The following strategies offer tips for building relationships with the families of English language learners (ELLs), getting to know their strengths and stories, and creating a welcoming environment.
Supporting immigrant families
For related ideas, see the following:
- Ten Strategies for Supporting Immigrant Students and Families
- How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs
1. Learn about your ELL population
A. What you need to know
Learning about your ELL families provides an important foundation for everything else you do at the school. Even basic information about students' ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, or the situations from which they have come, can help you match students with the appropriate services and programs.
Answer the following questions about your ELL families using a KWL chart:
- What do you know about your ELL students and families?
- What do you want to learn?
- Who on the staff works most closely with your ELL families?
- What would be valuable for your school-wide staff to know?
If you do not yet know this information about your ELLs, find out:
- What countries your families come from
- How many of your ELLs were born in the U.S.
- What languages they speak (which may be at least two or three!)
- If families who speak the same language, such as Spanish, come from different countries or different regions within the same country
- The educational background of families and the school system of their countries
- If any of your ELLs are refugees or students with interrupted formal education
- If your families have experienced war or another traumatic event such as a natural disaster.
In order to learn more about your ELL families:
- Start with your ELL/bilingual educators. These individuals are an important resource whose experience working with ELL students and families can benefit the entire school community - and they will appreciate the opportunity to share their expertise!
- Find out what resources are available from the district and community. This may include helpful background information as well as a network of interpreters.
- Enlist a knowledgeable staff member, community member, or parent. If you find such a person, examine his/her background as it relates to what you need. For example, you may know a Somali young adult who is bilingual but doesn't remember Somalia. He may be more helpful as an interpreter than as a liaison for Somali families who have just arrived in the U.S.
- Ask the families. You may want to include some questions in your home language survey or a very basic questionnaire that ELL parents fill out with an interpreter during student enrollment.
Note: Remember that your ELL population is not homogeneous. The child of a migrant worker from Mexico and the child of a teacher from Mexico probably won't have the same educational and economic needs. Learn what you can about each child's unique circumstances to the extent possible.
- An administrator from Minnesota wanted to better understand the needs of the children who were arriving at her school directly from Kenyan refugee camps. She wrote a grant that enabled her to travel to Kenya and visit the camps from which they were coming. What she learned at the camps was not only helpful for her; it was helpful for the entire staff. Based on her experience, she was also able to prevent some major misunderstandings around discipline issues. (Related video: Understanding Student Background, Dr. Cynthia Lundgren)
2. Integrate cultural traditions of your ELL families throughout the school
A. What you need to know
Becoming familiar with and including the cultural traditions of your ELL families within the larger school community not only enhances your ability to create a welcoming and respectful school environment — it has practical considerations as well. These include:
- Scheduling: Scheduling around important cultural or religious holidays will help prevent large numbers of students from missing important instruction time, exams, and school events.
- Classroom opportunities: Familiarity with ELL families' cultural traditions will provide teachers a base from which to build upon ELLs' background knowledge, create educational opportunities for other students, and foster a sense of respect among students for their peers.
- Improved communication: Learning about your ELL families' traditions may help avoid miscommunication or cultural blunders that can damage a budding relationship.
What are your ELLs' cultural behaviors and values? Which celebrations and holidays do they observe? How does your staff feel about the changes in your school population? How do they feel about working with ELLs?
- Avoid scheduling important events such as conferences or tests on major holidays and celebrations that large numbers of students are likely to miss.
- Share these dates with the entire staff.
- Share information about cultural celebrations with teachers so that they are able to positively support them and incorporate them into lessons. Even a simple memo that explains why students will be out and offers some ideas for follow-up activities will be helpful. (Encourage teachers to start with children's books, which often have background information and activities, such as these titles about Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and Día de los muertos.)
- Learn about, recognize, and celebrate special events or holidays throughout the school.
- Invite parents to share food, activities, and music at school events and in the classroom.
- Encourage students to share traditions in school assemblies, talent shows, potlucks, and fairs.
- Offer food that reflects the cultural influences of your families on the cafeteria menu.
- Be mindful that students who are fasting may be less energetic in the afternoon. If possible, avoid school-wide parties or food-centered activities during these times.
Notes: Staff may resist the changes happening around them, and they may be uncomfortable discussing those changes. Such was the case of a school custodian in Minnesota who asked a receptionist "why they (the Muslim students) get special days off and we can't even celebrate Christmas." Dr. Lundgren explains the importance of having an open, non-threatening conversation with the entire staff that acknowledges the challenges of serving a new ELL population and explores steps the school can take to address those challenges. (Related video: Cultural shifts, Dr. Lundgren)
You may find it helpful to bring in a neutral, outside party who specializes in cross-cultural education and communication in order to help moderate these conversations if they seem particularly fraught with tension. An open dialogue with a professional will give your staff the tools they need to adjust to the new reality and create a more positive, welcoming environment for everyone in the school.
