Starting a new school year can be scary for anyone and entering an educational and social setting where one’s language of origin is not used can definitely increase the sense of worry and uncertainty for a student. One of the best ways to help new English as a Second Language (ESL) learners acclimate is to have a welcome book prepared that guides them through the basics of their first few days. If the school year is just beginning, the teacher can create a basic welcome book ahead of time which the English speaking students can later help her to improve. If the school year is already underway when a new ESL student arrives, the children can be the main authors and illustrators of the book.
Creating an ESL welcome book at the beginning of a school year is a great way to promote an inclusive and welcoming mood in your classroom community. It gives students a chance to work together and also to develop and refine their understanding of the class schedules, routines, and expectations. It may also have a section intended for parent use that offers helpful, easily accessible information (preferably in both English and the parent’s native language).
For the Students
Ideally, the entire new family has met with the classroom and ESL teacher with an interpreter before the child has arrived at school. Whether or not this is possible, a welcome book is a tangible and colorful gift that a student can receive to help them feel recognized and included. Teachers can make a list of what students typically do each day or ask students to help them make this list. The class can then collaborate on creating pages for the welcome book describing what happens during the day with helpful illustrations and drawings. Bilingual or ESL students already present can work with the classroom and ESL teachers to make the book a multilingual product. When interpreters are not readily available, Google Translate is an imperfect but helpful tool. Educators’ Technology also offers a list of five “great free iPad translation apps,” including iTranslate and Speak Text Free. Taking pictures of important adults in the school (Music teacher, Principal, Janitor, etc.) and including them in the book is also a helpful tool for new ESL students.
For the Parents
Teachers must work with their school systems to secure appropriate translation services for parents who do not speak English as a first language. All school rule books, agreements, and documents must be translated, along with all parent-teacher conferences and phone calls. Scheduling this can be a challenge, and the translation apps mentioned above sometimes have to fill in the gaps. The parent section of the ESL welcome book can have the school and teacher phone numbers and a school calendar with important dates clearly marked. Information about buses, lunches, and the school website will also be helpful. Information in English should be written in simple sentences and illustrated. While the parents may already be receiving large information packets from the school, the ESL welcome book aims to present the most important information in simple and clear terms.
For the Family
Carrying the welcome book idea over into an entire welcome backpack allows you to offer school supplies and books to new ESL families as well. If the ESL program at your school hooks up with a PTA, school, division, or local community backpack drive, these can be purchased, packed, and ready to go for any newcomers. Colorín Colorado recommends these types of materials for “ESL Welcome Kits”: “grade level support materials, coloring book, small book, letter/word cards, dice and/or number cards, game board (Bingo, chutes and ladders), CD of English songs or audio book (with book), picture / student dictionary — the school, neighborhood, survival English, content, notebook, folder, pencils/crayons, glue stick, ruler, fun eraser, stickers, and bookmark.” Providing some of these supplies, when possible, takes some of the adaptive stress off of the family. You can also include information in the welcome backpack or kit about English classes in the community, local parks, libraries, gyms, after school programs, and other potentially helpful resources.
Another important step in welcoming ESL students, Scholastic reminds us, is to choose members of the class to be your student ambassadors for new students (this is a good idea for new non-ESL students too). Rhonda Stewart of Scholastic points out that, “it would be extremely helpful to have a student in class who speaks the same language as the new student to assist them in getting adjusted to the routines and procedures of the class.” When this is not possible, a student who has shown their ability to be friendly and patient towards others may be a good choice or teachers can observe whom, if anyone, the ESL student seems to click with naturally before assigning an ambassador. Because many ESL students may be understandably shy on arrival, teachers may often have to choose ambassadors ahead of time. This could also be a rotating role along with other class responsibilities that students share. The ambassador shows the student around, helps them to stay on schedule, and keeps an eye out for them as they travel through the school.
Also, many teachers carry out an identity or “get to know you”-themed project at the beginning of the year. Why not have this include a class book which describes the cultures and personalities of all the students? When new students come to the class, they can make their own page and be added to the class culture book; like the welcome book, it can be adapted throughout the year to reflect the class’s evolving culture. If possible, any student who leaves the class during the year and all the students at the end of the year will get a copy of the class culture book.
Along with the obvious literacy and cooperation skills students gain in cooperative book-making, these projects can make a powerful positive impact on the classroom community. By consciously recognizing and honoring new students who do not speak English as a first language, you are making a statement that they matter and belong.
Written by Julia Travers
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