Distance Learning for ELLs: Lessons Learned About Family Partnerships

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.

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, especially if they have recently arrived in this country. With regular communication in their home language, however, a strong partnership is possible.

Here are some lessons learned about partnering with ELL families around distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.



Planning for the Fall

1. Relationships are key.

One of the most critical lessons from the spring is this: educators (and schools) who went into COVID-19 with strong ELL family partnerships were the most successful in reaching and teaching their ELLs after schools closed.

During the coming year, it will be even more critical to establish those relationships early on as educators, students, and families get to know each other — and a new school year is the perfect opportunity to do so.

To get started, take a look at these tips for:

In addition, schools can benefit from the expertise and insights of:

  • ELL educators, family liaisons, and community partners who work closely with ELLs and their families
  • other educators, coaches, counselors, or staff who work with ELLs.

Schools may also wish to explore partnerships with families' employers that can address schedules, technology needs, and child care.

2. During the coming year, families will need key updates to support their child's learning.

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. ELL families will need to know:

  • how learning will be delivered, whether in-person, hybrid, or remotely
  • how the child's schedule will work
  • 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:

  • how to communicate with their child's teacher
  • how to access lessons, assignments, and updates about their child's progress
  • access to technology and technology support
  • information about ELL or special education services and support.

Families may also need additional information about other topics such as school meals, health care, or social-emotional support.

3. Families will have valuable feedback to share about the spring.

As districts look ahead, they can build a foundation for the coming year by identifying lessons learned from the spring. Educators can get that feedback by:

  • asking students and families what worked or didn't work well in the spring
  • partnering with ELL and bilingual educators, interpreters, family liaisons, and the PTA to discuss opportunities and challenges
  • encouraging their staff to network and learn what has worked in other districts
  • building upon strong family networks that communicate regularly with each other.

Communication with ELL Families

4. Many families have not been getting information from schools in their language.

Federal law requires that:

  • ELL/bilingual families get updates from the school in a language they understand
  • learning activities must be visually demonstrated and/or explained in the students’ native language. 

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."

You can start by identifying language resources to help communicate with ELL families in your district.

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,
  • translated curriculum to assist in this process.

(For ideas on how to advocate for ELLs effectively, see this guide from the National Education Association.)

Keep in mind that newcomer immigrant families in particular may rely on the school as an anchor in their new life in this country, and if the school could not reconnect with them in the spring, you may be the first person from the school to talk with the family since the closures went into effect.

Note: In some cases, families got too much communication and were overwhelmed by the different people calling each day and number of messages received. Collaboration and coordination can help make this feel more manageable.

4. 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.
  • School schools are using social media as a way to share information and updates in families' home languages.

In order to establish contact with your families, take a look at these tips for:

Keep in mind that families' housing and economic situations may be unstable during this time, making it harder to stay in contact. Families who use prepaid cell phones may also change phone numbers regularly.

(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.)

5. 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."

7. 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.

8. 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. They can also be shared easily via text or social media.

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.

Supporting Student Learning

9. 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. And in some cases, they may not have electricity, as in the case of migrant farmworkers living in camps or trailers.

There are many steps districts can take 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.)

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.

10. Families need training and technology support in their home language.

Access to devices and internet isn't enough, though — students and families may need training and technology support in their home language in order to use the technology successfully. ELLs and their families may need support/scaffolding in:

  • learning the platforms
  • understanding directions
  • completing assignments, especially if instruction moves at a quick pace and they can't return to watch a recording
  • finding out how to get tech support in their home language.

11. 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 (see more below).

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. Many teachers have also found that even if students aren't available during the day, they are completing work in the evenings and submitting by the next morning.

12. Students' schedules and learning environment at home will vary widely.

The better educators know their students, the better they can tailor instruction to match the students' schedule and situation at home. It's important to keep in mind that some students:

  • don't have a device or internet at home
  • are sharing devices with siblings
  • are caring for younger siblings, relatives, or neighbors
  • are working outside of the home
  • may be supervised by grandparents
  • may be alone or minimally supervised during the day
  • are living in communities that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Partnering with families can help identify the best options to support students' success.

13. Families may want guidance on managing routines and home learning.

Many of our educators heard questions from ELL families about how to manage schedules, routines, and learning at home. In some cases, families were trying to figure out how to navigate different cultural expectations. For example, in many cultures, families are not directly involved in supporting students' learning, and this unprecedented situation presented a whole new set of challenges beyond what they were already navigating before COVID-19.

Other families wanted parenting advice on what to do when students said they didn't "feel like they were in school," how to encourage their children during this difficult time and keep students motivated, how to help their children manage a routine if they were alone during the day, and what else they could do to support language and learning at home. Some educators noted that families lacked confidence that they could in fact support their child's learning.

Ask your families for feedback on what they would find hepful. They may questions you wouldn't have anticipated!

14. Finding ways to stay connected to your students 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.

Select a student or two each day and call home to say "hi" and find out how they’re doing.  This 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.

Building Upon Strengths

15. It's important to keep students' and 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, use of the home language, and a focus on critical life lessons during this crisis. Their talents, networks, and ideas are a rich resource if schools are wise enough to tap into them!

See additional strengths-based ideas in EL Family Engagement During Coronavirus from Immigrant Connections.


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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