- Storyteller Lucía González remembers a storyteller-in-residence program she led at a Colorado elementary school. The program was going to culminate with a Spanish-language story hour for the Latino families at the school. On the night of the event, the weather was bad, and few people had arrived as she was getting ready to start. Seeing the small crowd, the principal turned to her and said, "Don't worry if they don't come, because usually they don't come." At 7:00 p.m., however, the parents began to arrive, led by the excited children who had heard her stories. (Related video: A dream come true - The Storyteller's Candle, Lucía González)
- A group of Muslim students at Forest Heights Collegiate Institute in Ontario approached principal Jim Woolley about finding a place to pray within the school. After working with an immigration settlement worker and local imam, the school reserved a classroom in which students pray on Friday afternoon after the school is closed. They use the classroom and then lock the door when they finish. According to Mr. Woolley, it doesn't cost the school anything and it doesn't require supervision. "We trust them," he said (D'Amato, 2011).
3. Create a welcoming environment for families
A. What you need to know
A welcoming environment can make a tremendous difference for all families, including ELL families. Entering a friendly, vibrant atmosphere lets families know that the school is "an integral part of the community" (Houk, 63) and that they are valued members of that community. This is especially important for immigrant families who may be intimidated by the formal school environment and the English language needed to participate.
Another way to think of this is to keep your ELLs visible. ELLs are often treated as an invisible minority, but ELLs and their families should "see themselves" throughout the school:
- On the walls, through student work and photos
- In the classroom, with books and lessons that incorporate their experiences and traditions
- In school-wide cultural activities
- In the faces of staff and volunteers who come from similar backgrounds.
Imagine that you have arrived in a new country where you don't speak the language and where you will be enrolling your child in a local school. Think about arriving at the school for the first time, only to discover that no one at the school speaks English. Imagine the feeling of leaving your child in the hands of people with whom you can't communicate. Now envision, instead, that someone who speaks English greets you at the door, and you see a picture of an American flag in the front hallway. What might you be able to accomplish as a parent in the second situation that you wouldn't in the first?
- Make sure parents know how to get into the building, especially if doors are usually locked during the school day.
- Post signs in multiple languages.
- Display student work on the walls.
- Display student and family photos on the walls.
- Display the maps and flags of your students' native countries.
- Display a large map in the front lobby where parents can mark their native countries with a pin.
- Enlist a bilingual morning greeter to welcome students and families.
- Ensure that your bilingual staff and volunteers are visible throughout the building.
- Create a parent room (such as a lounge or classroom) with bilingual information and magazine subscriptions, a bulletin board, a lending library, and a computer (Houk, 58, 63).
- Include bilingual books in the school library and classrooms.
- Consider playing music in the front entryway or lobby.
- Encourage teachers to create a welcoming environment within the classroom.
- At Lincoln Options School, in Olympia, Washington, there are photos of the entire school community - students, staff, and families - to greet guests in the front lobby. Each year, the school hires a photographer to attend its annual back-to-school barbeque and take informal photos (Houk, 9). In addition, student work is posted throughout the building (16).
4. Make a personal connection with families
A. What you need to know
Getting to know ELL families helps build an important relationship based on trust, which in turn can pave the way to student success. This approach is most effective when the communication is personal and face-to-face (Hori, 40; Alford 85). While it will require additional time and effort, building a more personal relationship with ELL families early in the year will yield big dividends throughout the rest of the year (Hori, 40). It will also provide opportunities for the staff to see just how deeply ELL parents care about their children's education.
Indeed, as Dr. Lundgren notes, many ELL families have come to this country with the hopes of offering their children a better future, and they are eager to talk with their children's teachers about what they can do to help their child be successful. (Related video: A better life, Dr. Lundgren)
What are the challenges in meeting your ELL families personally? What are some ways to facilitate more personal interaction?
- Hold a special back-to-school event or picnic for ELL families in which they have time to meet you, other school leaders, their children's teachers, and school staff.
- Create a welcome DVD in multiple languages. This may even be a great student project!
- Provide staff the opportunity to learn some common phrases in your families' languages, as well as cultural gestures.
- Visit local neighborhoods to meet families.
- Connect new families with a contact person who speaks their language as soon as they enroll in the school for guidance and information (Houk, 66).
- Create an "ambassador" program in which students and parents are trained to give tours.
