Empowering ELL Parents & Families at Home

Pat Mora

Watch children's author and literacy advocate, Pat Mora, discuss how her stories enable Hispanic children to see themselves in books.

All parents can be helpful in their children's literacy development, regardless of their language, education, or literacy level. Parents who speak little or no English can contribute to their children's education in valuable ways. English language learners may benefit when they develop solid literacy skills in their first language before learning to read in a second one. Through Spanish, they are developing key language and literacy skills that may enable them to become excellent readers in English.

What are the important differences between the English and Spanish languages?

There are important differences between English and Spanish. Your awareness of these differences will help you to better teach English to your ELLs. For example:

Spanish-speaking ELLs may have difficulty distinguishing one English sound from another when they listen, speak, read, or write – especially the sounds that don't exist in Spanish. They may have trouble learning the 15 English vowel sounds because Spanish only has five. Beginning ELLs may not hear the difference between cat and cut, call and cold, or tin and ten. They need to hear the vowel distinctions from you before they are able to produce them on their own.

Discover more Spanish-English tips to help your ELL make connections between the two languages.

What if my students' parents speak only Spanish and don't know how to read?

Even if your students' parents cannot read, there are many ways they can develop their children's oral language skills and support their literacy efforts. Here are a few ideas:


In Hispanic families, oral storytelling is often more of a natural activity than reading a bedtime story together. By telling stories, parents are developing their children's vocabulary and oral language skills. Parents can also encourage children to add to stories or make up their own.

"Read" wordless picture books

Wordless picture books tell stories through pictures. This can be a fun way for parents and children to sit down together with books and talk about stories. Children can learn how stories progress, make predictions, and develop a love for books.

Say rhymes and sing songs

Rhymes, songs, and chants can develop oral language skills such as intonation and word stress.

Read more ideas on how to make word play fun:

Make frequent trips to the public library

You might be surprised at how many parents of ELLs do not understand that public libraries in the United States are free and for everyone. Try coordinating an informal "field trip" to your closest public library with parents (and possibly children) early in the school year.

Get ideas on introducing parents of ELLs to the public library, and more!

Engage in meaningful conversation

For oral language development, it is important that parents engage their children in meaningful conversation. Whether at the dinner table or at the grocery store, parents can ask children questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer.

Read more on how to engage your child to help develop oral language (also available in Spanish):

Watch educational children's television programs together

There are a number of wonderful children's television programs that promote English language and literacy development. This can be a great way for both parents and children to learn English together.

Learn more ways television can be used as an educational tool.

What if my students' parents read only in Spanish?

If your ELLs' parents are fully literate in Spanish, there are many ways they can help their children learn to read. First of all, they can do everything in the section above. In addition, they can:

Read books in Spanish

Just as English-speaking parents can read books with their children in English, Spanish-speaking parents can read books with their children in Spanish. If some parents are not accustomed to reading with their children, introduce them to children's books and model different ways they can read together. Visit our families section for more specific suggestions. You can print out Spanish versions of each page and hand them directly to parents.

Read bilingual books

Bilingual books are a great way for ELL students and their parents and family to enjoy books together. In addition, they can both improve their reading skills along the way.

Homework help

If parents do not speak English, they may feel powerless when it comes to helping their children with homework. Let parents know that there are a variety of ways they can help:

Direct help

There are probably many ways that parents can offer direct homework help, whether it's teaching numbers and letters, practicing reading, or helping with projects. Keep parents abreast of your classroom activities and homework, and point out specific ways that they can help out from home.

Keep tabs

Parents can keep in touch with teachers to make sure their children are finishing their homework. They can ask their children if they have any homework and make sure they set aside enough time to do it.

Provide good work space

Let parents know how important it is for children to have a clean, quiet work space to read or do their homework. Even if it is a simple table and chair, children will concentrate better with a defined place to study.

Find a tutor

If parents cannot directly help with homework, encourage them to locate a tutor to help their children and answer any questions. Often times there are volunteer tutoring programs at local elementary schools, high schools, libraries, and after-school programs. An aunt, uncle, neighbor, or older sibling might also be able to help.

Starting a home library

Regardless of their language or literacy level, parents can help their children develop a special collection of books at home. Here are some tips for parents:

Pick a special place in the house

Designate an area so that your child knows where to find his or her books. Buy, make, or clear off an area for a simple bookshelf. Even a board or cardboard box will do.

Find quality books

There are a number of ways to build up your home library. An obvious way is to make frequent trips to the public library. You can also buy books from bookstores and school book fairs. You can often find books for little cost at used book stores, thrift stores, and garage sales. Another way to develop a collection is to encourage family members and friends to give books to your children as presents for birthdays and other occasions.

Learn more about starting your own library:

Multicultural books

Watch children's author and literacy advocate, Pat Mora, discuss how her family stories have enabled many Hispanic children to see themselves reflected in books.

This video is also available on YouTube.

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Adapted from: Calderón, M. E., & Minaya-Rowe, L. (2003). Designing and implementing two-way bilingual programs. A step-by step guide for administrators, teachers and parents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].


Extremely helpful for our ELL Parents

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