It is impossible to really see and understand students without understanding their lives outside of school. If handled with respect and cultural sensitivity, school-family relationships can deepen trust and positively influence students’ school experiences.
Nurturing those relationships is not only good for students, it’s good for teachers, says Soñia Galaviz, a fifth-grade teacher and TT Award winner. “An often-untapped resource … are the parents and families of the kids we teach,” she says. “This investment at the beginning of the year pays off all school year. Parents and families will see you as their partner and advocate for their child and will be there for you when you need them.”
Dos and Don’ts of Communicating with Families of ELL Students
Regardless of their English proficiency levels, parents, guardians and other adult caregivers depend on basic school communications to stay involved in their children’s education. ELL students have the greatest opportunity to succeed when the lines of communication between family and school are nurtured at both the classroom and building levels.
Be clear about the purpose of meetings.
Set goals and communicate them prior to every meeting or conversation so teachers and families have shared, realistic expectations.
Be mindful of the potential power differential between parents or guardians and teachers.
Negative past experiences (as either a student or a parent), immigration status, different cultural norms and expectations, and lack of English language fluency can cause discomfort and lead families to disengage from the school.
Provide a translator if you don’t speak the parents’ or guardians’ primary language fluently.
The nuance and detail necessary to convey how adult family members might best engage in the student’s education should be communicated in the family’s primary language.
Start the meeting on a positive note.
Try to find an area where the student is doing well academically, socially, athletically, etc. Beginning the meeting with what is wrong or what needs improvement diminishes trust and can make parents feel defensive and anxious about their child’s prospects at the school.
Use terms that everyone understands.
If there are some concepts or terms that need explanation, provide necessary detail and consider providing additional preparatory materials to families in advance of the scheduled meeting. Avoid acronyms and jargon.
Visit the family in their home.
The goal of this practice is to learn about how knowledge is transmitted in the student’s home, to get to know the family, to discover the family's expectations related to schools and teachers, and to understand the family’s academic goals for their child.
Use the student as the translator.
Even if conferences between an educator and family are student-led, they may well become misled if a student’s guardian[s] and the educator[s] are unable to communicate independently. Using the student as the translator can put the student in an awkward position where loyalty and respect for their teachers and their family can feel contradictory.
Assume that any bilingual adult will be a successful translator.
Using families of other students, or other students themselves, compromises privacy. What is gained in increased clarity will be lost if families feel embarrassed or disrespected.
Offering translation or interpretation services to families who do not speak or understand English fluently sends a welcoming message and supports successful home-school relationships. In public school settings, offering these services is also a legal obligation: Districts must ensure that all staff communicate with families in a language they can understand and notify families of any program, service or activity communicated to English-speaking families. For “major” languages (top languages spoken) in a district, a full array of language access should be provided. For “lower incidence” languages (languages spoken less frequently), a district can offer interpretation only.
Planning 101: District-wide Language Access Services
Administrators and staff can use best practices to create a comprehensive communication plan for families of ELL students.
- Identify the district’s “major” versus “lower incidence” languages.
- Utilize appropriate staff; if necessary, reach out to the community to fill service gaps.
- Post signs in high-traffic areas of every school about interpretation services.
- Distribute written information on how to request translation or interpretation services to every parent or guardian during enrollment and registration.
- Have the bank of teacher report card comments translated.
- Prepare to address common scenarios or to host big events in multiple languages.
- Consider organizing a district-level advisory committee comprised of bilingual guardians and family members.
For more ideas, see the “Planning for District-wide Language Access Services” handout in Appendix C.
What Gets Translated and Interpreted?
Written and Translated
- Handbooks, policies and forms
- Discipline policies
- Disciplinary notices
- Report cards and other academic performance notices
- Parent/guardian permission forms
- Grievance procedures
- Bullying notices
- Notices about school choice
- Nondiscrimination notices
- Testing accommodations
- Registration documents and home language survey
- “Change of Address or Telephone” form
- “Student Not Riding Bus” form
- “Reason for Absence” form
- “Request for Conference” form
- “Early Dismissal” form
Verbal and Interpreted
- Registration and enrollment process
- Counseling on eligibility for ELL program
- Disciplinary hearings
- Orientation and back-to-school events
- Family-teacher conferences
- Medical emergencies and nurse calls
- Schoolwide announcements over intercom
- Special education meetings
- Helping family report absences
- Testing accommodations
Who Provides Language Access?
- Staff who are certified interpreters in the designated language
- Contracting services from a professional interpretation company
- Contracting services from a language line
- Unofficial volunteers
- Uncertified parent volunteers or bilingual parent liaisons
- Bilingual friends and family of the ELL student or family member
- The student themselves
- Other students
- Free internet translation services
- Self-proclaimed bilingual staff or ELL teachers not certified in interpretation
- Speaking English but more slowly or loudly
Administrative Spotlight: Opt-outs
In the context of ELL instruction, opting out means that the student will not be enrolled in language assistance programs. Opt-out laws differ from state to state. In states that allow them, opt-outs should be truly voluntary—the product of informed family decision-making. What constitutes informed family decision-making? Consider these best practices:
- Require a meeting (that includes translators) to inform ELL students and families of students’ eligibility for ELL programming.
- Ensure qualified staff members provide detailed information about the program.
- Include documentation of the meeting, a checklist of required discussion topics, and parent/guardian consent and acknowledgement forms (available in both English and home language) documenting that the family received the information.
Should an ELL student be opted out of services, they still retain their ELL status, and the district maintains its obligation (under Title VI) to provide them with access to educational programs.
- The district must continue to annually assess the student’s English language proficiency. (This refers to federal law; state laws may differ.)
- The district should periodically monitor student progress. If opt-out students fail to demonstrate growth in English proficiency or struggle in class, then the district has an obligation to contact the family and offer the ELL program or some combination of ELL services again.
- The district should consider providing professional development to opt-out students’ general education teachers on basic second-language acquisition and English language development.
- Once a student who has been opted out demonstrates English language proficiency, the district must continue to monitor their progress for two or more years (state laws differ), just as it would for any other ELL student who exited the program.
Teacher Leadership Spotlight
Build a strong relationship with the families in your school community. Make periodic home visits, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Invite families to share their cultures, stories and experiences with students, either in the classroom or at a special afterschool event. Involve families in events such as Mix It Up at Lunch Day to break down cultural barriers. Build strong partnerships with student services staff (counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists) to help monitor students’ needs and progress.
Tip! Make sure every staff member knows how to access appropriate language services to communicate with families of ELL students.
Tip! Err on the side of caution and prepare to provide translation in every interaction.