How to Engage Families of English Language Learners

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
Elementary School Principal; MA in K-12 Educational Leadership
Hispanic mother saying goodbye to her children as they leave for school.

English language learners (ELL) bring such unique perspectives to classrooms and have so much to share with their fellow classmates and with their teachers. Their languages, their cultures, their experiences are so diverse and should be sought after by their schools. However, they often experience difficulty when they first come to a new school, let alone a new country. Helping these students feel welcomed and part of the school community is paramount. This cannot be done without their families engaging in the school. The school’s teachers (especially the English as a Second Language teacher), the guidance counselors, and the principal all play an important role in reaching out to these families and creating many opportunities for them to participate in the school.

Reciprocity is Key

Although the work often falls heavily on the school to get the families of English language learners engaged, both sides are obligated to be authentically engaged. This means that the families need to be interested in becoming part of their child’s education by seeking out ways to be involved. However, the school has to be sure to devise ways on how to reach all of these families. Certain school districts across the country may have families who speak several different languages and have very different cultures and needs. Nonetheless, administration and staff need to make it part of their daily duties to reach them. School officials can go out into the community to meet with new families so that they have an instant connection to the school. If the families see that the school is making an effort, they will make the reciprocal effort to attend school activities.

Have a Culturally Responsive Approach

Schools should always do their best to learn about their students’ backgrounds. This is vitally important when new ELL families enter into a school district. More often than not, schools will see waves of families from the same country. This happens when a family becomes settled in a new city and sends word back to their home neighborhoods of how their new city is working out well. This could be due to the welcoming community, access to jobs, and lower rent.

When this happens, it is the responsibility of the school to learn about the culture and country of the new families. The more schools know about the language, traditions, and environment of the home country, the more culturally responsible they will become. Knowing about the religious holy days will help schools know when not to schedule important parent meetings. Schools can invite leaders of the community to come to staff meetings to present about their culture. Schools need to make sure that when they are planning celebrations throughout the school year to be sure to include those of the cultures that are represented in their schools. Teachers should be encouraged to learn more about their ELLs’ backgrounds so that they can incorporate diverse teaching into their plans.

ELL students and families will notice all of these attempts to make them feel accepted at the school. ELL students will be more willing to share their background and celebrate their culture in the schools. ELL families will come to the school to celebrate their holidays and then will come to other school events not specifically related to their culture because they are now feeling like part of the school community. All families, ELL or not, need a connection to the school in order to be an active member.

Keep Things Simple

Once school administrators know that they have ELL families in their districts, they cannot ignore the fact. There is so much communication sent home to families on a daily basis, so ELL families need to be taken into consideration when making these connections. Communication needs to be clear and concise. Paperwork sent home should be translated into the first language of the parents. If parents cannot understand what is being sent home, how will they ever participate in what is being asked of them?

Language guides can be extremely helpful for school districts to employ. These would be people who speak both English and another language who are able to do the communication in the first language of the families. They can make phone calls home for the teachers, they can be present to translate at meetings, and they can create documents in the ELLs’ first languages.

Increase Opportunities for Engagement

Oftentimes, schools use the same activity schedule year after year. However, these schedules should be updated as the student body changes. Parent teacher conferences only offered during the day or only at one time during the evening may not be conducive for ELL families. Reaching out separately to these families to find out what would work best for them could help many families in the future. Furthermore, creating new activities to celebrate the cultures and holidays of ELL families can get them to come into the schools. Parents can be invited to host these celebrations at the school to have an authentic representation.

The most important thing that schools can do is to remember to reach out to ELL families. Engaging these families is so important to the students and to the community. The research has stated time and time again that the more parents and families are engaged in their children’s education, the more successful these students are.

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