Working with Newcomer ELLs: Building a Relationship

14 March 2016
One of the most important things you can do when a Newcomer ELL is placed in your class is to begin by building a relationship with that student. A positive student-teacher relationship will help the student become comfortable and pave the way for learning. It will also provide you with the necessary information to ensure that you can best meet your newcomer’s needs.

Get familiar with your newcomer’s background.
Make an effort to get to know your newcomers, their families, and their educational history. Knowing about your newcomer’s history and home situation can go a long way in helping you meet their needs.

Some important considerations:
·      Has the student gone to school before? If not, why? If so, when did they start and how long have they been in school?
·      If the student has attended school before, are there gaps in their education (periods when they did not attend school)? If so, why?
·      Is the student literate in their native language?
·      Has the student had academic difficulties in the past? If so, what kind?
·      Who lives in the home? Does anyone in the home speak English?
·      Are there emotional needs (such as past/recent trauma or family reunification) that should be taken into consideration?
·      Does the student have any known physical or health issues the school should know about?

Learn about the culture of your newcomer.
Knowing a little about the culture of your newcomer can go a long way to making that student feel comfortable and ready to learn. Do specific research on the country that your student came from, especially on the social norms of the culture. A cultural faux-pas can send the wrong message to students or parents, or damage the student-teacher relationship.

For example, early in my career, I worked with a newcomer from Ghana who was in 7th grade. When I spoke to him, he always averted his eyes down and would not look at me when speaking or being spoken to. In our culture, this is seen as a sign of disrespect. Several of his other teachers noted the behavior and commented that he was being disrespectful. I decided to get to the bottom of the situation and asked his dad to come by for an informal chat.

During our talk, he explained that this particular behavior was a sign of respect in his home country and that his son had been raised that way. The young man was actually being respectful in the way he had been taught, but because we did not fully understand the social norms of his culture, his actions were being misinterpreted when viewed in light of our own social norms.
The father and I worked with the boy to help him understand the norms of American culture, while reinforcing that what he had learned in his own culture wasn’t bad or wrong, but that people in different places do things differently. I worked with the teachers to help them understand his culture better, as well. A small piece of seemingly trivial cultural information helped to divert a potential disaster for this child! Getting to know the cultures of the students you work with can lead to a deeper understanding of the student and a stronger student-teacher relationship.

Be respectful of the silent period.
Many classroom teachers I’ve worked with have come to me worried because their ELL student has been in the classroom for two or three months and doesn’t talk much. Rest assured, this is completely normal. Many students take awhile to get comfortable with using their new language to communicate. Learning a new language and being immersed in it all day can be mentally exhausting. Additionally, the student is still adjusting to their new culture (and potentially other factors, such as traumatic experiences or family reunification).

During the silent period, students are listening, learning, and absorbing the language models around them. When they are sufficiently comfortable, they’ll start communicating. Students in the silent period shouldn’t be forced to speak their new language until they feel ready. It may take time, but once they’re ready to start talking, you’ll hardly get them to stop!

Create a comfortable classroom environment.
In order for language learning to take place, the student needs to feel comfortable- both physically and emotionally. Physically, create an environment that is comfortable and cozy for students. Add personal touches to spruce up the space, organize desks to encourage collaboration, and ensure that lighting and temperature are optimal.

Emotionally, create a classroom culture where students’ experiences, languages and cultures are acknowledged and valued. Treat errors as opportunities for learning and encourage students to take risks. Incorporate activities that celebrate diversity!


A student-teacher relationship built on mutual respect and understanding is the foundation for a positive learning experience. Once you’ve put in the effort to build a relationship with your newcomer, then you’ll be ready to provide the best possible learning experience for everyone!


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