Recently on Twitter, a catchy quote has been floating around. It reads: “Students need Maslow before they can Bloom” (ASCD, 2019).

It reminds us that how students feel is just as important as the content we teach. Twitter Learning is state-dependent (Kwik, 2017). If students are stressed or feeling threatened, all cognitive function – learning, problem-solving, creative thinking – stops (Hammond & Jackson, 2015).  

Here are ten ways we can create a positive, identity-affirming, welcoming environment for all students, not just ELs:

1.) Pronounce students’ names correctly

What’s in a name? Everything! For many cultures, naming a child is a significant task that is accompanied by ceremonies and rituals. The way ELs’ families pronounce their names is the way we should pronounce them too if we want to honor the ELs and their cultures.  Just practice, and insist on pronouncing it correctly.  One trick is to record students pronouncing their own names.  You can replay the recording to help you practice.

2.) Use a nickname the ML chooses

Often, when an EL’s name is difficult to pronounce, teachers will assign an English name.  Phuong becomes Phil, Jesús becomes Jack, or Jiang becomes Jenny. In the worst-case scenarios, teachers give ELs names that do not even start with the same letter sound as their passport names such as George for Phonsavanh or Adam for Vithakone. No act is as identity-destroying as forcing ELs to drop their official names for an English one.Twitter

However, if they come to class with a nickname that they prefer to use, then it is appropriate to call them by it – even if it’s an English name.  This is identity-affirming because it’s the EL’s preference, not the teacher’s. Many students have meaningful backstories for the nicknames they have chosen themselves (the American TV show Fresh Off the Boat even did a whole episode on it).

3.) Encourage the use of any language

Like names, language is knotted into identity.  Yet, many classrooms and even entire schools enforce an English-only policy.  The intention is to give students opportunities to use English, but the outcome is that it privileges one language and culture over others. Instead, we can create an identity-affirming environment when we allow students to use any language.  

Some people support English-only policies because they want a common language.  They fear that if a group of Chinese students are speaking together in Mandarin, the Latino student won’t be able to join in the conversation.  In these incidents, it is up to teachers to teach students when to use their home language (e.g., when everyone in the group speaks the home language) and when to switch to English (e.g., when the group consists of diverse home languages).  

Multiple home languages can exist alongside a common language. Twitter It’s knowing when to use the home language and when to use English that’s the important thing to remember. 

4.) Permit MLs to use resources published in their home languages 

Yzquierdo reminds us that while English is the language of instruction in many of our schools, but we can use home languages to clarify concepts and topics (2017). We can be identity-affirming when we allow and encourage students to use learn about the same content that we plan on teaching from resources published in their home languages.  For example, photosynthesis exists in every country, and it is likely that articles and videos about photosynthesis are published in the students’ home languages. If ELs are proficient in their home language and are new to English, it is to their benefit to access the same content with resources published in their home language. 

Some teachers fear that the resources students are using in their home language are not accurate.  In these cases, I recommend using technology. For example, a history teacher wanted her students to watch a particular video about the Reformation.  Because the language was not accessible, we turned on the captions on Youtube and had the algorithm auto-translate the English into students’ home languages (see video below). 

For texts, one option is to have students install Google Translate on their Chrome browsers and have the text translated into their home languages (see image below).

We want students to process content in their home language first so that they can later participate in the class in English with their teacher and fellow classmates. Their understanding and engagement with the content is the fruit; processing the content in their preferred language is the water. We cannot expect fruit to flourish without giving it the water it needs to grow.

5.) Read books that reflect MLs’ experiences 

The content that we teach students can sometimes be marginalizing because it usually honors one culture over others. For example, I remember studying the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World in high school.  I noticed that none honored ancient structures built in Asia, Sub Asia, or Latin America, such as the Mayan Pyramids in Central America, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, or the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines.  I also felt that I knew more about the American Presidents than I did emperors in Asia, which we never even learned about in my 12 years of schooling. I felt like I was just learning about dead, white guys. 

Just as we honor our students by using their official names (if they prefer them), we can also be identity-affirming when we ground content in their cultural heritage when possible, choose read-alouds that reflect characters who experience the same things they do, or select a novel connected to their culture.  

Two sources of culturally responsive books that I follow are Project Lit (a non-profit that grows young readers and young leaders) and Loyola University Chicago. Below is a list of books grouped into categories for easy viewing.  To stay current, you can also do a simple search for “multicultural books” or “culturally responsive books”.

6.) Encourage MLs to share connections between their lives and the topic 

If culturally-responsive instruction is identity-affirming instruction, then it also means instruction that recognizes the assets that students bring to school.  One way to recognize ELs’ assets is to help them find the connections between their lived experiences and the content.  

