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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Response: Building Relationships With Families of ELLs

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 30, 2016 19 min read
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This week’s question is:

What are some of the ways teachers can actively involve & connect with English Language Learners’ parents?

Parent engagement can be a challenge to teachers, as contributors to this blog discussed in last week’s two-part series: Seeing Families as ‘Co-Creators’ of our Schools and ‘Successful Schools Solicit’ Family Engagement. Engaging parents of English Language Learners can offer some unique challenges, as well as opportunities.

Rusul Alrubail is the guest writer/editor of today’s post focusing on this topic. In addition to her own written commentary, she has collected contributions from educators Anna Bartosik, Jordan Lanfair, Anabel Gonzalez, Karen Nemeth, and Judie Haynes. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Rusul, Anna and Jordan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Rusul Alrubail

Rusul Alrubail is an Educator-in-Residence at Design Cofounders, where she helps with the development and facilitation of Education pathways in Design, Education & Entrepreneurship communities in Toronto. She also teaches composition, literature, and ELL to college students. Follow her on Twitter at @RusulAlrubail:

One of the hardest thing to go through as a parent is to watch your child struggle to learn a new language, as well as try to fit in socially at school. Building a relationship with parents and guardians of English language learners can help to alleviate some aspects of those stressors.

What does building a relationship exactly mean when it comes to ELL parents? How does a teacher go about doing this?

There are several strategies that teachers can practice and implement in their English Language learners parental outreach that can help to actively involve and connect with the parents.

Answer their FAQs: Many ELL parents have questions that need to be answered when their sons/daughters first join the new school. Some of these questions might relate to the child’s language level, making friends or doing homework. Invite them to ask these questions early on, as many of them might not feel comfortable to ask questions. In many cultures, asking questions might be inappropriate, or can seem to be challenging the authority of the teacher. It’s best if the teacher specifically invites them to chat and share their concerns. A face to face chat can make a difference. Communicating questions and concerns through letters, or email might also be a good idea.

Some parents might need help with the language themselves, seek out your school’s resources and see if an translator can help out with communicating. Also, Google Translate is a fantastic resource to help with communicating and translating to parents some of the letters/emails/memos.

Share Student Progress: Every parent is interested in knowing about the progress of their child in the classroom. Many parents of English language learners worry about progress as well as other aspects of school that may be challenging to ELLs. Making friends, learning the second language, and even the students’ progress compared to others in the classroom are some of the concerns that parents have. Sharing the students’ progress frequently helps to build a strong relationship with the parents and the student pedagogically. By sharing the student’s’ progress, the parent and the student will most likely start to have conversations about their progress, which will impact the student’s’ growth and learning in and out of the classroom.

Have parents help the students with their homework. In the case that the parents don’t understand the homework assignment (assignment should have clear & simple instructions), suggest to the parent to ask the student to explain the assignment. In this way, the parent will be able to see whether the student has a good grasp on the assignment themselves.

Connect through Culture: Connecting ELL parents through a cultural understanding is the best way to build a strong relationship to ensure the student’s success in school. Educating oneself about the race, culture and ethnicity by doing research will help to build a culturally competent foundation to communicating and connecting with the parents. It’s important to be mindful, respectful, and understanding when it comes to different cultural practices, events and holidays.

Create a class calendar where students can add their cultural holidays and traditions. In this way, the class can celebrate together by learning about the event. Inviting parents to such events helps them to feel welcome, and creates a safe environment for them.

Connecting with ELL parents can be challenging due to cultural and language barriers, however, with a positive mindset, consistent communication and cultural understanding, a teacher can work together with the parent to ensure the best learning environment for the students.

Response From Anna Bartosik

Anna Bartosik, a Sheridan College ESL professor in Canada, is a teacher/facilitator with an extensive background in ESL/ELT education. Her current interests include instructional design, assessment and rubrics, program evaluation, story telling, motivation’s role in learning, and incorporating educational technology in reading/writing classes for purposes of collaboration:

“Hello, my name is Mrs. Winters. I am your son’s teacher. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”

I clearly recall my first parent/teacher interview. I remember the look of confusion that passed across the teacher’s face when she heard me speak accent-less English.

