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August 6, 2012

Back to School with Second Language Learners

Written By: Brandi Jordan
X Back to School with Second Language Learners

Back to School with Second Language Learners

by Lori Wolfe, Monthly Columnist

As we head back to our classroom and prepare for a new school year, many of us will find English Language Learners (ELLs) on our rosters. I would like to share some ideas used to establish a warm, and supportive learning environment for second language learners.

Creating a Welcoming Environment for Second Language Learners

As teachers we know that creating an safe and secure classroom environment includes such things as:

  • Arrange the classroom in a way to maximize interaction with clear walkways and designated work areas
  • Post student work
  • Display classroom rules and procedures.
  • Model kindness, patience and respect
  • Smile often, laughing with our students and giving explicit positive reinforcement

Ensure a sheltered and supportive classroom for second language learners by including:

  1. Label the room and classroom objects with word and picture labels. This helps build vocabulary and helps limited or non-speakers know where things go and what they are called.
  1. Integrate ELLs’ first language and culture into my classroom when possible. Incorporate all students into the classroom by putting up posters, books, songs and pictures of different cultures.
  1. Develop and maintain predictable procedures, schedules and routines. I model and practice these often during the first weeks of school and adhered to them throughout the year. Posting a schedule, content and language objectives, rules, lunch menus and bus schedules gives a sense of security to students. Try to always include pictures and simple wording.
  1. Establish a sense of belonging by seating ELLs in the middle of the room toward the front facing the teacher. Make regular eye contact. Some teachers think they should not put second language students on the spot and don’t interact with them. I feel this allows an ELL to slip to the edges of a classroom, never participating, speaking or learning.
  1. Further that sense of belonging by designing classroom jobs appropriate for ELL students. There are many classroom jobs that a limited speaker can do such as: Handing out papers, posting lunch numbers, etc.


Before school starts employ these easy strategies to connect second language learners with the classroom and make all students feel welcome and a member of your community.

Get to know your second language learners as school gets under way. Try to find out the basic facts about each second language learner in your class. Do you know whom they live with? How many siblings or relatives live with them in their home? How long has he/she lived in the country or was he/she born here? If the student comes from another country, which one? What town or city? What language(s) is spoken at home? What prior school experience does the student have? Are they literate in their first language?

Download the free, handy checklist of the above ideas and strategies to be certain that you cover all the areas you intend to cover.


A thought on newcomers: When I have newcomers (students new to my school or to the country) in my classroom I don’t forget to address a human basic need: safety! To make the students feel safe and secure assign a peer as the ELLs’ buddy. Choose peer buddies who know the school and can give the newcomers a tour of the school, rooms, offices, bathrooms and classrooms. The buddies introduce the newcomers to teachers, staff and aides who need to know that these students are limited or non-English speakers. This is the first step in providing my students with a safe environment.


What strategies and activities do you use to design a safe, secure learning environment for your second language learners? Please share your ideas with us!  


About the Author

Lori Wolfe talks about back to school with second language learnersLori Wolfe has taught English Language Development, bilingual 1st & 2nd grades, and as a Title I Reading and Math specialist.  She also presents professional development workshops, develops curriculum and blogs. Follow her blogs at Fun To Teach ESL and Fun To Teach Math Blog for more great teaching ideas, tips, freebies and more. You can also find Fun To Teach on Facebook.


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  • Robin Robb
    August 7, 2012

    The reality of 2012 is that ALL teachers are second language teachers! This is an amazing opportunity to share our culture and language with children from around the world. We should feel honored to be ambassadors to our students and their families. How we treat them and the efforts we make to connect with them will be the basis of their lifelong relationship with our country. I am constantly reminded of the huge responsibility we have as teachers, but I am also reminded of the privilege that we have to be part of something so meaningful in the lives of others.

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