Madeleine Clays is a public school teacher with twelve years' experience teaching English language learners K-12.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. National Center of Education Statistics, 10 percent of our student population (or 5 million students) are English language learners. With the high number of ELLs in our schools comes a pressing need to engage their parents in their education. Research shows that when parents are actively involved in their children's education, students are more likely to experience academic success.
School leaders often lack the knowledge and skills to initiate relationships with the parents of our ELLs and to integrate them into their schools in an effective manner.
Having taught for over ten years in districts across the country with high populations of English learners, I have found the following strategies to be highly effective in engaging parents of ELLs in their children's education.
10 Ways to Encourage ELL Parental Involvement in School
- Communicate with them in their home language.
- Offer a welcoming school environment.
- Invite them to English classes for adults.
- Provide them with community resources.
- Plan a welcome dinner at the beginning of the school year.
- Encourage them to join the PTO.
- Ask them to chaperone field trips.
- Invite them to volunteer in their children's classroom.
- Give them specific strategies for helping their child.
- Ask them how the school can better help them support their children.
1. Communicate With Them in Their Native Language
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice requires schools to communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any school-related program, service or activity that is provided to parents who are proficient in English.
How Do Schools Know their Students' Home Language?
When parents enroll their child in school, they are required to complete a Home Language Survey on which they are asked for their preferred language of communication. This is the language schools should use for all written and oral information they provide to parents related to their child's education. If you are a teacher and notice this is not happening, make sure you advocate for your English learners by ensuring their parents' rights aren't disregarded.
1. Bilingual Staff in the Front Office
The majority of English learners' parents speak Spanish at home. For this reason, it is necessary to have a secretary in the front office who speaks both Spanish and English. This creates a welcoming school environment for Spanish-speaking parents as it offers them immediate assistance when they stop by the school to ask a question or to share important information about their child. Without this essential staff member, non-English speaking parents are unlikely to even enter the school building because they know they won't be understood, or they will feel embarrassed when the front office scrambles to find somebody who speaks Spanish so that they can talk to the parent.
2. Written Documents
It is critical that schools develop a direct and positive relationship with their district translation and interpretation office. All important papers that are sent home with students or through regular mail must be in the parents' preferred language. District translation departments normally have a 2-week turnaround time for projects. This means schools need to be proactive and ensure in advance that they have these documents translated and ready for their parents in a timely manner. This includes field trip permission forms, parent conference invitations, free and reduced school lunch application forms, and everything else teachers send home. A smart school will keep electronic and/or hard copy files of translations of important documents that are sent out yearly, and update them as needed.
3. Meetings and Conferences
Parents of English learners need to be aware that the district should provide them with an interpreter for all school meetings and conferences for their child. School leaders should ensure that an interpreter has been requested and provided for special education meetings, parent conferences, and any other important school gatherings related to their child's education.
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2. Create a Welcoming School Environment
A school's atmosphere is created first and foremost by its staff. A meaningful way to help create a warm and inviting environment for the parents of our non-English speaking parents is to recruit more bilingual staff.
An Inviting Front Office
Having a bilingual secretary in the front office, as already mentioned, is one of the most significant ways to offer parents a warm welcome to their school. In addition to being bilingual, it is important that this secretary be friendly and warm. After all, being able to speak Spanish while being short-tempered and rude defeats the purpose of trying to engage the parents of English learners in school. The secretary should be patient, kind and have empathy towards the parents of ELLs.
A Culturally Diverse Staff
It's also important to have culturally diverse staff throughout the school. Adults who have experienced many interactions with people of other ethnicities are often much more open and comfortable reaching out to the parents of ELLs. They are also usually more sensitive to some of the challenges their students' parents face, such as a lack of community resources, illiteracy in English and sometimes even illiteracy in their native language.
A Bilingual Administrator
Due to the high number of ELLs in some schools, having an administrator who speaks both English and Spanish is a necessity. This enables him or her to develop a positive rapport with ELLs and their parents from the very beginning of the school year, and to effectively communicate with them about academic and behavioral concerns. With most schools having one or more assistant principals in addition to a principal, it should not be difficult for one of these positions to be filled by a bilingual administrator.
More Teachers Endorsed to Teach ELLs
Recruiting teachers who are endorsed to teach ELLs is another significant way to create an inviting school atmosphere for the parents of our English learners. Teachers who have voluntarily sought endorsement in teaching ELLs usually have a passion for teaching students whose native language is not English. They are also often more compassionate and understanding of the struggles these students and their families experience.
3. Invite Them to English Classes
Many parents of English language learners sincerely want to learn English but are held back.
Some obstacles they might face:
- They lack confidence to learn English.
- They're not sure where to go for classes.
- Their work schedule makes it very difficult for them to attend.
- They lack transportation.
- Child care is unavailable to them.
- They are illegal immigrants and are afraid to show up.
- They are unaware that classes are usually free.
What Can School Leaders Do to Reach Parents?
Several districts I taught in had very effective Adult Education Programs for the parents of their English learners. By effective I mean that they had high parent turnout. Both of these disticts had the following items in place:
- Several adult English classes were available throughout the city so that parents could attend more easily based on where they lived.
- English classes for children were offered at the same locations and at the same times adult classes were offered so that parents did not have to worry about child care.
- All classes were free to parents.
- The school districts recruited paid staff to teach their classes. They did not rely on their English language teachers to step in to teach these classes outside of their school contract hours.
