Guide for Engaging ELL Families: 20 Strategies for School Leaders

Communicating Important Information with ELL Families: Strategies for Success

A woman in a hijab talking on the phone.

How can schools effectively communicate with ELL families? What can schools do to make the enrollment process more welcoming and manageable for families? These strategies appear in Engaging ELL Families: Twenty Strategies for School Leaders.

It is critical for schools to understand the rights that English language learners (ELLs), immigrant students, and their families have regarding access to schooling and information in their home languages. Learn more about those rights below, as well as some best practices for not only meeting those obligations but building positive partnerships with ELL families in support of their children.

Supporting immigrant families

For related ideas, see the following:

6. Find ways to communicate with ELL parents

Note: ELL families are legally entitled to information about their child's schooling (including enrollment, parent-conference meetings, and any services the school provides, such as ESL or special education) in a language they understand. See more about those rights in the following:

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A. What you need to know

One of the greatest challenges for schools and ELL parents is communicating with each other. While educators may feel frustrated that they can't get their message across to parents, parents may be just as frustrated that they can't communicate easily with the school and their child's teacher. Like your other parents, however, ELL parents want to know what's happening with their child. Two important pieces of this puzzle include:

  • A reliable translation process: In Supporting English Language Learners: A Guide for Teachers and Administrators, Farin A. Houk underscores the importance of establishing two-way communication on both sides, as well as the necessity for a translation process that is "formal, steady, and reliable" (64). What does not work, she says, is sending notes home in English, talking slower or louder, using students to translate, or asking a friend or relative to translate confidential or detailed information. She also underscores the importance of having options for families with limited literacy skills (65-66).
  • Phone calls: Offer staff training on communicating in simplified English on the phone. Monolingual staff may be reluctant to call the homes of bilingual students because "they won't be able to understand anyway." As a result, the bilingual staff members are frequently called upon to stop what they are doing to translate. With some guidance, however, teachers can learn how to communicate basic information through a simplified conversation or message.

B. Reflection

How would you describe the communication at your school with ELL parents? Have you had some success stories? Have you explored all of your available options? Are you familiar with applicable local, state, and federal regulations regarding translations and parent access to information?

C. Strategies

In order to improve school-home communication, Houk suggests:

  • Hiring, when possible, staff that matches the linguistic needs of your population
  • Developing an ongoing relationship with community organizations
  • Scheduling home-school communication time into the school day for e-mails or phone calls
  • Using parent phone trees (65-66).

In addition:

  • Find out what the applicable regulations are that relate to parent communication.
  • Find out what translation and interpreting resources are available in your district.
  • Use school staff to help interpret on a rotating or scheduled basis so that the same individuals aren't frequently pulled away from other duties.
  • Ask parents how they prefer to receive communication (phone, e-mail, text message, etc.).
  • Ask parents which language they prefer - it may be English.
  • Inform parents that they can bring an interpreter to the school or that one can be provided.
  • Avoid using translation websites, which are imprecise and often inaccurate.

Notes: You may have parents with strong bilingual skills that can assist in translating school forms or interpreting. If you do plan on using these parents, however, offer training, provide a list of translated terms, give them enough time to complete the translation, and have other native speakers review written translations (Rodriguez, 48). This is critical because school terms can be complicated and easily misrepresented, especially when translated into varying dialects of the same language.

D. Examples

  • One educator shares the creative way she used an automated voice message: "Over the entire Christmas holidays, parents heard my recorded voice remind them of the financial aid workshops. That proved very helpful...They just need those reminders. They want our students to go to college, but sometimes that fear about the ability to pay is overwhelming" (Alford and Niño, 88).
  • The Bilingual PreK-3 Teacher Education Program, a federally-funded grant administered through Pacific Oaks College Northwest, was created to increase the number of certified educators from ELL/minority communities teaching in the public schools. One way they accomplish this mission is by helping talented early bilingual childhood educators in the local preschool programs fulfill the necessary requirements to become certified (Houk, 33-34).

Related resources

7. Make the enrollment process manageable for ELL parents

Note: All students have the right to a free, public K-12 education, regardless of their immigration status or that of their parents. This includes access to services and programs such as free- and reduced-priced meals, English-language development classes, special education, and school activities.

Schools are not permitted to (a) ask about immigration status for purposes of enrollment or (b) ask any questions that would dissuade immigrant students or families from enrolling or have any kind of chilling effect.

See our related guide on supporting immigrant students for more information on:

A. What you need to know

School enrollment is a complicated process for any family. There are forms to be filled out, decisions to be made, policies to be read, programs to learn about, and questions to be answered. For ELL families, a number of other obstacles can arise:

  • There is no interpreter available.
  • Parents are unaware of services (such as free- and reduced-lunch) for which they qualify.
  • They don't understand how bussing works.
  • They are confused about their rights and their children's rights.
  • They are reluctant to show any form of identification.

In addition, your ELL families may be coming from:

  • A school system very different from the U.S. system
  • A situation with a lot of mobility (as in the case of migrant students)
  • A situation without any schooling at all (such as a refugee camp).

Yet regardless of how it's done, ELL parents must have access to the same information as non-ELL parents. Sending information home in English will not ensure that it is read and understood. Getting this information doesn't just help the school operate more smoothly - it can make a critical difference in keeping children healthy and safe.

Whether through translated forms or an interpreter, ELL parents need to know about the basics, such as:

  • Enrollment procedures
  • The school schedule
  • Their child's schedule
  • Attendance policies and procedures for absences
  • Bussing and transportation
  • How breakfast and lunch work (such as lunch accounts, codes, or policies)
  • Free- and reduced-lunch options
  • Holidays and school closures
  • Weather delays
  • Procedures for alerting the school to their child's medical conditions, medication, and allergies.

