How to Engage Families of English Language Learners

  (Updated November 18, 2021)
Kate Gallagher
Kate Gallagher
High school principal; M.A. in Urban Education, ESL Program Specialist
Hispanic mother saying goodbye to her children as they leave for school.

We know that parent engagement is key to supporting student success. The CDC states that, “Research shows that parent engagement in schools is closely linked to better student behavior, higher academic achievement, and enhanced social skills.”

We also know that rates of parent engagement can be lower in families of English language learners (ELLs). Several important factors contribute to this, including intimidation, cultural factors, availability due to working-wage jobs, transportation, and language barriers. It is also essential to define what parent and family engagement can look like.

Multiple researchers contributed to the work entitled Exploring the Educational Involvement of Parents of English Learners and state, “(Joyce) Epstein’s multidimensional framework of parental involvement includes the following types: parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community.” This framework allows us to think open-mindedly about what engaging families of ELLs is and can be.

Strategies for Engagement

Provide Low-Stress Opportunities

For families of ELLs, specific family engagement opportunities can be highly intimidating. In most circumstances, the family members of ELL students also have limited English proficiency. In my career, I have come across situations where students have been sent from their country of origin to live with fluent English-speaking extended family members here in the United States. Still, those situations occur infrequently. Families are often invited to parent engagement events hosted by schools that mirror the American culture of English-speaking, middle-class educators. This naturally creates a set of barriers for families who have limited English proficiency.

Imagine living in a new country in which a language foreign to yourself is spoken, then going to your child’s school for an event where everything is written and said in the language you do not yet know. Not only will you not receive messages clearly, but you also will not be able to communicate confidently to school staff. This scenario plays out in parents’ minds with limited English proficiency before engaging in school events and can be intimidating.

Consider committing to creating low-stress opportunities for interaction with parents in their home languages first. These opportunities should provide environments that allow parents to listen and observe without the pressure of speaking English. For example, host a family movie night before parent-teacher conferences. This will let families step inside the school building without the pressure of confrontation, possible discomfort, or expectation to speak or respond.

Frequently Communicate in Home Languages

If your school or district receives Title I Federal Funding, you are required to provide all parent communication in home languages under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA). This helps tear down walls and barriers that keep parents and families from engaging in their student’s education. It is also important to go beyond minimum expectations of translation and interpretation of report cards, flyers, pamphlets, and legal documents. Teachers and school staff should communicate with families using free resources that automatically translate to home languages for parents.

Talking PointsTransAct, FlyerConnect, and other web-based applications help open lines of communication with families regularly and frequently. Talking Points and FlyerConnect are beneficial because they allow parents to send messages back and ask questions in their home language with automatic translation upon receipt to school staff. Historically, schools have leaned heavily on taking the step to communicate unidirectionally, from school to home, but have not created a ton of opportunities for families to initiate communication from home to school.

Be Culturally Responsive

It is critical to recognize that parents and families of English language learners often come from very different cultural backgrounds regarding the education system. According to an article by Colorín Colorado, “Many ELLs come from cultures which revere teaching and where the teachers are considered the experts, not the parents. As a result, parents may be reluctant to ask questions so as not to question the teacher’s authority, or they may assume that the schools don’t want them to “interfere” in their child’s education.”

For example, many Latino families see their role in their child’s education differently from non-Latino families. Colorín Colorado also states “For Latino families, the idea of educación focuses on a child’s personal and moral development, which has an important impact on the child’s academic development.”

This means that parents see their role in their child’s education as supporting the ELL’s personal character development and behavior, which will allow learning for all within the classroom. Many cultures outside of the United States also focus on their students’ ability to contribute to the group well-being rather than solely on individual achievement. This means that parents may seem disinterested in academic achievement, but their level of interest is not lower than families of students who are not ELLs.

With this understanding, schools and staff should take extra time to recognize student contribution to the group. Invite families to provide feedback through surveys, and communicate that their opinions and reflections are valuable to school and student success.

Consider Accessibility

Parent engagement activities planned for after-school hours on the school campus are not accessible to all families. Surveying parents and students on their availability and accessibility can help improve family engagement immensely.

If parents or guardians of English language learners are also immigrants with limited English proficiency, there are most likely personal barriers that prevent family engagement at school events. Lack of transportation due to lack of driver’s license or insurance is a frequent personal barrier to participation.

Consider providing opportunities for parents to be involved during the school day, such as volunteering in their student’s classroom during literacy block or reading class. This will improve the parent and students’ language capacity while acknowledging that not all parents are available in the evening. Alternately, consider moving family engagement activities from the school campus into the community, within walking distance for families without transportation.

Recognize Efforts and Achievements

It is important to recognize efforts and achievements in all areas of family engagement. Remember that the family dynamic in these students’ homes may look very different from the “typical” American family (mom, dad, daughter, son). Likely other family members contribute to your English language learners (grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, etc.).

Provide positive feedback and encouragement to families for their involvement in their student’s learning at home and parenting. Recognize healthy environments at home: evidence of high expectations, consistent bedtimes, resourcefulness, responsibility, and positive behavior. This will foster further future engagement in school and the student’s education.

*Updated November 2021
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