English Language Learners

6 Tips for Engaging the Families of English Language Learners

Schools can better support students who are still learning English by working to involve their families in their education.

November 25, 2019
Marmaduke St. John / Alamy Stock Photo

The most impactful plans for student growth engage not only the learner but also his or her family. In fact, research points to parents and caretakers as invaluable stakeholders in students’ academic achievement. Unfortunately, parents who are new to English are often left out of family engagement at the school level to some degree. How can we do a better job of appealing to and including the parents of English language learners (ELLs) as valuable members of the school community?

Here are six keys to successfully engaging ELL parents and families.

1. Make It Reciprocal

Engagement is a partnership between the parents and the school to serve the best interests of students. The school is responsible for meeting certain expectations, some of which are legally mandated through the Every Student Succeeds Act, such as provisions for translation of vital school information into students’ home languages.

Parents also have specific obligations, which aren’t always clear, especially when there are cultural differences—we cannot assume that the American idea of doing school is shared by all families in our community. Teachers can help by explicitly communicating parents’ key responsibilities, such as taking an active role in helping their child learn to organize his or her study time. Parents can also be encouraged to monitor engagement, limit distractions, build consistency, and celebrate periods of concentration.

Parents can also set aside a quiet place for their child to learn and read at home, and be available to answer questions. They should utilize school-based technological and translation resources, including bilingual dictionaries, home anchor charts, and web-based language translation applications, if needed. They should also take time to discuss school matters with their child, asking questions about the school day: friends, concepts learned, struggles and discomforts, successes and achievements.

2. Aim for Authenticity

Efforts to engage diverse parent groups must be authentic and meaningful. Begin with a deep dive of your school’s unique demographics. What values, interests, and funds of knowledge are represented on campus? Is the school’s interest in students’ home lives perceived as genuine?

Support authenticity by intentionally fostering a welcoming, inclusive environment where families see reflections of themselves. Work to engage firsthand resources to your school, including bilingual staff members. Champion relationship building through collaboration. Authenticity breeds connection.

3. Use a Culturally Responsive Approach

Where do families’ deeply rooted cultural values show up in the school? How do parents’ cultural perspectives drive expectations for parent engagement? Do we use these references to ignore, diminish, or empower our families as members of our school community?

To make the shift toward empowerment, be mindful of culturally relevant dates and holidays, and avoid scheduling important events on these days. Ensure that school-based activities, language, and school menus reflect cultural considerations. Be critical of trivial displays of culture. Openly communicate norms for parent engagement, and work to share this information in a variety of ways. Invite student and parent input, and make a point of reframing cultural or linguistic misconceptions as teachable moments.

4. Keep It Simple

Communication is essential to successful parent engagement efforts. We should aim for clarity in all of our exchanges with parents, especially those who are still new to English.

Explore your school’s registration paperwork and parent communications from a fresh perspective. What can be streamlined, condensed, or eliminated? Be particularly mindful of acronyms, educational jargon, and terms that may be unfamiliar to parents, including ones related to mental health like trauma.

Look for ways to provide appropriate support for language learning parents. Many of the strategies we use to make content comprehensible for ELLs are also helpful in working with linguistically diverse parent populations. Think: visuals, graphic organizers, and translated or icon-based cheat sheets for potentially unfamiliar terminology (for example, immunizations, English language development services).

5. Increase Capacity

Grow English learner caretakers as leaders in the school community by providing a range of low-risk opportunities for parent input, feedback, and cultural sharing. Here are some ideas:

  • Actively facilitate advisory, advocacy, and mentorship roles that are inclusive of caretakers who are learning English.
  • Intentionally craft and promote volunteer opportunities and teacher aide positions that appeal to diverse parent groups.
  • Host a variety of parent-school partnership events.
  • Offer outreach partnerships and community liaison roles that require cross-cultural or multilingual expertise.
  • Create an accessible bank of relevant tools and resources based on parent interest.
  • Organize parent-created learning sessions.
  • Collect input via English-learner parent focus groups, advisory committees, suggestion boxes, surveys, and interviews.
  • Consistently utilize parent feedback to inform decision making at the classroom, school, and district levels.

6. Find Your Way Home

In building and nurturing relationships with ELL families, the value of teacher home visits cannot be understated: They provide essential insight into a student’s home life and unique learning needs, and “support academic gains and positive social integration for ELLs.” They are linked to improved academic progress and attendance rates. Perhaps most importantly, teacher home visits lay a foundation of trust as the frontrunner to school-based parent engagement.

In the vast majority of cases, our English learner parents have high hopes for their children’s scholastic well-being and wish to contribute to that success. When parents feel that they are a part of an inclusive learning culture and have a clear awareness of their role in their child’s learning, true partnerships can occur.

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