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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

ELL Families

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Hello, I teach 2nd grade in a classroom where many of my students are ELL (English Language Learners). Most of them are pulled for ELL services. I also do my best to really teach even the simplest vocabulary using images and gestures. And I take extra time to explain directions to clarify confusion. These kids typically are fast learners and show amazing progress throughout the year. My concern is with connecting with their families, most of whom speak little to no English. Being that they are adults, it's not as easy for them to pick up the language and I often get the sense that they are uncomfortable around me because they don't know how to effectively communicate with me. I do have interpreters present for their conferences, however, I am looking for a better way to communicate with families aside from this brief meeting. Do you have any ideas for communicating with multicultural families? I want them to feel more comfortable and be able to take a bigger part in their child's education.

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Courtenay Comiskey-Goller's picture

Hi Mrs. N,
As a teacher in an International School in Germany, communication is an important aspect of my teaching. My job is to teach English not only the children in my classes, but also to their parents. For the students to succeed and develop further, it is also important for their parents to foster their education. When a parent is shy or uncomfortable to speak with the teacher, this can prevent the teacher from knowing about important events or situations that could impact the child's learning. The teacher needs to make the parents feel as welcome as the students feel both in and outside of the classroom.
Some strategies that I have learned throughout teaching in different international settings over the past five years are outlined below:
1) Keep written communication simple and easy. Short and direct. Superfluous writing sounds great, but only overwhelms ELL/ESL adults.
For example, I learned that a short newsletter with pictures is much more descriptive and effective in communication than a long, wordy newsletter.
2) Reach out to the parents through their mother tongue language. Greet them in their language. You can look up some words on the internet. This creates a more welcoming atmosphere for them. They appreciate your efforts to make them feel comfortable. For example, I am fortunate enough to speak German at an intermediate level, so I greet and make small talk with the parents that have limited English. I explain that I am learning too and that language learning is challenging and that we can always meet in the middle. For other nationalities, I greet these parents in their mother tongue and use my hands to gesture and pictures to explain.
3) Send the parents with limited English the information before meetings, conferences, or a parents evening. This gives them time to prepare for the meeting, just as you have time to prepare for the meeting too. If they need to look up words, or ask a question to you before hand, they feel less time pressure. At these meetings, they are overwhelmed and have difficulty processing the information all at once, even with a translator. Give them time beforehand to reflect and to formulate their ideas.
4) If you have parent or classroom represenatives (class moms) or parents that are bilingual, ask them to help out. My class parents were helpful in translating and communicating to the parents with limited English. The parents with limited English had their email address and knew that they could contact them with short questions.
5) Incorporate these parents in the classroom. Invite them in to take part in a classroom activity. Have them share a part of their culture in their mother tongue and then have the students explain in English. This can be done with a story or activity with pictures or gestures.
I hope that these ideas are helpful. Let me know your feedback about them.

Sarah Nofo's picture
Sarah Nofo
2nd Grade Teacher

I appreciate your wonderful insights. I am going to print your strategies and refer to them often.

Mary's picture

Hello Mrs. N,

I also teach at a school highly populated with ELL students. I have fought it difficult to communicate with parents as well. I'm a 1st grade teacher and I find it truly amazing to see how the parents rely on their 6 and 7 year old children to be their line of communication. My students are amazing! They are able to communicate effectively to their parents important information. Also, I send home an activity packet and calendar with extended ideas related to what we are teaching during that time. The parents have fought it to be helpful because I include many visiuals for them to look at. Also, my school takes a great pride in involving our surrounding community. We have developed several workshops geared to help our parents in various ways. We had workshops to help parents learn English, use technology, and read. Some other workshops were available to help the parents to support their child effectively in reading and math. Those workshops worked out great because the students were there to assist them. Just recently, our school started having ELL workshops with both parents and teachers. These workshops give both the parent and teacher various ideas on how to communicate with each other. That is where I got the idea about the calendar and activity packet. I hope that you can take some of these ideas back to your school and utilize them.

Shirley Lounnivongsa's picture

I also teach at a high ELL population school. Mrs. Comiskey-Goller, you have great ideas. Thanks for sharing.
Well, I also wanted to add how our school has a parent center where the parents can come anytime before, during, or after school for any concerns. Our staff in our parent center speaks Spanish and they translate everything for us, including newsletters and field trip information. Also, teachers can request that the Parent Center call parents to inform them on their child on the teacher's behalf. In the Parent Center, there are a variety of learning tools to help students that do not speak English. Parents are encouraged to use this as a resource to improve their child's English or their own. Our parents appreciate that we have a Parent Center to help them in any way possible. You can try to start this at your school if you feel the need for it.

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