Communicating with ELL Families During COVID-19: 10 Strategies for Schools

Father talking on cell phone while giving son breakfast

Learn how to stay in contact with English learners and their families from a distance and how administrators can support that outreach. This article also includes multiple tools, resources, and tips for collaboration.

Note: This article is part of our guide on distance learning for ELLs.

As this new school year begins, many educators and administrators are looking for ways to connect (or reconnect) with families of English language learners (ELLs) and keep that communication strong. This communication can be challenging to figure out, but it many cases, it makes THE difference on whether students stay engaged with their schools and their learning, as many schools discovered in the spring.

Here are some tips for schools based on lessons learned so far. We will continue to update this article as needed.

Note: Special thanks to Larry Ferlazzo and the educators who contributed to his Education Week series on distance learning and responding to the school closures.

Keeping contact information updated

Although schools are juggling so many challenges right now, one priority that is important to keep on the radar throughout the school year is ensuring that schools have accurate contact information for families. Understanding why families' contact information might change, how they prefer to update that information, and how the school can make it easier for them to do so can go a long way in helping everyone stay connected.

1. Find families' contact information.

Start by looking for families' contact information. This may be especially challenging since many families' housing and economic situations are unstable, especially during this time. Families who use prepaid cell phones may also change phone numbers regularly.

If you don't have updated contact information for families, consider trying to pass on a message through:

  • other students or families (including through families' networks among themselves)
  • an interpreter, family liaison, or ELL educator who knows the family
  • other educators such as teachers, coaches, and counselors
  • teachers of other children in the family
  • community or faith-based organizations serving your students' families.

2. Help families keep their contact information updated.

Ensure that families understand why the school needs updated contact information, especially during COVID-19. You may wish to provide translated emergency contact forms or other tools that can help.

Learn how to make this easier for families in The Importance of Keeping Emergency Contact Information Updated (and keep in mind that families' with limited internet access may not be able to log in easily to parent portals).

3. Ensure that families know how to contact you or the school.

Make sure that families have:

  • updated contact information for their child's teacher 
  • updated contact information for any other adult who will be working with their child, such as an ESL specialist or special educator
  • information on contacting an interpreter or getting necessary information in their home language
  • information on getting technical support for distance learning platforms in their home language.

You may also wish to provide a translated contact information form to help families keep this information organized. In addition, ensure that families know that they are allowed (and encouraged!) to reach out to their child's school with questions.

Preferred methods of communication 

4. Find out how families prefer to communicate.

Each family will have their own preferences on how to communicate, although there may be some similarities among families from particular communities who are using the same methods. The more you know about how families wish to communicate, the more successful your communication will be.

Phone calls 

You may wish to start with a call if you have families' phone numbers. This will also allow you to reach some families who don't have internet access. Google Voice allows you to place phone calls without sharing your phone number.  

Texts 

Some families may prefer to communicate by text. That will allow them to respond at their convenience. You may also wish to text video messages to your students or families with information, greetings, or messages of encouragement. Many immigrant families use WhatsApp and create large texting groups as part of the app.

Social media

Many schools have had success in communicating with ELL families through social media, including Facebook messenger or a dedicated Facebook group with translated information. For example, the Karen Family Facebook Group in Roseville, MN posts bilingual information for families to the page, including translated messages from a family liaison.

Email & online communication 

Many ELL educators have reported that emails and newsletters are not a good option for their families. Sending out updates doesn't mean that families have received them or gotten the important information they need from them. If you don't receive responses to your emails, consider calling or texting instead. Just because families have provided an email address doesn't mean they are using it or are comfortable sending emails to a teacher. Other online options include doing a video chat, sharing a survey or family check-in form (perhaps via Google Forms), or sharing some online learning resources.

Notes:

  • Assisting families with access to devices and internet may also improve communication, although as our related article notes, the technology alone won't do the trick without strong relationships and tech training and support.
  • Your district may have policies in place regarding student privacy and online learning, such as restrictions on videos or images of students. Check with your school administrator for clarification as needed to protect student and family privacy, as well as with your families to find out if they have any concerns.

Mail and more

Some teachers have connected with families through post cards or attaching contact information to food delivery. One teacher who sent her phone number via pizza delivery heard back from the family she was trying to contact!