My son began school as a second language learner because I thought it was important for him to learn the language of my family’s heritage. He had the ESL label on his file, and his teacher was expecting an uncomfortable exchange between parent and teacher. She got it, but not the one she was expecting.

“But you’re a native speaker. Why aren’t you speaking English to your son?”

Families shouldn’t be discouraged from speaking their first language at home, whether they immigrate or are born in the country but speak another language at home. As our classrooms reflect a language and cultural melange, the tendency is to address the language and ignore how culture can play a role in parental involvement. Children are not the only ones learning; parents are learning the language but are also challenged with meeting the educational needs of their children in an unfamiliar system. Instead of simply focusing on the challenges of second language teaching, perhaps we should consider an alternative approach and think about creating a culturally responsive classroom that invites parents to interact and react. Here are some suggestions to reach out and connect with the parents of ESL learners.


Express the value of communication and volunteerism in the classroom when meeting parents. They will appreciate the invitation to get involved. This is also your opportunity to ask a parent back for a more intimate meeting and get to know them better.

While you have them in a room, try and talk to parents in a group and invite them into the classroom together to help. It is easier to say yes when you have someone else to work with.


Prepare a short summary in bullet form of what you would like to talk about in a meeting and send it home beforehand.

Benefit: the parent has some advance notice to prepare for the conversation

If a translator is not available for a meeting, remember that the interview is with the parent, not the child. It’s unfair to expect the child to take on the adult role of translator. Express your thoughts simply. Perhaps write them down so the parent can take the paper home and go over it with someone later on.


Approach your monthly newsletters with the goal of interaction in mind, not just information-sharing. Include your contact information and communicate with parents your vision of their role in and outside of the classroom. Give them ideas for participating in their child’s learning and reiterate your openness to interaction.

Make yourself available to parents on social media. Post a video of yourself walking through the classroom before a school day begins, talking about the different things students will be doing. Watching a video about your plans is another way for parents to see how they can connect with their child’s learning.

Parents acquiring a language perceive cultural as well as linguistic obstructions to communication. Removing those barriers for parents allows them to grasp possibilities for meaningful exchanges with you and their children.

Response From Jordan Lanfair

Jordan Lanfair is currently a middle school ELA teacher on the west side of Chicago, IL. His background includes positions in the Middle East, Navajo Reservation and rural Illinois. His belief in social justice and curriculum reform leads to continued work and innovation for all students:

During the 2012-2013 school year, an estimated 9.2 million students were classified as English Language Learners. That number amounts to roughly 9.2 percent of the current public school population. ( USDOE, 2015). This represents a growing number of our schooling population and while schools are adjusting as best they can, for the average teacher, the question of how to actively connect and communicate with ELL parents takes center stage. While there are no quick fix solutions, the list begins and ends with a key recommendation: be open to learning from their experience.

For willing parents, inviting them in to share their experiences can be a building block to a relationship of substance. Whether discussing immigration, adapting to the United States, or demonstrating cultural heritage for students, it can prove a remarkable source of first hand narrative and illuminate voices that are often silences in mainstream curriculum.

Resources available to teachers interested in bridging the gap with parents of ELL students continue to grow with popular sites such as Class Dojo translating their parent communication handouts into multiple languages. The flipped classroom offers incredible opportunities and resources, ranging from translators to articles on different cultures. These resources are critical in communicating with parents as they not only demonstrate a willingness to learn and be moved by the opportunity afforded, but for the sake of practicality allow teachers to navigate possible cultural blind spots.

