Student Success

5 Strategies for Increasing Engagement with ELL Families

Getting parents involved is key to students' success. Here's how to connect with families from all backgrounds.

5 Strategies for Increasing Engagement with ELL Families 

As educators around the country know, the percentage of English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools is growing at a brisk clip. Recent figures show that ELLs make up close to 10 percent of the total student population — 4.6 million students by some estimates. With schools adding as many as 100,000 new English language learners each year, educators need to get strategic not only about the way they teach students, but about how they communicate to families as well. Parental involvement is one of the key drivers of student success, and research has shown that income level and ethnic background do not, by themselves, impact levels of family engagement.

But families of English language learners, who are often still learning the language themselves, must be made to feel a part of the school community, not clinging to the outskirts. Forging strong relationships with these parents can be tricky, but it can be accomplished in any number of ways. Frequently, though, it means targeted, ongoing communication in families' native languages — and in ways that resonate with distinct and different cultural groups.

1) Discover What Parents Think

Districts that wish to improve engagement first need to identify the areas where they're lacking. Some barriers, such as parents' work schedules, can be challenging for schools alone to overcome. Others like parental perception and attitudes toward school leaders, can be shifted with the right messaging. How do you tell what is or is not a major concern? For that, some schools have taken to surveying a broad swath of parents on their thoughts on engagement, using their own questions or a readymade survey tool.

One such tool, Panorama Education's Family-School Relationships Survey, was developed in a partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and asks a series of questions relating to perception, school climate, and barriers to engagement to get a sense of how parents really feel about school environment.

2) Use Feedback to Make Changes

In general, educators should be mindful that different cultures may see the role of teachers, administrators, and schools in general differently, or have unique notions about American schools.

Survey results can ultimately help schools break down barriers and improve messaging to boost engagement schoolwide, but only when feedback from parents is acted upon and changes made to reflect how parents feel. Ultimately, the most involved parents are the ones who feel that they have a voice in improving their child's school for everyone.

3) Offer Communications in Multiple Languages

Offering communications such as surveys in various languages can help improve response rates dramatically. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Spanish is the home language of about 77 percent of all ELL students. But significantly, a relatively large number of languages make up the difference. Districts should gather comprehensive data on which language populations they are serving, and then work to make materials available in those languages, either through translation or using tools with multiple language supports. The Panorama survey, for example, is not only available in Spanish but nine other languages, including simplified/traditional Chinese, Arabic, and Haitian Creole.

4) Don't Forget the Apps

While the digital divide is still a real challenge for communities across the country, smartphones are often the easiest path to internet access for many families, including around 64 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year. In recognition of that, some schools are turning to apps to connect with parents and bridge language barriers. At Fort Sam Houston Elementary School, located on a Texas military base that often hosts families as part of an international military exchange, teachers use the parent communication app Bloomz, not only for its many features to help keep parents informed and engaged in school activities, but also because of a unique feature that automatically translates classroom updates into over 80 languages supported by Google translate.

5) Teach Parents, Too

Some districts — such as Sweetwater Union High School District in California — have begun adult education programs to draw whole families into learning. Often offered at night, these programs teach English language and vocational courses to mostly working parents, helping strengthen literacy skills for everyone.

A program at one Arkansas district studied by researchers used a hybrid model, where adults were taught English and then brought in to participate in learning activities together, which provided parents with actionable strategies for helping students with their English language writing for the first time. Ultimately, both literacy and family engagement gains were noticeable, even after the first year.

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is an education technology journalist based in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.