 

5. Find out when families prefer to communicate.

Keep in mind that immigrant families may be juggling a number of challenges and responsibilities that impact how and when they can communicate with the school. Some families may:

  • work outside of the home during the school day, during the evening, or overnight
  • need to juggle child care and other family caregiving responsibilities during the day
  • work for employers that have strict rules about responding to phone calls or texts during their shift
  • follow cultural norms regarding family or gender roles around communication.

The better you know your families, the more you can learn about their schedules and their family's situation during the pandemic.

 

Translation resources 

6. Share information about families' rights to translated information if needed.

School districts are legally required to provide information in families' home languages. You may need to share information about these rights with colleagues or administrators if families are not getting the information they need in their language.

For more information on these requirements and tools that can help you choose the right options for your setting, see this helpful blog post on fulfilling translation and interpretation requirements by Immigrant Connections.

7. Identify your translation options.

If you are don't know what your translation options are, contact ELL educators or administrators from your school or district to find out more about your options. (Note that some ELL/bilingual educators may be able to assist with translation but will likely have numerous other responsibilities, including communicating with students, planning their own instruction, and collaborating with other teachers as well.)

Your options may include the following:

School / district interpreters, family liaisons or paraprofessionals 

Your school or district may have bilingual staff who can help communicate with ELL families, including interpreters, family liaisons, and paraprofessionals. These staff members can also provide invaluable information and insights into families' cultures or home situations. 

During the spring, the success of collaboration with these bilingual staff members varied widely. In some places, this worked very smoothly and provided helpful connections among families and teachers. In others, bilingual staff were not utilized effectively even though they could have helped facilitate better communication among all parties. And at the other end of the spectrum, some bilingual staff were overwhelmed by the amount of interpreting that was needed during school closures.

If your school or district has bilingual staff available to help with interpretation, ask your colleagues:

  • if and when they are able to assist with family communication
  • what process they prefer for setting up conversations
  • what worked or didn't work in the spring
  • if there are other translation resources that you should be familiar with
  • if families have common questions that can be addressed more efficiently
  • if there are some ways to make technical support in families' home languages more efficient
  • how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to support their work.

Keep in mind that it may not be sustainable for these staff members to provide ongoing translations for multiple teachers with multiple families, especially if they are frequently being asked to explain assignments or new technical platforms for an extended period of time.

District translation hotline

Your school district may offer a translation hotline. Find out if it is currently available and, if so, how you can use it to set up conversations with families. If the hotline's hours don't match your families' availability, talk with an administrator about whether other options may be available.

Translation apps

Ideally, districts will have in-person interpreters available as part of their legally mandated obligations to make information available in families' home languages. However, there are tools that can help fill in some of the gaps, especially during the current crisis.

Talking Points is an app that translates messages between teachers and families in many different languages. Here's how it works:

  • Parents receive the messages as a text message and do not need to download an app.
  • It's free for individuals and can be purchased for broader use by districts.
  • Translations are done automatically but human interpreters are available if needed.
  • You can send mass texts as well and teachers' numbers are protected.

Illinois multilingual education administrator Sarah Said notes, "It's an application that works as a text message on parents' phones. It enables two-way translation communication with families. You can send mass texts for free!  It has been a LIFELINE in this situation."

The Talking Points can help give individual teachers more options in reaching out to families directly rather than relying on an intermediary. Please note, however, that it should not be considered a wholesale substitute for professional, knowledgeable interpreters and liaisons who are familiar with:

  • the language and culture of the families
  • technical school terms, especially for special education
  • strategies that can help build trust and community among ELLs and their families.

When to use what method of contact

Keep in mind that some information may be more suitable for texts (shorter messages, reminders, and check-ins) than lengthy or sensitive information, or information that is legally required to be translated. Please take a look at these privacy and security considerations for ELLs and immigrant families if you are considering using Talking Points.

Note: Google Translate is best used in a pinch for short words or phrases, in part because it may not always provide accurate translations.

Supporting learning

8. Identify the information and updates that ELL families will need in their language.

Does planning and communication in your district take ELLs and their families into account? It is critical that ELL families have clear information from the school in their language, especially as schedules, learning models, and start dates change. ELL families will need to know:

  • how learning will be delivered, whether in-person, hybrid, or remotely
  • how the child's schedule will work, and how siblings will be scheduled across schools
  • what distance learning is and how it will work (logistics)
  • expectations for their child's home learning
  • how they will receive updates as plans evolve or change.

