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Cross Cultural Understanding for New to English Students – The First Steps (Part 2)

EAL students are often placed in the situation that the tools they used for building conceptual understandings of the world (their home language and home culture) are not used in their new situation. Tabors (97) refers to this as a ‘double bind’ – the need to learn the new language combined with the need to understand the cultural framework within which they are now operating. We spend a lot of time focusing on building their language skills, but building a cultural understanding is often not done explicitly. Research shows us that these two should go hand in hand.

One of the ways we can start to build a cultural understanding is to develop an understanding of the school culture that the student has joined. I have found that parents/carers are excellent at helping to build a bridge between the two cultures and supporting their child in understanding the new school culture.

Often parents/carers are also unsure of the school culture, as they too are new to the country and the education system. It is therefore really important to extend a welcome to the parents/carers and give them an opportunity to learn about the individual culture of your school.

Set up a parent/carer meeting as soon as possible, either prior to a student joining the school, or arranging to spend 10 minutes with the parents/carers at the start or the end of the first day. The purpose of this meeting is to give practical information about how the school runs and the equipment a student will need. Parents will then be able to pass this information on to their child in their first language.

You can download a ‘School Welcome Booklet’ that can be adapted it to fit your school situation. The first draft of this booklet was written with colleagues many years ago and I have continued to find it a useful tool for explaining the school setup to parents/carers and students. I arrange a meeting with parents/carers and explain the booklet to them (see the list below). I then ask them to read through the booklet with their child to begin the process of explaining some of the school structures and expectations (culture). Following  this, its helpful to begin a period of cultural transition sessions which we will explain in further articles.

The sooner a student can have this information discussed in their home language, the better for transition into school. By doing this you are giving the parent/carer the opportunity to help the student frame their experiences and build cultural understandings.

If the parent/carer does not speak English, it is as important (if not more so) to extend this welcome and give them a visual understanding of their child’s life at school and of the school culture. Don’t worry if they cannot read the booklet! They will probably find someone to help translate it. There may also be a capable student in the school who speaks the same language who could help you translate some of the practical aspects of the meeting.

These are some the first steps you can take in building a relationship with the parents/carers. It is also one of the ways that you can support your student’s transition, and a systematic method of beginning to understand your new student.

Using the School Welcome Booklet as a framework for discussion

1.If you have not already been able to do so, check how to pronounce the student’s name and which name to use (sometimes their recorded name is not their known name).

2. Give the parents a copy of the School Welcome Book and work through it explaining:

  • The structure of the school day - the timetable and what to remember to bring on which day.
  • The names of people the student will come into contact with – particularly if different teachers take students for specialist subjects.
  • The school uniform and PE kit
  • School start and end times (point out the holiday dates)
  • What to do if the student is late for school
  • What to do if the student is ill
  • How we work in class – This may be very different from the school system they have come from and needs to be made explicit, particularly if they have come from a more ‘chalk and talk’ teacher led learning environment.  This can sometimes be very tricky for students to understand.
  • Subjects covered in the National Curriculum
  • Home reading and library books – School expectations and timings.
  • Remember book – A useful way to note down and structure the language they are learning as they go which support them as active participants in their own learning
  • Welcome/Cultural transition booklet – This resource covers topic like their friends (old and new), their changing family, their changing life, feelings and questions. This can help you understand more about them and support them in acknowledging and enjoying the changes in their lives. 
  • Lunch and break times – As we have already discussed, this can be one of the most daunting times for students and having the parents understand the support structure will allow students to express any anxiety they may have.
  • Questions - What to do if there are any questions and who is the best person to answer them.

3. Introduce the parent/carer to the class buddy and adult mentor and explain their role. A parent information card is available with our Welcome/cultural transition booklet

4. Give the parent/carer a tour of the school with their child so they can explain where the toilet is, the lunch hall, the playground etc. 

  • This tour is very useful in helping a parent visualise what their child is describing to them at home. If the parent/carer does not speak English, can you ask an older member of the school who shares the same language to show them around?

5. It is important to stress the importance of the home language. They will be learning English in school, but maintenance of home language is crucial. It is harder to develop in a second language if the first/mother tongue is not developed.

  • If the student can read in their home language it would be worth asking parents to bring a book to school in their home language. This will also give you an indication of their level of 1st language literacy.
  • Let them know what your topics are at the moment so that they can talk about it at home in their 1st language and you could also give a list of topic related vocabulary for them to discuss with their child.
  • I would suggest that touching on this at this stage is important, but running a whole school parent meeting to stress the importance of maintaining the home language is really good practice for your school.


Tabors, P. (1997) One Child, Two Languages: a guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing

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