How to Create a Welcoming Classroom for ESL Students from All Over the World

Our classrooms have more English as a Second Language (ESL) students than ever. ESL students come from all over the world, leaving countries they know and love behind, often with little choice. 

Imagine being a child adjusting to new surroundings, new friends, a completely different culture, and, to top it off, a new language! 

Since communication is the foundation for all learning and an essential life skill, it’s imperative as educators we support ESL children with sensitivity and care during this challenging transition in their lives by making them feel as welcomed as possible. 

In this article, you will read about ways to create a welcoming classroom for ESL students; to help them academically and emotionally, whether you’re a teacher, administrator, or support staff.  

Creating a Welcoming Classroom for International Students

Focussing on the Academic Side of ESL Teaching Isn’t Enough

As educators, we intend to best help every child, no matter their unique learning challenges. But working with ESL students new to the country may be something we have never dealt with before. Or maybe, you need some helpful tips to serve your ESL population in your school better. 

You may have heard about the acquisition of English as a second language in an academic sense, but what about the emotional and psychological support required for ESL students to be successful? 

For many of our international ESL students, it can be downright scary. But, let’s face it, the only way a student can be successful is to have the support they need. 

It is challenging to meet the emotional needs of each child. Still, there are many things you could do to facilitate the transition international ESL students face, alleviating the stress caused by this traumatic change in their lives. 

Here are some helpful tips to ensure you can be the guiding light ESL students need to not only survive but to thrive in the new world that awaits them. 

Make Culture a Classroom Priority

A unique activity that I always did with new ESL students was to create a flag from their native country. I gave the students construction paper, scissors, glue, and markers to use at their desks to make the flag. Students may need to use the computer to look up a picture, which I always encouraged. 

After the student finished, 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. 

Become a Cultural Expert, Not a Multi-Linguistic Expert

I remember my second year of teaching when I taught international students from five different countries in one classroom. My students came from Germany, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Mexico. Can you imagine all those varying languages and dialects in one room? 

The common misconception among teachers is that they need to be an expert in a language to teach ESL students. Not true. It would be best if you were an expert in English to teach ESL students, and most importantly, provide emotional support by demonstrating a genuine interest in their native culture. 

A simple project where ESL students can showcase pictures from their country can help students feel welcomed and valued. Hang the projects up in the room for all to see! Also, consider the customs of students’ cultures. 

I can remember a time when I was having difficulty with a student, and I could not figure out how to get his behavior under control. Finally, my paraprofessional approached me and suspiciously asked, “What do you know about Latin machismo?” As ashamed as I was to admit, the answer was, well, nothing. 

I was thankful when she explained the traditional gender roles in my student’s household based on his native countries culture. The insight I needed to change my approach with my student resulted in a much more harmonious exchange from then on. 

Later, he became so successful academically that he was given an award from the principal for receiving the highest gains in literacy of any ESL student in the school.

I attribute his success to having the cultural support he needed to feel comfortable and confident. If my paraprofessional did not explain his cultural uniqueness or if I was not open to learning about it, my students’ performance could have gone in an entirely different direction. 

Also read: Culturally responsive teaching – strategies for an inclusive classroom.

Encourage Students to Speak in their Native Language 

Classrooms are not just for reading and writing; they are for speaking and listening too. Research suggests the more children become proficient in their native language, the more efficiently they will acquire academic language in English (Collier & Thomas, 1989). With that said, support your ESL student to practice their native language, not just English. 

And never, ever stifle a student’s confidence by telling them, “Speak in English!” while conversing in their native language. It is good practice for them to speak their language, and we want always to show respect for their culture at all times. 

Pair Students to Other Native Speakers

As educators of ESL students, we should not only allow time for collaboration, but we should also actively encourage peer interaction by creating opportunities for group work.

A lesson idea that works phenomenally well is replicating real-life social seniors such as a restaurant, movie theater, or sports event. So, I transformed my classroom into a real-life restaurant complete with menus, welcome signs, decor, and table settings that I helped the students create.

The plan ultimately was to collaborate with my colleague’s Spanish class to allow both groups the opportunity to teach and learn varying language skills.  Each student would play the role of patron and server, practicing their “lines” for weeks. The Spanish class did the same. Finally, we invited the Spanish class to our “restaurant.”

The lesson provided an excellent opportunity for ESL students to showcase their native language skills by helping the Spanish class with their second language acquisition, empowering confidence boost. In addition, the English speakers allowed my ESL students to practice their skills outside the typical confines of their usual class environment. Plus, the students had a blast! 

Get more ideas for community-building activities in this post.

Bring in Members from the Community

Students need to know they are part of a community with people of the same culture. I don’t know about you, but we had limited access to individuals who speak German, Bengali, or Urdu when I taught my ESL students.

Luckily for my Spanish-speaking students, the ESL paraprofessional was a fluent speaker who would stop in to visit with the students weekly. She also allowed students to see her in her office every morning while waiting for the first bell. What a fantastic way to provide much-needed support and love to students who may otherwise feel entirely alone. But what about the other students?! 

To ensure the other ESL students had the same camaraderie, I looked to the community for help. I reached out to a local Islamic temple and Jewish synagogue. I was lucky to find two community members willing to volunteer their time to join our class and visit with our students who spoke the same language! All felt the fellowship, and it was a great way to show support for ESL students. 

Celebrate Student’s Unique Cultures

American holidays are a great time to showcase our international ESL student’s cultural holidays by facilitating a molding of the two. For example, one year, we celebrated an international thanksgiving where students were encouraged to bring in traditional food items from their native culture. 

During our “multicultural thanksgiving,” we invited administrators and support staff with creatively designed invitations that featured symbols of all the fall holidays celebrated by students. For example, the Muslim festival Eid, the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the Catholic advent were all featured on the cover of our special invite. 

Students brought in their cultural food items; we pushed all the desks together and had a family feast to ring in our multicultural thanksgiving. In addition, each student had a turn to play cultural music of their choice during class for all to hear. It was a heartwarming, enlightened, and highly educational experience for all. 

Read this article to learn great icebreaker activities for the first day of school.

Hopefully, these tips will help you welcome international ESL students from all over the world.

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