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3 Powerful Ways to Create a Positive Classroom for English Learners

Madeleine Clays is a public school teacher with twelve years' experience teaching English language learners K-12.

A positive and safe classroom helps ELLs succeed academically.

A positive and safe classroom helps ELLs succeed academically.

First-Day Anxiety

Most teachers are well aware that students benefit from a positive and safe classroom environment—one that is conducive to learning and in which students are unafraid to make mistakes. This kind of environment is especially beneficial for English language learners, as these students are undergoing so many changes in their personal lives.

I can never forget the "deer in headlights" look on a new ELL's face on their first day of school. It's a glazed expression, often filled with anxiety, confusion, and fear of the unknown.

Adapting to a new way of life and learning a new language is stressful for our ELLs. A significant way we can help alleviate some of that stress, while also helping our students succeed academically, is by offering them a positive and safe classroom.

When I consider my efforts to create a positive and safe classroom for my students, three things come to mind:

  1. Routine
  2. Structure
  3. Atmosphere
ELLs will perform better in class when there is an established routine they can count on daily.

ELLs will perform better in class when there is an established routine they can count on daily.

1. Routine

Classroom routine alleviates anxiety for our ELLs because it enables them to know what to expect before they come to school. Rather than guess and worry about what they might be asked to do in class that morning, they can rest in the knowledge that they will follow the same overall classroom process as they did yesterday, the day before, and the day before that.

There is comfort in predictability and consistency, especially for students who have recently experienced many sudden and drastic changes in their lives.

I write the agenda for the day on the board, so that my students can see exactly what we will do that day. For example, Monday's agenda might look like this:

Routine for students in my beginner-level classroom (student version):


  • Breakfast
  • Read quietly
  • Announcements
  • Writing journals
  • Book genres
  • Sorting activity

Now, in my mind, I know that each of the above-listed items involves a lot more detail, but of course, I am not going to include all those details on the board as students will be overwhelmed. Below I have listed the details of the above-listed items.

Routine for students in my beginner-level classroom (teacher version):

  • Breakfast: As soon as they arrive at school, students get their breakfast and bring it back to class.
  • Read quietly: When they finish eating, they may read a book from the classroom library or one they have checked out from the school library. (I have a wide selection of books with many visuals to help my beginners make sense of the print.)
  • Announcements: When school announcements are played over the intercom, students put their books away and we listen quietly. I briefly review the announcements to ensure students understood them. I announce additional important information, such as upcoming visits to the library or field trip permission form deadlines. I allow time for students to ask questions about my announcements.
  • Writing journals: We review the sentence starters and the basic vocabulary students will use for today's writing journal entry. I provide many phrases, accompanied by visuals, that students can use to complete their sentence starters. I model my examples. Students write their sentences in their journals. I ask students to read their sentences to their partner, and then I call on volunteers to share their writing aloud with the class.
  • Book genres: I introduce the lesson objectives and the class lesson.
  • Sorting activity: Students sort books into categories based on genre. They may work with their partner or independently.
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Keeping classroom supplies and materials in a designated location reduces student anxiety and helps ELLs focus on learning.

Keeping classroom supplies and materials in a designated location reduces student anxiety and helps ELLs focus on learning.

2. Structure

Classroom structure involves having a designated location for all class materials and supplies so that students know where to find them when they need them. This helps alleviate anxiety and stress for them and also saves valuable class time for everybody.

For beginner-level ELLs, it's extremely helpful to label classroom items as this helps to build their literacy in English.

Some materials and supplies in my classroom:

  • student binders
  • writing journals
  • pencils
  • erasers
  • colored pencils
  • markers
  • crayons
  • lined paper
  • white paper
  • construction paper
  • rulers
  • glue sticks
  • dry-erase boards
  • dictionaries

Structure also involves classroom rules and expectations. Without these, you are sure to have ongoing chaos. Students feel safe when they know what is expected of them and what the consequences are when class rules aren't followed.

Make sure you clarify the following:

  • class rules and expectations (introduce them and post them in a highly visible location)
  • consequences for not following class rules and expectations (take time to explain these in advance)
  • school rules and expectations (in the hallway, cafeteria, library, and other parts of the building)

Some other important items students should be clear on:

  • What is your policy for test and quiz retakes?
  • When is a good time to talk to you if they need help?
  • What should they do if they are being bullied or harassed by another student?
ELLs are more likely to enjoy coming to your class when there is a welcoming atmosphere in your room.

ELLs are more likely to enjoy coming to your class when there is a welcoming atmosphere in your room.

3. Atmosphere

Classroom atmosphere refers to how students feel in your room. This ambiance is generally created during the first week of school and is critical in creating an environment that is conducive to student learning. A positive and welcoming class atmosphere can be difficult to create but it is the teacher's responsibility to work on establishing it early on in the school year.

What are some characteristics of a welcoming and positive classroom atmosphere?

  • Students feel accepted by their teacher and classmates.
  • They are unafraid to ask for help.
  • Students respect one another, regardless of differences.
  • They aren't embarrassed or ashamed when they make mistakes.
  • Students take risks.
  • They feel at ease and happy.
  • Learning is an enjoyable experience for them.
  • Students feel that they matter.
  • They're unafraid to ask questions.
  • They feel comfortable contributing to class discussions.
  • They look forward to coming to class.

A great way to help foster a welcoming classroom atmosphere is to engage students in dialogue circles on a regular basis.

Final Thoughts

Creating a positive and safe environment for students is clearly more challenging with a class of thirty students than it is with a class of ten. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to implement routine, structure, and a welcoming atmosphere in your classroom from the very first day of school. Just as important is that you continue to implement them consistently throughout the year. Your efforts will go a long way in helping your English language learners succeed socially, emotionally, and academically.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Madeleine Clays

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