a spoken English sentence on the way out the door,” writes the team at Listenwise. “Students could write it first if need be, and it could be derived from a question the teacher poses or a reflection from part of that day’s assignment.”

This is a way for students to prove they were paying attention and understand the material, even if they aren’t performing at their best that day.

Some of the students who enter your English language classroom will seem more advanced for their years. They will have lived through a migration from one country to another and might take on the emotional and financial stress that worries their parents. You can’t alleviate this, but you can create a positive learning environment for your English language learners.

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