Teachers truly interested in communicating with English Language Learners’ parents must be willing to make it an active part of their instruction and classroom. Authentic communication and respect will yield the same, while calling your diverse parents whenever added diversity is needed will create hostile relationships and continue the diminished role of varied cultural backgrounds. Projects that emphasize different cultural aspects such as cooking, dress or language allow all students to explore parts of their heritage that they might not have been in contact with and provide safe spaces to question and learn.

The American identity is built from the history, stories and backgrounds of immigrants. This understanding can be a lynchpin of a teachers approach towards parents of ELLs. They are helping to define the current American identity, and our interactions via curriculum, outreach and support must seek to help all students and all families move forward.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144), English Language Learners.

Response From Anabel Gonzalez

Anabel Gonzalez is a Secondary ESL Teacher with the Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina. She teaches students in grades 7-12 of various backgrounds, languages, and English proficiency levels. She has been a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory since 2014. Follow her on Twitter @amgonza. She has previously written Tips for Connecting With Non-English-Speaking Parents for Ed Week Teacher:

Using Technology to Engage Parents of ELLs

With the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in America’s classrooms, communicating with some parents can be a daunting task. If you’re fortunate to be fluent and/or literate in your students’ home language, you have an advantage. Yet, even though I’m fluent in Spanish, it does me no good when I need to communicate with families who speak Vietnamese. While we can sometimes hire professional human translators, they are not always available at a moment’s notice and then their fees might exceed our budget.

Thankfully, we are in the 21st century and technology is here to the rescue. There are a number of tools that can help you bridge that communication gap. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Google Translate. This tool can be a real lifesaver. Simply enter an English message and it will translate it into any of dozens of languages. For those families who may not be literate, click on the sound clip to have the message read in their preferred language. Install the app on a smartphone or tablet, and it allows users to use a stylus or finger to write words, to speak into the device or to simply hover over text for instant translation. And if you receive a parent note but have no idea what language it’s written in, the nifty auto detection feature will detect the language you are entering.

  • Remind. This is a free and simple way to send notifications as a text message right to someone’s mobile phone without giving out our personal phone number. It also has a private chat feature that enables one-to-one communication. Best of all, by only the tap of a button, it instantly translates an English message into any of 90+ languages. If you have a predominant language represented in your student body, for example Spanish or Russian, you can set up a group in the target language so you can communicate with those parents, even if you aren’t literate in their language.

  • Class Dojo. Developed as a behavior management tool, Class Dojo is a communication platform that engages parents by sending text and/or email notifications. In recent months, they added Class Story. With Class Story, teachers can share moments like projects, field trips, and other celebrations with parents. For non-English speaking families, stories can be translated into 30 different languages.

While a trained human translator is always preferable to a website or app, we don’t always have the luxury of hiring one. These tools aren’t perfect, but they work fairly well. If used consistently, they will generate much needed-support, which should eventually “translate” to an improved school experience.

For more tips on connecting with non-English speaking parents, please check out my recent article.

Response From Karen Nemeth

Karen Nemeth, Ed.M. is an author, consultant and advocate focusing on early childhood education for ELLs/DLLs. She has leadership roles in NAEYC, NABE, and TESOL. She hosts a resource website at www.languagecastle.com:

I work primarily with preschool programs and early childhood educators. They have the unique responsibility of getting each family started on their path of engaging in their child’s educational career. Those first family engagement experiences can set the stage for many years to come. To begin good relationships with families of ELLs/DLLs, I always start the discussion by suggesting three strategies:

1. Start with pictures. Emailing or texting a parent with a photo of their child having a good day is a positive step toward building rapport that is practically irresistible in any language. At the beginning of the school year, communications should always be warm and welcoming.

2. Create a diversity committee. Involve experienced bilingual family members in school decisions and activities so they are well-prepared to serve as ambassadors to newcomer families. They can call new families to invite them to school events and they can help them understand policies and procedures.

3. Explain things. Be explicit about how families can help the school in general, and their child in particular. It is important to realize that many of the things we ask and expect of family members here are unique to American schools. We can’t assume that newcomers understand what “back to school night” is, why they should come in to volunteer in their child’s classroom.

