Distance Learning for ELLs: Making Family Partnerships Work

Muslim mother helping son with homework

What lessons have educators of ELLs learned so far about communicating with families and supporting instruction during COVID-19? Find out what's working (and not) from some examples in this article.

Note: This article is part of our guide on distance learning for ELLs, which includes information about planning instruction, offline learning, privacy considerations, family partnerships, and more.

Our dual-language learners (or ELLs) and their families need more than lists of resources about the Coronavirus. They need trusted contacts to help them understand, to sort fact from myths, and to help them get needed services. I urge you to do more than share these links. Talk to people. Post video explanations. Have a way for families to contact you or staff members. And remember to use these contacts to share happy information as well. If you have solutions or suggestions, now is a good time to share them! — Karen Nemeth, Language Castle Connection

Family Partnerships: A Key to Success

Partnering with families is a critical component of distance learning — and even more so for families of English language learners (ELLs) who need to be "in home" guides for learning that is happening in another language.

This is a big thing to ask of families who are juggling multiple concerns and stresses. With regular communication in their home language, however, a strong partnership is possible.

Here are some lessons learned about communicating as successfully as possible with ELL families about distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connecting with families

For tips on how to stay in touch with ELL families, take a look at Communicating with ELLs and Their Families During School Closures.

Lessons Learned

1. Many families have not been getting updates from schools in their language.

ELL/bilingual families need updates from the school about their child's instruction at home. They will benefit from an orientation to help them understand what distance learning is, how it will work (logistics), and the expectations for their child’s home learning.

Furthermore, federal law requires that:

Yet many bilingual families may not be getting adequate information about their child's learning activities if communication is largely in English. For example, ELL educator Shaeley Santiago shared in an #ELLchat conversation that, "As teachers have made phone calls home to individual families, they've discovered that some were not aware of information coming out from school. Basically, they only knew school was closed."

If this kind of communication is not taking place, teachers may need to advocate with administration for access to interpreters or cultural liaisons, a phone or online access system for conversations, or translated curriculum to assist in this process. (For ideas on how to advocate for ELLs effectively, see this guide from the National Education Association.)

2. It's important to identify families' preferred methods of communication.

The more familiar you are with the ways your families prefer to communicate, the more successful your communication will be. Families should have some way to contact you other than through email or text.  Many families are more comfortable verbally and are used to calling for information. Some options include the following:

  • It may be possible for families to call your work phone and leave a message, then for you return the call using your own phone and entering *67 before dialing the number to block your own personal number. 
  • Many teachers also use a Google Voice account, which can hide your number, as their personal phone number to communicate with families. 
  • Your district may be able to establish a method of connecting by phone without sharing your personal information, such as by providing district cell phones for easy connection. 
  • Some school districts have online meeting or collaboration systems that might be used for family collaboration.

(Note: As with any instructional platform, it is critical for school districts to take steps to protect student and family privacy if using online technology to communicate. Many districts are opting not to use Zoom or any student video due to privacy concerns.)

3. Cultural liaisons or community members may be able to provide important guidance on communication.

Individuals who work regularly with a specific community may be able to provide guidance on cultural dimensions of communication, including preferences, gender roles, and existing resources in the community such as media outlets in families' languages or social media networks such as this Karen Facebook page based in Minnesota.

For example, Mia Allen of Colorado explains that providing information to key individuals has worked more effectively in some cases than written translations. She writes, "The Denver-Metro area has had a fairly large Rohingya Burmese community.  However, traditional methodology of communication such as letters or translated written documentation does not always meet the linguistic needs of the community. We have found that it is easier in these cases to access cultural capital and share significant information regarding resources with key stakeholders in the community."

4. Many educators are trying the Talking Points app.

An additional communication tool that we've used in my district with success is the Talking Points app.  This app allows teachers to write a text message in English and the message is translated into one of 100 languages for families according to their native language. The family receives the message as a text on their phone without downloading the app.  If a teacher has three students with different native languages, each family can receive the same message in their native language.  Many families communicate by mobile phone and the Talking Points app allows for easy connection.  Families can text back and the message is translated to English.  One boy texted his teacher, “I can’t believe you texted my mom in Somali!!”  You will impress your students who will think you now speak 100 languages!

Please note, however, that this app 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.

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

5. Videos can be another effective way to communicate with families.

Video messages add a personal touch to distance learning and many bilingual families may understand more verbal English than written, so the combination of a warm greeting, demonstration of an activity and simple language to explain tasks — in a format that they can watch multiple times or review — will be very helpful for them. 

If you have the opportunity to work with a cultural liaison who speaks the home language, provide task directions in both English and the native language.  Alternately, you can record an over-the-phone interpreter explaining the task in the student’s native language and share it as a sound file link in addition to your video. Just a note that Google translate has improved greatly and it could possibly be used in a pinch, but accuracy is not guaranteed and a competent interpreter is recommended.

