Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Engaging the families of English Language Learners

Every time I present or talk to classroom teachers about their English Language Learners, one of the greatest frustrations they have is finding ways to get the families of their English Language Learners involved. In addition to language barriers, there are often cultural barriers which make it difficult to get these families involved in the school culture.

Value their home language and culture.
One of the most important things that you can do is make the parents feel comfortable by valuing their home language and culture. If the students (and families) do not feel like you value their culture and language, the student's sense of self-worth and sense of identity can be negatively impacted.

Remember parents are the child's first teacher. They possess a wealth of knowledge, family tradition and experience that they can pass on to their children. Encourage parents to continue to work with the child in their native language. They can read stories and ask questions in their native language. They can do every day math tasks with the child in the native language (ie- "We need one potato for each member of the family. How many potatoes do we need?"). Encourage parents to continue working with their children and teaching them about the way the world works in their native language.

Learn about any cultural differences that may cause problems in school so that you can be prepared. For example, I once had a student from Ghana who would not look at me when I spoke to him. It seemed very disrespectful to me, until I spoke to his father. His father was able to tell me that it was a sign of respect in their country to look slightly down when being spoken to by a teacher.

Names are very important in many cultures, and are closely tied to a person's identity. Be sure that you learn how the child/parents like to address the child and pronounce the child's name, and address the child that way. Do not automatically shorten or "Americanize" a child's name unless the child or parents tell you s/he prefers such a nickname.

Make your classroom a culturally welcoming place.
Find ways to learn about and respect the different cultures of your students on a daily basis. Learn to say a few words in students' native languages. Provide translators for parent conferences or back-to-school nights. Send home translated documents to make things easier for parents. Invite parents to volunteer in your classroom or school- and find jobs that they can do with little or no English.

Consider holding international family events where families can share their language and culture with other families in the school. Incorporate classroom activities or stories that relate to the different cultures present in your classroom. Have students complete activities for homework that require them to talk to their parents about their family history, traditions, home country or culture.

Contact families frequently.
Keeping in contact with families, especially the families of your English language learners is very important. It may take a little more effort, but these parents want to know about their child's progress and what s/he is learning as much as any other parent.

One thing I notice is that many of the teachers I've worked with do not generally contact the parents of their ELLs unless they have an academic concern or behavioral problem. I encourage my teachers to reach out to all parents, but especially the parents of their ELLs when they have good news, too. A simple note home (in the native language) that says "Jose worked really hard in math class today!" can go miles for making connections with the family and for showing them how much you care about their child.

On a very important note, while sending home documents translated into the family's native language is important, don't automatically assume that just because you sent it home translated, the parent will be able to read it. In my job, I've often worked with parents who are not literate in their native language.

I hope these tips help you engage the families of your English language learners as you start another school year!


  1. My school has a very large ELL population. But, I have always taught the SPED collab group and haven't had ELL students for 10 years. Until now. I will once again have ELL students this year and these are such great reminders. Thank you!

    1. Nikki,
      Thanks for stopping by! Keep coming for more great reminders (and maybe a few new ideas) :D

      Laurah J.

  2. This is really great advice! I had a friend in college who never had his name pronounced right by a teacher until college! It is so important to try to pronounce the names correctly. And it is so true that many parents cannot read their own language and we need to go the extra mile to call, sometimes even when the call needs a translator.

    1. Bethany,
      Thanks so much for coming by! Names are such an important part of who we are (which is why I get so irritated when people spell my name wrong!). I'm sorry your friend went through that!

      Our school system has this awesome thing called Language Link, that allows us to call a number, enter a school code, and get a translator for several different languages who can help us make a three-way call to a parent. You say what you need to, the parent hears, and then the translator translates what you said, and then what they say. It's fantastic!!

      Laurah J.