- Schools were very proactive in informing parents, in their native language, that English classes were available to them. Flyers were provided to parents with all the necessary details (time, location, etc.) well in advance of the start dates for these classes.
4. Share Community Resources With Them
Many of our ELLs' parents are grappling to hold down a job or, in some cases, multiple jobs, while also raising one or more children. They often struggle financially just to meet their family's basic needs and don't always have a support system in place, particularly if they are newcomers in the U.S.
Many of our immigrant and refugee families don't know where to turn for essential services for themselves and their families.
These services may include:
- Health care
- Health insurance
- Dental care
- Dental insurance
- Glasses for their child
- Mental health counseling
- Substance abuse help
- Domestic abuse support
- Food assistance
Schools can provide families with an updated list of community resources available to them. This list should be available in their preferred language of communication and should include contact information so that parents can readily reach them as needed.
As families express needs for services that are not already included in the list, schools can do their best to locate providers in their area who can meet these needs, and add their names to the list of resources.
5. Host a Welcome Dinner
A meaningful way to draw parents to school is through food! Start the school year on a positive note by planning a welcome dinner for parents.
Ensure it will be a success by doing the following:
- Send home the invitations in your parents' home language.
- Make it clear to them that the dinner is free of charge to them.
- Provide enough food for their families so they don't have to worry about child care.
- Offer the dinner at a time that is convenient to most families.
- Send the invitations home well in advance so that families can plan ahead.
- Consider foods that are appealing to the families of your ELLs, such as ethnic foods they are accustomed to eating.
- If speakers will be present at the dinner, be sure to book interpreters well in advance.
- Offer paper bags for parents to take home leftovers.
- Invite your school staff to the dinner.
6. Encourage Them to Join the PTO
Many school Parent Teacher Organizations have at least one parent who is bilingual in English and Spanish. If they don't, they need to recruit one and treat that person like gold! This will be your key individual—or liaison— in reaching out to Spanish-speaking parents in your school and inviting them to join the PTO.
Some ways a bilingual PTO member can reach out to parents of ELLs:
- a phone call
- an email
- a personal card or letter through the regular mail
- a letter sent home with their child
ELL parents are much more likely to join the PTO if they receive a personal invitation from somebody who speaks their language and understands their culture. They are even more likely to join if that somebody offers their friendship and is willing to help them navigate through some of the challenges they face as newcomers in their community.
7. Ask Them to Chaperone Field Trips
Schools are always in need of parent chaperones for field trips. With many English learners in schools, it's very helpful to have Spanish speaking adults along. Including non-English speaking parents in these excursions is a fun and natural way to include them in their children's education.
It's important to note that many limited-English proficient parents understand English much better than they're able to speak it. However, providing them with a written translation of the rules and expectations for field trips is essential in equipping them to fulfill their roles well.
8. Invite Them to Their Child's Classroom
Most parents of our ELLs would love to spend time in their child's classroom to see how they spend part of their school day. Many of them will welcome the chance to learn some English while they're there!
What are your parents' strengths? Give them a basic questionnaire to assess this. Use this information to maximize your parents' usefulness in the classroom and to make it a more enjoyable experience for them.
Some Classroom Volunteer Jobs for Parents
- assembling and stapling paper take-home books
- cutting flashcards
- organizing books by genre in the classroom library
- listening to students read
- reading with students
- taking students to the library and helping them find books on their topics of interest
- helping students generate ideas for writing
- monitoring students as they work to ensure they're on task
- helping students check their work, such as by using a rubric
9. Teach Them Specific Strategies to Help Their Child
Many parents of our ELLs genuinely want to help their children succeed academically but don't have the tools they need to do this. Their limited English skills are often a barrier in being able to assist their child as much as they'd like, and they often feel discouraged by this.
However, there are actually many ways parents of ELLs can support their children academically even if they aren't proficient in English!
It is helpful for teachers to provide parents with specific guidance and strategies they can use at home.
- Explain to them that reading to their child in their native language or allowing their child to read independently in their first language is highly effective for developing their child's overall literacy. The main thing is that they read!
- Make sure your students have plenty of books to read at home, in both English and their native language.
- Introduce your parents to their local libraries and to the wide range of resources they offer. Encourage them to take their chldren to the library regularly. Teach them how easy it is to get a library card and that let them know it's free! An easy way to share all this information with families is to prepare a handout for them in their native language with engaging visuals.
- Send home reading journals in English on one side and in their home language translation on the other. Teach parents how students should complete these. For example, ask your students to read for 20 minutes each day and to record their favorite part of their reading that day. Collect their journals at the end of the week.
- Teach parents to ask their child specific questions after he or she reads a book or story to assess their comprehension.These questions may include asking for a simple summary of what they read, who the main characters were, what the conflict in the chapter or story was, and how the conflict was solved.
- Show your parents how to access the portal your school uses to post student grades, missing assignments and other important academic information. Parents normally need to create an account with a username and password.
- Show your parents how to utilize the translation tool on your school's website. With a simple click, they can scroll down and select their language of choice for reading all the information on the page. This will enable them to stay posted on important school announcements and events.
10. Ask How You Can Better Support Them
Asking the parents of our English language learners what we can do to better help them support their child shows that we value their involvement in their child's education. It is, of course, essential that this question be asked in a genuine manner so that parents know that we care.
Even if our students' parents are unable to engage further in their child's school and education due to work and family obligations, they will more than appreciate being asked how we can help. This simple gesture will help build trust between them and their child's school.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Madeleine Clays