This is an excerpt from the new book, The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners, by Debbie Zacarian, Ed.D. and Judie Haynes.

Dr. Zacarian is the director of the Center for English Language Education and Advancing Student Achievement at the Collaborative for Educational Services and consults with state agencies and school districts nation-wide. Judie Haynes, a former ESL teacher with 28 years experience and owner of the website, provides consulting on teaching ELs throughout the US and Canada.

Katie Hull Sypnieski and I also recommended their previous book, Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas, in our own book, The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide:

Beginning English Learners and Culture Shock


No discussion of English learners’ first year of school would be complete without talking about culture shock. As educators, the more we do to help English learners (ELs) cope with the challenges that they face, including the anxiety that they might feel as they enter a new learning environment, the more positive their experience will be. While anxiety can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, it leads to insecurity and a barrier to learning. Many ELs experience these behaviors and dispositions. The more posi­tive the experience, the more open ELs are to learn.

Moving to a new school can be difficult for any student but for those who have to learn a new culture and language, the change can be traumatizing. If beginning ELs are coming from a different country for the first time, they will experience the trauma of a new culture, often referred as culture shock. Culture shock can dramatically affect a student’s first year in a U.S. school.

Let’s look at Aditya, who is a new fifth-grade student that recently arrived from India. Aditya is very frustrated about his inability to communicate and lashes out when he doesn’t understand what is being said. He is aggressive toward his classmates on the school playground. One day, the only other Hindi-speaking student in his school was absent and he couldn’t speak to his classmates at all. He became very upset and ran from the classroom and left the school.

Aditya’s orientation to school in the United States was especially hard. The school principal placed him in a classroom where there were no other speakers of Hindi. Aditya’s parents felt he would learn English much more quickly if he was not able to speak Hindi in school. As a result, he did not have any native language support. What might have happened if Aditya had been placed in a classroom where there were more Hindi-speaking students? We might surmise that his culture shock would not have been so severe.

Teachers, administrators, and other school personnel must realize that not all beginning ELs will suffer from culture shock in the same way. The spectrum varies from withdrawn and passive to aggressive. The greater the difference between the new culture and the students’ primary culture, the greater the shock. For example, a student moving from Mexico to Arizona, where there are many Spanish speakers, may not experience culture shock in the same way as a student moving from Sudan to Minnesota. In addition, parents of ELLs may be unable to help them because they are also suffering from culture shock.

In educational settings, researchers and practitioners recognize four of stages of culture shock the honeymoon or euphoric stage; rejection or culture shock stage; integration stage; assimilation or adaption stage. As educators, we need to be aware of these stages and how they can influence the behavior of newly arrived ELs.