George Lucas Educational Foundation

Empathy & Inclusion for ELL Students

Empathy & Inclusion for ELL Students

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Being an English Language Learner in the classroom can be a very overwhelming experience for students regardless of age. It’s important for educators to build an atmosphere that fosters a safe and empathetic environment for ELL students.

Being an ELL student myself in grade 5 was very overwhelming experience in the classroom and school. My teachers did their best to help me learn this new language, which I now consider to be my first language: English. They were very kind, understanding and empathetic when it comes to my situation. My first children’s novel was given to me that year as a gift from my grade 5 teacher: The Babysitter’s Club. I remember being very excited about it and hoping that I would soon be able to read it cover to cover. Most of the challenges that I faced dealt with the social aspect of integrating into a new school and a classroom, with new classmates. Having my classmates being more empathetic and kind would have helped me out a great deal.

There are a few things that teachers can adopt and model in their classrooms to help build a kind and empathetic social atmosphere for ELL students:

  • Practice pronunciation of student’s name: To this day, I still practice this with my international students. Names represent who we are. It is crucial for the teacher as well as classmates to be able to pronounce the ELL student’s name correctly. This might involve correcting students who mispronounce the student’s name.
  • Explain playground and school rules to ELL students: Do this while keeping in mind that in some cultures it is not socially acceptable to ask questions. Some students will probably be very shy and uncomfortable in asking you questions about daily routine that seem obvious to us. Think of the following: using the restroom, eating and drinking, feeling ill, lineups, start and end of school procedures, length of recess and lunch hour etc.
  • Celebrate culture in the classroom: This can be a very fun and creative activity to do in the classroom. Ask students to bring either an artefact, traditional dress, or even food that represents their culture. For some students, this will be a fun family history lesson to find out the background of their culture.
  • Integrate culture in the curriculum: When studying either the arts, history, music, or science make sure to present students with artists/inventors/creators from other cultures/countries from those disciplines. This also creates a global connection between cultures and therefore fosters an empathetic atmosphere.
  • Advocate for a diversity & equality in school displays: This might include signs, and posters that deliver school messages/values and ethics. Library displays can also showcase material that is representative of cultural diversity.
  • Allow ELL students to have a choice:  When selecting group members, give ELL students a choice that allows them to select their group members if they choose to do so. This might help them sit with other students they are comfortable with, and helps them build strong relationships with those students.
  • It’s okay for students to speak their first language: This might come as a shock to many teachers, but students do not learn by force. If you “enforce” an English only rule in the classroom it will create a divide and a form of resistance from struggling ELL students. Instead, allow them to speak a language of their choice. Go over to them and find out if they have any questions or need clarification on instructions. Instantly, this builds a conversation and a connection between you and the student.
  • Invite ELL students’ parents for teacher’s night: This truly helps in bridging the cultural gap between parents and teachers, and allows both parties to be aligned when it comes to meeting the needs of the student. *Bonus*: find out if parents require an interpreter beforehand and try to accommodate this need.
  • Encourage polite questions when curious: students are often curious about the background of ELL students, and that's normal. Help students have these discussions and pose their questions by providing opportunities for small group discussions or one on one connections about curriculum material related to diversity, equity and humanitatrian efforts. *Please note*: The learning and discussion should be related to the curriculum and shouldn't use the ELL student as a lesson or reference. It's important for the teacher here to listen and try to help students frame questions positively that come up in this discussion. This will allow students to gain knowledge by politely asking the right questions, while still respecting other students' privacy and culture.
  • Encourage extra-curricular activities by finding out the interest/hobbies of the student: Many students will feel very hesitant to join teams/clubs in their school due to their developing language skills. A little encouragement from the teacher would go a long way. *Bonus*: Discuss the student’s language abilities with the teacher/ coach who is in charge in order for them to also be mindful and empathetic to the student’s social situation with other teammates.

There are many other ideas and strategies to implement and practice in the classroom and school to build an inclusive and celebratory atmosphere that encourages empathy and diversity. Our goals in the classroom should be to model diversity, inclusion, and global citizenship to our students to build kind and empathetic future leaders.


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

These are great tips, Rusul, made even better knowing they come from your own personal experience. Pronouncing names correctly is something I try to get a handle on from the first day. While students are working quietly (usually writing a letter of introduction to me), I walk around the room with my seating chart and quietly greet each student, asking for pronunciation help if necessary, and then making phonetic marks on my chart so I will remember. It's always a struggle for me, with my English-only students, too: is this Leah, pronounced with a long e, or is it Lea, with the e pronounced as a long a? I have both of those students this year, along with Preston, Presley and Wesley! With 160 students and a wide variety of names and countries of origin, I have to devote extra effort at the start of the year to get them right. But when I call them by name (correctly) they smile. When I mess up, they are often embarrassed. We need to do our part to make our students feel safe and free of embarrassment. Thanks for the reminders!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thank you for your kind words and sharing your experience Laura! writing their phonetic pronunciation is a great tip. I like that you notice them smiling when you pronounce it right and embarrassed when there is an error. It really speaks about how in tune you are with your students' emotions and feelings.

Angela D.'s picture

Rusul, I know these are great tips, as I have worked in a Language Center with immigrants who had only been in the country 2-4 years. I wanted to provide a tip about "Invite ELL students' parents for teacher's night." I know our school not only placed information on the school electronic sign, but mailed out flyers as well. However, it was not until we teachers in the Language Center mailed personal invitations on "You're Invited" stationary that we began to see parents at the event. I think some parents did not understand the event or how it worked, while others were from cultures where even a public posting of an event did not assure access unless one was invited. (For us Americans, it's like when the news televises that the President of the U.S. is having a State Dinner at the White House on Saturday - that does not mean show up.)

In addition, we asked if they would be willing to provide a snack from their culture. We didn't expect much and did this so ELL parents would feel more a part of the event, but I have never seen so many generous offers, and so much amazing food! It became a great success and a tradition. Eventually, the students began to take over on creating the invitations, making the event even more successful.

So don'y rely on a school flyer as the "invitation." Make it personal!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Angela! thank you for sharing your experience. I completely agree with you, by making the invitation personal more parents are inclined to participate. The language barrier can really be an issue here, and by personalizing you are building a relationship with the parents.
I am so glad that your experience has been a very positive one. And how wonderful for the students to take part in creating the invitations?! This really is one of the most important aspects of communication and building relationships in education: It is through these interactions and experiences that we are able to overcome our differences and focus on our similarities.

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