According to the National Education Association, “English Language Learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing segment of the public school population. Over the past 15 years, the number of ELL students has nearly doubled—to about 5 million. By 2015, ELL enrollment in U.S. schools will reach 10 million and, by 2025, nearly one out of every four public school students will be an English Language Learner.”
Research shows that students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, demonstrate better social skills, and graduate from high school. But engaging parents and families of ELL students can be a challenge when they do not understand or speak the language used in school. Here are some tips you can follow to help a student and her family feel comfortable and open to communicating with the school and educators, giving her a better chance for language, literacy, and overall academic success.
- Do the research. Read student intake forms during registration to determine students’ nationalities and educational history. Talk with previous schools and teachers to learn more about students, their performance, and their language needs.
- Learn about the student’s culture and encourage him to share it with the class. Have homeroom teachers, or any teacher who will be spending a significant amount of time with the student, learn about his culture and allow him time to share it with the class. For example, maybe he would like to bring in a treat or toy that is common in his culture to share and explain to the other students.
- Ask the school to host a family event. Create a fun, comfortable environment that encourages the whole family to participate. For example, hold a family breakfast, game night, or a pot-luck dinner where families can share a dish from their own nationality.
- Invite parents and caregivers into the school and classroom. Family engagement is moving beyond open houses and parent-teacher conferences as schools try to get families more involved to improve student performance. Let families know about volunteer opportunities and how they can help with parties, field trips, and other school or classroom events. If a new program is being implemented in school, introduce it at a public event that gives families a chance to learn about the program and ask questions.
- Send home updates and materials. Send home monthly or quarterly newsletters to keep families informed of happenings in the classroom, school, and district. Also send home materials the students are using in class so caregivers know what lessons and projects their child is currently working on.
- Communicate directly with parents or caregivers. Call parents and speak to them on the phone to let them know how their child is doing. Even if you speak the same language, tone and meaning can sometimes be confusing in an email or text message. It’s best to speak with the parents to make sure they understand what you are saying.
- Encourage families to support the student in her home language.Research has debunked the myth that bilingualism confuses children and delays language development. In fact, there are major academic, social, and cognitive benefits for children learning multiple languages. Encourage parents and caregivers to continue communicating with their child in her home language. Explain that it is OK for the child to switch between languages, and in fact, this exercise in executive function gives her brain a great workout!
- Get help if there is a language barrier. If the parents or caregivers understand very little English, produce communications in their home language to keep them in the loop. Use an interpreter if there is one available to the school or district. If not, get help from staff members who speak their native language, or ask the child to help you communicate, when