- Educator Maricela Rincon in Las Cruces, NM calls a different parent every day to share something positive about his/her child. According to Rincon, some parents say, "This is the first time I've had a positive phone call about my child." While Rincon is enthusiastic about the calls, they weren't her idea - they were required by the school principal (Flannery, NEA.org). (Related video: Parent outreach in high school, Bobbi Ciriza Houtchens)
- A group of school educators asked experts from a local university to help them learn more about their ELL community. After the initial conversation, it was clear that the school leaders assumed that the parents' lack of input, communication, and attendance reflected a lack of interest in their child's education. After getting some parent input, however, the educators discovered that the parents weren't enthusiastic about the school letters inviting them to events. They didn't feel that the events were planned with them in mind, and the letters seemed very impersonal. The parents didn't see the letters as the invitations they were intended to be. They expressed preference for more personal contact and invitations from the school, at least in the beginning of the year, in order to establish a strong relationship (Alford and Niño, 81-82).
- This is an excerpt from a parent letter to the principal about her first visit to her child's school:
I was very surprised when we were not able to speak to Lupe's teacher, Mrs. Gibbons, individually. In Guatemala we all knew the teachers and the teachers knew the parents...We do not know anyone here nor does anyone know us...we would have liked to tell Mrs. Gibbons how much we value education (Amaya, 53).
5. Show that you value families' native languages
A. What you need to know
As the school leader, one of your most important roles is defining the terms of engagement when it comes to ELLs' native languages. Do you see those languages as a barrier or an asset? Do you see native language literacy and instruction as a crutch or a tool?
Unfortunately, the political climate often dictates district or state policy regarding native language support (Wright, 51), and important information regarding the value of native language literacy is often left out of the debate. Frequently, ELL parents themselves are the party most resistant to promoting their native language at home or in school because they believe it will hinder their child's ability to learn English. While this belief is entirely understandable, the research is clear that strong native language skills contribute to ELLs' academic success throughout their education - in their native language and in English.
What can you do to navigate this tricky terrain and encourage the continued development of students' native language skills, as well as biliteracy and bilingualism for all students?
- Respect parents' intentions: It is critical to assure parents that you respect their wishes and goals for their children; you can do so by explaining that strong native language skills will help their children learn English. This reassures parents that you have their children's best interests at heart and that you view their native language as an asset, not an obstacle.
- Encourage native language use at home: Don't miss any opportunity to encourage parents to use their native language, whether it's through reading (which will help their children's reading skills in English) or taking the time to talk to each other at home. Look for ways that the school can support this interaction by offering bilingual books, educational materials, and activities.
- Professional development: Provide training to all staff on the importance of maintaining students' native language and ways in which they can support students' bilingual development. Understandably, many teachers still feel that the best way to help ELLs is to forbid native language use in the classroom. Often, in this case, the teachers have good intentions - they just need more information. There may also be some anxiety about not being able to understand what students are saying. The best way to address this issue is through good professional development with an expert in second language or dual-language acquisition. Not only will the staff learn strategies that will help them and their students, they will learn how to answer parent questions about this topic with confidence as well!
What is the current attitude towards ELLs' native languages in your school? Is a student's use of his/her native language encouraged or discouraged in the classroom? Do parents know where to get information in their language? How do teachers approach this issue?
- Post information in multiple languages.
- Discuss with parents the value of strong native language skills and being bilingual.
- Encourage parents to read or tell stories to their children in their native language.
- Offer parent sessions, workshops, and classes in parents' native languages (Meyers, 44).
- Include books in students' native languages in the school and classroom libraries (Freeman, 42).
- Make resources available to students in their native languages to support content learning.
- Consider the possibility of adding academic coursework (such as Spanish Literature for Spanish speakers) or AP courses in students' native languages.
- Hire bilingual staff and recruit bilingual volunteers to the extent possible.
- Inform parents that they are welcome to bring their own interpreter to a school meeting.
- Provide training to all staff on why maintaining students' native language is important and how to support students' bilingual development.
- Offer staff guidance on how to respond to parents' questions and comments.
- In Illinois' Evanston/Skokie School District 65, parents are continually encouraged to use their native language at home and read to their children in their native languages daily. Washington School, a two-way immersion school, offers a family literacy program funded with a state grant in which parents participate in afternoon and evening literacy activities at the school and public libraries. Parents also learn how to help their children with homework - all in their native language (Yturriago, 51-52).
- At Webster Elementary School in Long Beach, California, the school library has a large collection of books in Spanish and Samoan, the two dominant languages of the school's ELLs. Parents are encouraged to borrow books and bring younger siblings to the library (Houk, 45-56).