Some ideas include:

  • Daily or weekly video demonstrations: If you use this idea, pay attention to rate of speech, volume, angle of demonstration and use of gestures to increase understanding.  The use of realia and visuals is very helpful.
  • Short videos (3 - 5 minutes) from the teacher with closed captioning: This helps many non-native speakers understand the message better.  YouTube allows editing of machine-generated captions to fix errors.  Google Meet also has auto-generated captions.

6. Technology access may be a significant issue, particularly for younger students.

Many ELLs don't have access to devices or Internet at home. This may be especially true in elementary grades when students may need more family support while they are developing early literacy skills. We have also seen numerous cases of siblings sharing devices.

Many districts and communities are looking for ways to expand access to devices and Internet. Hot spots may be a way to increase access for families who are reluctant to register with Internet companies. (Some companies are requiring a social security number and no "past due" bills to register, which may deter some families from signing up.)

One school we heard of is inviting families to log on to their Wi-Fi in the parking lot when they pick up learning packets to download relevant information for the lessons. Some Internet companies are offering free access to Wi-Fi, and cell phone companies are offering expanded access for their existing customers.

You can find more resources related to technology access in SupportEd's Resources for Teaching ELLs Online.

Offline instruction at home

For situations in which technology access is not possible, there are numerous resources for helping to support instruction at home. You will find many of these resources and activity ideas, as well as tips on how to build upon families' cultures, languages, and strengths, in Offline Learning at Home: Ideas for ELLs.

7. Parents are concerned about workload.

We have heard from our colleagues that many families of ELLs are overwhelmed by their schoolwork at home. One mother shared that she was more stressed about her child's assignments than the virus. The workload may be particularly high for secondary students who are receiving assignments from multiple teachers. In addition, some educators may not be familiar with their students' home situations when it comes to:

  • technology access
  • schedules
  • responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or working outside of the home.

At the same time, ELLs and their families may need extra support/scaffolding in learning the platforms, understanding directions, and completing assignments, especially if instruction moves at a quick pace and they can't return to watch a recording.

It may be helpful for teachers to talk with families about what the expectations are for completing work, how it will be evaluated, and how to share their questions in order to reduce their stress during a time when they are already facing high levels of stress about other concerns.

8. Finding ways to stay connected to your students throughout the school closure can make an important difference.

Establishing a regular check-in by phone or online gives you a chance to continue to monitor students' learning and well-being.

In my early experience with families so far, I see a major gap in some multiliingual communities understanding of the Coronavirus and how to stay healthy.  I called my Nepali mentee, a senior, to see if he was staying home and how his family was doing.  He said he’d been over to his friends' houses every day playing cards and hanging out.  His family had very little information about what was going on with the Coronavirus. 

It is important that you also check in on the families' understanding of current restrictions and recommended health practices.  This is a very insidious virus because it is most likely to be passed while people do not have symptoms, so education is key.

You will miss your students and they will definitely miss you.  Select a student or two each day and call home to say "hi" and find out how they’re doing.  They will be surprised and happy to hear from you and it will give you an idea of their social emotional and learning needs.  Distance learning can feel isolating at times and you’ll need to be very intentional about connecting and maintaining a personal connection.

9. It's important to keep families' strengths in mind.

ELL educators know what many in our school communities have not had the privilege to witness — the depths of commitment and sacrifice that our families have gone to on behalf of their children. While the logistics and challenges of supporting home learning are significant, many of our families will persevere — if we can help bring them along on the journey. They too will be teaching their children in important ways that we must not overlook through activities at home.


Tools for Planning

Needs assessment

As you look ahead, take a look at the guiding questions from our distance learning needs assessment, which includes a section on partnering with ELL families to help guide outreach and collaboration. The assessment is available as a document that can be edited and shared among teams.

These questions include the following:

  • How have you or other teachers connected with EL families throughout the year?
  • What is already working?
  • What do you know about families’ preferred methods of communication?
  • How successful has the school been in contacting EL families during COVID-19?
  • What is the literacy level of your EL families?
  • Do some families need oral instructions and others written translations?
  • Who is providing the translations for the more uncommon languages?
  • Have families received information about what students are expected to do, available technology, and tech support?
  • How is this information being disseminated to families and the community?
  • Which staff members work regularly with the ELs and families? Do they have recommendations or insights for partnering with EL families?
  • Who else is part of the greater network of support for EL families in the school or district?

Closing Thoughts

This is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be stumbles, missteps, and things we wish we could do again. However, there is already so much information about what is (and what's not) working for our ELL families. By putting the pieces together and sharing our experiences, we have a better chance of building strong, authentic partnerships that will sustain our students in the weeks and months to come.



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