Particularly in the United States, English language learners may feel out of place in the English classroom. Not only do they not speak the language, but their culture and traditions are often vastly different than your own. Depending on where you live, the climate for English language learners outside of the classroom may feel less than welcoming. As a teacher, you have an opportunity to create an environment where students feel comfortable and accepted.
The best and easiest way to make students feel welcome is just to smile. Look like you're happy to have them in your class. Use kind tones and say things like, "I'm glad you're here" or "We're going to have a great time in this class." Although you don't want to intimidate students with prolonged eye contact, be sure to look at them instead of down or to the side when you interact with them. These simple facial and body expressions will let students know you're not afraid of or intimidated by them and that you're happy to be in their presence.
Give students a chance to share a little bit about themselves and their culture. What are their favorite foods? Favorite holidays or traditions? Who do they live with? Do they have siblings? Children of their own? These kinds of questions help you show that you're interested in them and their lives.
Because students come from different cultures, their traditions and values may be different from their own. For example, if a student just had a birthday, he or she might not have celebrated with a birthday party. Or if your student confides that she is going to be wed as part of an arranged marriage, she might actually be excited about it. For holidays like Christmas, students might not exchange presents, have a Christmas tree, or even celebrate the holiday at all. Consider attitudes toward promptness, homework, and even plagiarism too. For example, some cultures don't see plagiarism as a big deal, so you might need to teach a lesson on plagiarism before you punish students for plagiarizing their essays.
Celebrate Their Diversity
Once you learn about your students and the differences in their personalities, values, and cultures, celebrate those differences. Take time to observe holidays from different cultures. Display posters sharing student interests. During conversations, point out some of the other aspects that make students unique and wonderful. Another way to celebrate their diversity is to enjoy different foods from their culture. When you try them, don't say, "That's gross! How could you eat that?" Instead, give it a fair try. If you don't like it, it's okay to be honest, but do so respectfully.
Learn Their Names
Often English language learners have to put up with using an American name or a shortened version of their actual name. Some of them want to and enjoy doing this. Others, not so much. Ask students if they would like you to use their real names and, if so, learn how to pronounce and spell them correctly. It may take some effort if they come from a culture with a language completely different from your own, but it will be worth the effort in the end. For even better effects, you can take it one step further and learn a few words in their language. Even a simple 1, 2, 3 or "hello" and "goodbye" can make a student feel like you care.
Allow Open Dialogue
Make your classroom a place where students can feel free to share their concerns, frustrations, and even their suggestions. You may have a box where students place questions or comments that you read and respond to later or you may set aside some time every day or every week for students to talk to you. Keep an open door policy and allow students to come talk to you when they need to and, if students offer criticism or share frustration, don't immediately become defensive or judge them. Instead, practice good listening skills and hear them out. Let them know their thoughts and opinions are valued.
Listen for Negative Self-Talk
Sometimes English language learners can become down on themselves, either because they're struggling to learn the language or they face a lot of hostility outside of the classroom. Listen for words that signal they may be down on themselves or worried about how they appear to others and reinforce the idea that they are beautiful, valuable individuals. If they're struggling with the language, give them a "you can do it" and offer some extra help. Maybe share a story about another learner who overcame similar feelings to motivate them.
Recognize You May Have to Change
Just like every group of "regular" students is different, every group of English language learners is different. You may think you have it all figured out and insist upon following your plan, but keep in mind that sometimes plans change. Focus on the needs of your students when planning activities. If students aren't getting something or are responding negatively to an activity, maybe it's not their fault. Engage in some self-reflection to see if there are ways you can change to improve your students' experience in your classroom.
Watch Your Language
Remember that English language learners don't have the same history and experience with the language as you. Slow down your pace a little (but not so slow that they feel dumb), cut down on your use of slang and idioms, and repeat yourself as needed.
Everything you do to help make your classroom more welcoming is worth it if it means a better learning experience for your students.
P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking one of those sharing buttons below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow our Facebook page where we share more about creative, non-boring ways to teach English.