How to Reach Out to Parents of ELLs

Pat Mora

Watch children's author and literacy advocate Pat Mora discuss partnering with Latino parents.

English language learners (ELLs) benefit just as much from their parents' involvement in their education as other students. Some Hispanic parents may feel apprehensive about getting involved because of their limited English skills, lack of familiarity with mainstream culture and the public school system in the United States, and other reasons. Below are some ways to reach out to parents of ELLs and increase the likelihood of their participation.

Use their preferred language

This is an essential place to start. Without a common language, very little communication can take place. Here are some ways to build an ongoing relationship with parents by reaching out through their native language.

Find a fully bilingual interpreter.

Whether a school employee, parent liaison, family member, friend, or community member, this person can translate for parent-teacher conferences, back-to-school nights, PTA meetings, and regular communication. It is best to find an adult and not rely on the student as the translator, as this practice can disempower the parent.

Translate the written communications that you send home.

Find a way to send home personal notes and materials in Spanish. This will keep parents in the loop on issues such as report cards, school events, and homework. Try to offer complete translations in a straightforward Spanish that parents can understand.

Learn some Spanish yourself.

Even if it is just some common words and greetings, using Spanish with parents will make them feel welcome. For starters, here are a few common classroom words and phrases in Spanish.

Put parents in touch with bilingual staff.

Give parents a list of names and phone numbers of bilingual staff in the school and district who they can contact to deal with educational concerns. Also encourage them to reach out to other parents who are bilingual or monolingual so they can share experiences and help one another.

Educate parents on the U.S. school system

To support their children's education, the parents of your ELL students need to understand how the U.S. school system and culture work. Listen to parents' concerns, answer their questions, and provide them with written materials in Spanish. Make sure that they understand things like:

How your school works

If necessary, review school hours, school holidays, school rules, school trajectory from pre-kindergarten through high school, and the school's administrative hierarchy.

Your school curriculum, standards, benchmarks, and materials

Consider that in many Latin American countries, the curriculum is very centralized. There is often one set of books. Uniforms are usually required. And rules tend to be the same for all schools across an entire country.

Teacher/school expectations

Explain that teachers hope and expect that parents will help with homework, find tutors, read books, tell stories, take their children to the library, visit the classroom, and become involved in the school.

Parent rights

Make certain that your ELL parents know about their rights regarding access to interpreters and translated materials from your school, free lunch programs, your school's ELL curriculum, supplementary school services that may be available to their children, and anything else that parents at your school have a right to know. If your school receives federal funds, provide information on the No Child Left Behind requirements of schools and the rights of parents. Learn about parents' rights.

Language programs

Work in collaboration with your school social service worker or guidance counselor, and explain the different language program options that your school has, why they work the way they do, and why the chosen program may be most suitable for their children. If parents have doubts, discuss their options and invite them to visit and observe the class.

Arrange home and community visits

Visiting homes and communities is a way to establish a relationship with parents who are working during school and after-school hours or who may feel intimidated by the school setting. Before doing this, however, make sure that parents are receptive to the idea and that your school district and union allow home visits by teachers.

It is often easier to resolve difficult issues face to face as opposed to over the telephone or through written communication. This way, you and the parents can anticipate problems and agree on how to solve them. When organizing home and community visits, try to:

  • Arrange for an interpreter to be present.
  • Respect the family's time constraints and choice of location - whether in the home, church, or community center.
  • Point out ways they can help with their child's language development, reading skills, and homework.

Welcome parents into your school

Here are some ways to involve Hispanic parents at school:

Host a Spanish-language back-to-school night

Host an evening event at the beginning of the school year for Spanish-speaking parents. Make sure ahead of time that a good interpreter will be in attendance. For this important first meeting, try to accommodate parents' requests for scheduling, transportation, and child care. Take this time to get to know them, communicate your expectations, and answer questions. Also find out the best way to maintain regular communication with each of these parents.

Arrange for a "tour" of the school

Within the first semester, organize a general school orientation session for parents of English language learners. With a bilingual facilitator, explain and answer any questions about things such as state standards, assessments, school expectations, language program options, etc. It would be helpful to actually walk parents around the school and introduce them to key people on staff. Some states, districts, and schools already do this.

Benefits of reaching out

Watch children's author and literacy advocate Pat Mora discuss the benefits to reaching out to Spanish-speaking parents.

This video is also available on YouTube.

Recruit volunteers

If parents are willing to volunteer their time, find out what their interests and skills are. ELL parents may be able to help with a variety of activities, such as cooking food for school-wide holidays, telling stories, teaching a dance, teaching a craft, or making a presentation.

Adult learning opportunities

Immigrant families may be unaware of the opportunities available to them. Another way to reach out to parents is to make them aware of learning opportunities for themselves. Somewhere in your community there are likely to be English and/or native language literacy classes for adults, family literacy projects, and parenting classes.

If your school has not compiled a list of these resources, ask your school administrators to do so. They should call your school district, city, county, library, park and recreation center, community college, and community-based organizations. Be sure to verify that families are eligible to receive the services offered regardless of immigration status. To be most effective, this list should be made available in Spanish and English and updated regularly.

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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.


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