ELL also parents need information about their child's academic program, such as:

  • Their child's classes and who their child's teachers are
  • The school grading system and report cards
  • Assessments (classroom and standardized)
  • Parent conferences
  • Information about the English-language program and placement procedures (121)
  • Special services, such as gifted programs or special education as needed
  • Homework help and resources
  • The school library
  • Clubs, sports, and extra-curricular activities.

Finally, Debbie Zacarian underscores the importance of sharing information about the following in her book, Transforming Schools for English Language Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders:

  • Student and parent rights
  • Emergency contact cards and procedures
  • The student handbook and code of conduct (121).

Additional topics are included in the article Helping ELL Newcomers: Things Your Students Need to Know, an excerpt from The More-Than-Just-Surviving Handbook: ESL for Every Classroom Teacher (3rd edition) by Barbara Law and Mary Eckes.

B. Reflection

Think through your enrollment process step by step. How does it work for ELL families? Do parents get all of the information they need? What might be some possible obstacles to that process? Which steps do you think need improvement?

C. Strategies

There are a number of ways to approach the enrollment process for ELL families, including:

  • Bilingual staff: When possible, hire bilingual staff to work in the main office.
  • Translated forms: Many of the more general forms are available in other languages from the state education sites, and there may already be some translations available through your district.
  • Enrollment night: Schedule an "enrollment night" in which families can learn about the enrollment process and school policies with interpreters on hand.
  • School liaisons: Assign each family a school contact who speaks their language and guides them through the enrollment process (Houk, 66).
  • Welcome centers: Having a centralized ELL welcome/intake center managed by bilingual staff may help streamline enrollment and placement procedures.
  • Welcome kits: Put together a "welcome kit" that includes key information, basic school supplies, and educational activities for your ELL families.
  • Technology: Consider offering translations of your forms online, such as these from Los Angeles Unified School District, or an automated enrollment form in multiple languages.

D. Example

  • In the article Lessons Learned from Immigrant Families, Young-Chan Han of the Maryland Department of Education shares the story of a young boy from El Salvador who waited outside the locked school on a cold January morning for an hour until the janitor let him in. It was his first day, and it happened to be the morning of a snow delay.

Video: A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office

8. Make the enrollment process accessible all year long

A. What you need to know

Keep in mind that your school must be ready to enroll ELLs throughout the school year. Many schools are prepared for enrollment only at the beginning of the year, and anyone who registers after that gets a short-cut "fill and drill," especially if no interpreters are available. Staff may be pulled from their regular duties to translate and help families fill out forms; this is not an acceptable solution.

B. Reflection

How does the experience of a new student enrolling at the beginning of the year compare with a student enrolling in November? January? March? How does it compare for ELLs?

C. Strategies

  • Ask the staff involved in ELL student enrollment (including the main office staff and the ELL/bilingual departments) for ideas on how the school can make the enrollment process welcoming and accessible all year long.
  • Make sure all of the information available for parents and staff at the beginning of the year is accessible throughout the year.
  • Ask parents who enrolled their children after the beginning of previous school years what their experience was like and what could have been improved through a survey or questionnaire.

D. Example

  • Kristina Roberston shares a creative approach that her school employed in order to limit the impact of new student enrollment on lost classroom time. This involved training paraprofessionals who could be pulled more easily from support work to help enrolling families. The paraprofessionals received training on the packet of information that parents received, and this allowed the school to have more than one person available to assist new families. The school also set up regular testing times after school when teachers would be available, even if a student had already begun classes.

9. Provide opportunities for parents to learn more about important topics and skills

A. What you need to know

For parents who are not familiar with the U.S. educational system, there is a lot to learn - and it's pretty complicated! If your ELL families aren't "involved" in activities and events, one reason may be that they need more background information about our school system in a language they understand.

B. Reflection

Let's return to the hypothetical new country where you are preparing to enroll your child. Imagine that you are handed a thick booklet with information about standardized testing, grading systems, and college applications written a language you don't understand. Where would you begin in order to help your child?

C. Strategies

Whenever possible, offer parents the opportunity to attend workshops in their native language about complex topics such as:

  • The U.S. school system (The AFTs' bilingual Pathways to Success brochure, also available in Spanish, is a helpful guide.)
  • Information on how to check school websites to track their child's progress
  • Parent-teacher conferences
  • Standardized testing
  • Gifted programs
  • Special education services for speech, hearing, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, etc.
  • The college application process
  • Information on the benefits of reading at home (Start with Colorín Colorado's reading tips in 11 languages and family literacy outreach toolkit).

Note: Consider enlisting other staff members, parents, volunteers, or community partners to help organize and run these workshops.

D. Examples

  • At Greenfield Elementary School, ELL parents participate in an ESL class which teaches computer skills in addition to basic English skills. Parents write a bilingual cookbook of recipes as a final project, and each week they attend a potluck dinner together. Children work on their homework with high school volunteers while their parents are in class (Fugate, 50).
  • A local educator decided to hold a Spanish-language information session about college enrollment at a local church. The meeting was listed in the newspaper, announced at the church, and publicized through personal outreach. The organizer had planned for about twenty parents; instead, more than eighty attended (Alford & Niño, 83).
  • Another educator at a different school helped organize a "Math Power Path Night," in which class projects were arranged along a guided path so that parents could see the sequence of recommended math classes that their children should take. The principal had expected fifty parents; more than two hundred came (83)!

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This was very encouraging. It helped me understand what I need to do if I had an ELL student in my class.

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