For example, when my 8th graders were studying how waves are used in their everyday lives, we had them consider how electric cars are being used in their home countries.  The science teacher and I did not do prep work to find the connection for each student. We simply asked them to inquire into how their countries are already contributing to this topic.  When two EL students, in particular, shared their findings with the class, there was a sense of pride in the advancements that the car companies from their Korean and Chinese cultures were doing to support electric vehicles. 

7.) Use MLs’ experiences to activate prior knowledge

Continuing the theme of asset-based instruction that affirms students identities, we can start instruction by asking students to reach into their prior knowledge about the content we are about to teach.  Doing this makes instruction more familiar and less abstract.  

At times, students will not have a direct connection to the content.  For example, when we were teaching a unit on government systems to 7th graders, most students did not have experience interacting with any government.  Instead, we started by asking them to reflect on how decisions are made in their families. The more difficult or minute the content is, the more opportunities to make broader connections we have to offer.  

8.) Explicitly teach students how to collaborate respectfully 

Vygotsky suggests that all learning is social (1978). However, different cultures expect students to interact in different ways.  For some, interruptions are considered appropriate while for others, holding back is more valued. We have to teach students to participate in the way the current power brokers be it employers, government officials, or collaborators expect them to so that they can become a positive part of the community. 

I once went to do a lesson demonstration at a high school in Victoria, Canada.  When I had students turn and talk about the first section of the text in their home language, I was met with silence.  I thought maybe it was because they did not understand the text, so I asked them to Google Translate unfamiliar words. Some took out their phones to translate and make notes.  Certainly, they are prepared to talk now, I thought.  

But again, I was met with less talking than I had expected and was used to.  I then re-read the text and had students annotate in any language. Then I had students read their annotations to another person.  With this minor technique, students started feeling more comfortable sharing their ideas with each other as the class progressed.  

Afterward, the teacher told me that students were not used to talking to one another, so that was one possible factor explaining their discomfort in sharing.  They needed to experience what I expected to collaborate, and for this group, that meant starting by reading annotations to each other. 

If you would like to learn more about this topic, Jana Echvarria, one of the authors of the SIOP model, has a great article explaining how to make student interaction purposeful. 

9.) Allow ELs to work with non-MLs

To be culturally responsive means to allow students to use their home language.  However, this sometimes means that they are working with mostly other ELs. This can create a sense of isolation and separation from the non-ELs in class.  Therefore, I will intentionally group students together who share the same academic language proficiency.  

Think of academic language as a continuum from one to ten.  Beginners would be at a one while students reading and writing with academic language beyond grade level would be at a ten.  Not all native English users are proficient using academic language, so they fall on different parts of the continuum. Some ELs might have progressed so much that they might be higher on the academic language continuum than classmates from English-dominant homes.  

When grouping students, we do not want students at a 1 on the continuum partnering with a person at a 10. The titanic difference in the language would cause an emotional rift for both students in addition to the practical difficulties of completing the assignment.  Ten resents being the teacher, and One feels inadequate because their developing English skills prevent them from interacting meaningfully with their partner. 

Instead, I recommend students at 1, 2, and 3 on the continuum work together; 4,5,and 6 work together; 7 and 8 work as a pair, and 9 and 10 collaborate as a team. In this grouping framework, students with similar academic language skills can work together and be both emotionally and practically successful.  

If you want more information about this grouping framework, I have written this article about it. 

10.) Expect MLs to learn the same content in the same room as non-MLs and engage in the same task.

One of the most detrimental things we can do to a child’s identity is remove them from their peers to learn in another room.  It wrongly communicates to students that they cannot learn the same things as other students in the same place (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2019).  

In truth, ELs can learn the same grade-level content and interact with their same grade-level peers in the same room, at the same time if we offer them different kinds of support.  This comes in the form of scaffolding instruction and differentiating assessments.  We must remember that segregation is never equal


It matters less which one of the ten items above you choose to implement.  What matters most is that we affirm ELs’ identities through the way we teach.  Regardless of their cultures, life experiences, and personal interests, all students want to be identified as intelligent and capable; valuable and honest.

ASCD. (2019, March 16). Students have to Maslow before they can Bloom. – @TeachMrReed  #Empower19 [Tweet]. Retrieved from

Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

Honigsfeld, A., & Dove, M. G. (2019). Collaborating for English learners: A foundational guide to integrated practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Kwik, J (Producer). (2017, March 28). Kwik Brain [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Yzquierdo, M. (2017). Pathways to Greatness for ELL Newcomers: A comprehensive guide for schools and teachers. Canter Press.