Administrators often say they host several events for families each year, but they are not well attended despite the many notices, newsletters, and text messages they send out to families. One principal explained that she saw a real change when her school changed its focus. They asked families how they wanted to receive communications from school and they cut way down on flooding everyone with too many words. They also asked families what would make them take the time from their demanding schedules to come to school and get involved. Then, they flipped their activities from large group entertainment/information events to individual opportunities for each family to help make the school better. When families felt heard and needed and valued, they were much more likely to find a time in their schedule to participate. This kind of participation breeds true engagement in the four key focus areas:

• Engaging families in their child’s learning.

• Engaging families as active participants in the school community.

• Engaging families to improve two-way communication

• Engaging families to make sure they receive the support they need to ensure their child’s school success.

Strategies include hosting a classroom re-design day, inviting families to build a school garden, asking family members to share their talents and interests with the children or in the school office, and holding a toy-making workshop for parents. Families that are hardest to connect with are often the families that need our help the most. True parent engagement can not be about getting parents to go along with what the school wants. True parent engagement has to be about finding a way to build a relationship with each individual family on their own terms with all four of the key focus areas in mind.

Response From Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes is a former K-6 ESL: teacher, professional development provider and author with 32 years of experience working with English language learners, their parents and their general education teachers. She has authored and co-authored six books including The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners (with Debbie Zacarian)(Corwin, 2012). Judie writes a bi-monthly blog for TESOL and is co-moderator of #ELLCHAT.a Twitter chat for teachers of ELLs:

To successfully connect with parents of English learners, schools make a whole-school effort to establish a welcoming environment and build bridges that go both ways. This can not usually be accomplished by individual teachers working on their own. One of the key techniques for schools to connect with and engage parents of English language learners is to plan a meeting at the beginning of the school year. Schools needs to help parents understand how U.S. schools work. For example, a school may want to explain their policy for reporting an absence or talk about after-school programs. They also need to listen to parents’ concerns about the education of their children.

Letters of invitation for all meetings should be sent to the parents of ELLs in their first language,. It is also helpful to send a reminder letter the day before the meeting or have a native speaker call parents on the phone to remind them. Keep in mind that many parents do not come to meetings because they don’t have transportation or they lack childcare for younger children. They also don’t know what is expected of them at a school meeting. Schools need to keep this in mind and provide transportation and childcare for parents. They need to have translators explain the purpose of the meeting.

Some ideas to present are to ask the community liaison from the police to explain traffic and other safety issues. Have the school nurse to talk with parents about health issues and how to get health care. Ask an administrator to explain some of the school policies. Parents always want to know about report cards, homework and testing. All of these presentations should be translated for parents. Encourage parents to come into the school and classroom by involving them in school projects that include their children. Encourage parents to come in to talk to their child’s class about their home culture. Make sure parents know about the school’s art show, science fair, bake sales and concerts. Ask parents of ELLs to chaperon a field trip. Explain to parents how important it is for them to come to school events..

Many school districts are making a concerted attempt to advance student learning through programs to engage parents in their child’s education. This initiative could great effect the education of English learners in the schools where it is being implemented. Some of the strategies used to build these programs include:

  • Professional development programs to build teacher knowledge of how to collaborate with parents including those from diverse language and cultural backgrounds.
  • Building time into teacher’s schedule to support parent engagement on the part of teachers.
  • Identify community leaders who can enhance communication with the parents of ELs. i.e. local church and business leaders who are from the same language and cultural background.
  • Support translation services for families who do not speak English.
  • Find local services that support the health needs of the families of ELLs.

Zacarian D. & Haynes, J. (2012) The Essential Guide For Educating Beginning English Learners, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Thanks to Rusul, Anna, Jordan, Anabel, Karen, and Judie for their contributions, and a special second thanks to Rusul for guest-editing today’s post!

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