In addition, families will need information about:

Families may also need additional information about school meals, health care, social-emotional support, how to support learning at home, or parenting tips for managing schedules and routines. Asking families what information they want is the best to address their priority questions!

Building relationships

9. Look for ways to build relationships with ELL families.

ELL families are valuable partners, yet they are often overlooked in family engagement. The school-family partnership is a two-way street - just as schools have important information they want to convey to families, families have important information about their children and questions they want ask of schools. This partnership is not born overnight, and it may take time to build trust.  However, by working steadily on aspects listed above, schools can increases their chances for success.

As you communicate and connect with families in the coming months, keep the following tips in mind:

  • In the words of one of our advisors, take time to ask how families are doing, not what they are doing. Like many families, they may be facing complex challenges. (You can learn more about how COVID-19 is impacting immigrant families in this article, as well as by talking with educators or liaisons who know your ELL families well.)
  • Ask them what their questions are, and what their experiences with schooling were like in the spring.
  • Learn more about the families' strengths and interests. Start with low-key topics and avoid asking direct personal questions that may make them nervous. Over time, you may learn more about their prior experiences.
  • Share something about yourself that helps them relate to you as a person, such as a photo of you with a pet or doing a hobby.
  • Ask them to tell you more about their children's strengths, talents, and personality. As you get to know the child, share successes and observations that indicate that you are seeing the whole child.

It also helps to keep in mind the following:

  • Many families may have different perspectives on the role of the family in schooling based on the experiences within their culture. The idea of a "school-family partnership" — not to mention the shift to schooling children at home — may be very new to immigrant families and they may not respond to the school's outreach efforts in the way that other families do. You can learn more about how to engage families and encourage their leadership from our ELL family engagement guide.
  • Some families and students may be more comfortable in settings that are more oriented to the group as opposed to the individual. For example, some families may prefer group family conferences where they can learn from each other's questions and then break off for smaller individual conversations as needed.

10. Ask families what worked (or didn't) in the spring.

Your families will have helpful insights about how things worked in the spring. Topics related to communication might include:

  • getting updates from the school
  • being in touch with their child's teachers
  • how they prefer to communicate
  • questions about technology access and tech support
  • whether they had enough information to support their child's learning.

In some cases, families didn't hear back from the school, or schools were unable to reconnect with families. In others, families were contacted by so many different people that they got overwhelmed. Finding out what their experiences were will help planning for the coming year.

How administrators can help

Making space in teachers' schedules for the time and effort needed for the above strategies (especially if they do not yet have a relationship with the family) may seem difficult given all that they are juggling. In the long run, however, it will:

  • fortify those critical connections
  • allow them to plan more effective and efficient instruction around students' situations at home.

Administrators can help in this effort by:

  • acknowledging the importance of this communication
  • ensuring teachers have the necessary time to communicate effectively with ELL families in their schedules
  • ensuring that current policies and resources support teachers' ability to succeed in ELL family communication.

Administrators may wish to reach out to staff members, including ELL and bilingual educators, interpreters, family liaisons, and paraprofessionals, to talk about:

  • schedules
  • case load
  • availability
  • their ideas on how to make communication more efficient.

Closing thoughts

Most importantly, don't give up! While it will be a challenge, as this teacher notes, families you connect with will likely be appreciative to hear from the school:

I spent a chunk of my day today calling families using Google Voice. I didn't get through to most, but the ones I did talk to were SO grateful for the clarification about what's going on. I even got to hear a few of my sweet kiddos' voices. Megan Kingery 

This year will be daunting, especially as more families face the risks of illness and instability. However, if we can recognize and seize the challenge, there may be some opportunities that come out of this crisis, such as the chance to:

  • better understand and address inequities within our school communities
  • improve digital access for all students
  • strengthen family communication
  • think creatively about student engagement and instruction in new ways.

We are all in this together. Your ELLs and their families will be powerful partners on this journey once they are invited to the table!

 

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Comments

What can readers share about your experiences with Talking Points translation app? Also, are you aware of qualitative assessments of the reliability of this app, which has been referenced here? I'm looking for information on the quality of translations for all languages offered, as well as usability. I did send a question to TP about their translation protocol and quality assurance measures, but have not yet heard back. Also interested in recommendations. of other apps that may be in use. Thank you.

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