Welcoming Newly Arrived High School ELLs

These strategies can help English language learners feel like they’re an essential part of the school community.

In the United States, the number of English language learners (ELLs) in public schools has been increasing steadily over the years. Those arriving as teenagers face a variety of stressful circumstances, including cultural differences, linguistic barriers, and financial stressors.

As educators, we strive to integrate these students into the school community so they can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. The following are techniques to support ELLs as we prepare them for an increasingly globalized world.

Create an inclusive physical environment.

The first thing ELLs experience when they arrive in a new school is the physical environment. Much of their time is spent observing as they walk around the hallways and sit in the classrooms. This is why it’s vital to create a welcoming atmosphere. It helps put them at ease and gives them a sense of safety and belonging.

Post flags of home countries. Distribute a list of home countries that are represented in your school community, and invite educators to print and post flags.

Create multilingual labels and signs. Educators and ELLs can collaborate to create labels for classroom objects and signs for display throughout the school. This helps the transition of students during their first months in school.

Post a weekly bilingual “Phrase of the Week.” “I’m here to help you” and “You are improving every day” are examples that can be posted throughout the school and shared by email and in the morning announcements. Vocalize these to your students throughout the week, and invite them to help expand the list of phrases along with the English translation. (Thanks to Michelle Milgrim, who originated this idea of weekly Spanish “lessons,” and Dr. Marisol Manríquez-Weiner, who translated a list of positive affirmations created by the author.)

Display #YouAreWelcomeHere signs. An initiative to welcome international students to study in the United States can work in any school environment.

Decorate bulletin boards with photos of ELLs. Collect photos of students in their home countries, and label them with informative captions.

Increase multicultural awareness

Equally important to ELLs’ social and emotional well-being is the school community’s interest in learning from them. Creating opportunities to educate students and staff about the languages and cultures of ELLs enriches the learning experience for all and shows ELLs that their background knowledge is an asset to their community.

Introduce ELLs to others who speak their language. When new ELLs take a tour of the school, introduce them to faculty, staff, or students who speak their language or have familiarity with their culture.

Host language tables. This can be an informal after-school or lunchtime activity, where any interested members of the school community join to practice conversation in a particular language. Provide handouts with conversation topics and common vocabulary; participants can listen or use a translator if they have little to no background in the language.

Coordinate cultural exchanges. This can be done between ELLs and World Language classes or with students who need volunteer hours for a class or club. If there is an ELL class of all native speakers of Spanish, coordinate interactive opportunities with a Spanish class. Students can exchange brief bilingual notes to encourage multilingual social interactions—for example, “I’m glad to know you” or “If you see me in the hallway, say hello,” written in Spanish and English.

Help ELLs prepare guest presentations in classrooms of varying subject areas to discuss topics from their own cultural perspectives. For example, ELLs can be guest speakers in a history class where they discuss the economy of their home country and the factors that lead to emigration.

Make a welcome video. Highlight the linguistic abilities of students, faculty, and staff with the purpose of welcoming non-native speakers of English. Students in a club or a video production class can edit these videos. See an example here from Saugerties Central School District.

Post world language worksheets in a public area. Label individual folders with the languages that are reflected in the ELL population of the school community. Attach the folders to a bulletin board, and fill each with worksheets about these languages.  Passersby can take a paper from a folder to practice writing their chosen language and learn the vocabulary they can use with their ELL classmates.

Offer cultural workshops in collaboration with multilingual students. Attendees can use the worksheets mentioned above to practice the written form of the language, and student volunteers can demonstrate the pronunciation of the words and answer questions about how the language functions. Another idea is to propose these workshops to administrators to be offered regularly after school. If funding isn’t available, ELLs can give workshops during their stand-alone English language classes, with an open invitation to the school community to attend.

Share documentaries about the home countries of ELLs. Disperse a weekly or monthly film from YouTube or another freely accessible video streaming site. Invite teachers to share with students or view on their own.

Offer bilingual morning announcements. This will ensure that ELLs are informed and provide an additional opportunity for the school community to be exposed to languages other than English regularly.

Provide supplemental supports 

In addition to the above, ELLs are put at ease when they know they have a team of people who want to help them. Staff who can communicate in the home language of ELLs or show an understanding of and respect for the home cultures are a tremendous asset to the school community.

When possible, hire multilingual staff. Teacher assistants, guidance counselors, administrators, and administrative assistants who are able to communicate in the native language of ELLs can provide a sense of safety and familiarity for new students and their guardians.

If funding is available, teachers can provide additional support in an extended day program. Invite students to stay after school for extra help with English. They thrive with added academic support and small-group attention.

Our desire to belong is universal. The above recommendations are steps in supporting ELLs, while also promoting understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. Bilingualism, a tool in understanding multiculturalism, is common in much of the world and, with the help of our ELLs, perhaps will be increasingly valued in school communities across the United States.