4 Ways to Engage Families of English Learners
Family engagement has been widely accepted as one of the key factors that supports student achievement, reduces dropout rates, and positively impacts children’s learning in many other ways. It is defined as the mutual, ongoing relationship between families and educators that is built on trust and respect and is focused on student learning and achievement.
With 4.6 million English Learners (ELs) in the U.S. public school system—over 9 percent of the student population nationwide—it is important to identify both barriers to and strategies for engaging families of ELs.
1. Build a connection
To engage families of ELs, Colorín Colorado notes that the first step must be to find ways to connect with them. Colorin Colorado suggests:
Developing a greater understanding of the school's or district’s EL population
Integrating cultural traditions into the school schedule and environment
Creating a welcoming environment that is reflective of the cultural identity of the student population, including lessons, classroom materials, and workforce diversity
Building personal connections through specialized events, neighborhood visits, ambassador programs, and materials in students' native languages
Demonstrating that the school values students' native languages, and encouraging the ongoing development of these languages
By taking the time to get to know the families of ELs—and encouraging the inclusion of their culture into the classroom—educators are able to develop a mutually respectful relationship that will enhance future engagement.
2. Understand cultural differences regarding education
When working to increase family engagement, it is important that we as educators understand cultural differences that may be present, as well as how those differences might impact families’ understanding of or ability to participate in the U.S. school system.
Researcher Yoo-Seon Bang described how a lack of understanding about routine events or activities in the U.S. school system can be a struggle for, or even inhibit participation by, families of EL students. Lack of knowledge about activities such as collecting Box Tops for Education or book fairs can lead to stress or embarrassment, resulting in reduced participation.
Schools must make it a priority to ensure that all students are able to successfully engage in activities, as many students and families are eager to do their part. This can be accomplished by providing clear, concrete information (in the home language when possible) to overcome the possibility of miscommunication or misunderstanding regarding activities and events.
Bang also provides recommendations for bridging the gap in terms of these cultural differences, including:
Providing a systematic means of communication for parents uncomfortable or unfamiliar with addressing the school directly (such as a suggestion box or anonymous survey)
Recognizing there are cultural differences in gender roles with regard to education and encouraging participation from both parents in a child’s education
Allowing parents the opportunity to take ESL classes or host discussion groups where they can practice asking questions to school personnel or using other school-related vocabulary
According to research by Hill & Torres (2010) on the paradox of Latino aspirations and achievement and family engagement, Latino parents take their role in student achievement seriously and view their obligation as being responsible for teaching the cultural values that lead to learning. These values include dedication and commitment to task (empeños), the drive to succeed (ganas), and the effort that will yield success (estudios).
Rather than implicating parents as non-participatory or uninterested in engaging academically, it is vital that schools have open, respectful communication with parents to determine expectations, build on these virtues, and capitalize upon the desire to work hand in hand with teaching staff to provide a well-rounded education.
3. Harness the power of technology
A rising number of school systems utilize automatic dialing calls, or “robo-calls,” to inform a large audience of parents about school events and announcements. While this may not be an effective means of communication for parents who have a native language other than English, there are many ways technology can be used to increase engagement among parents of ELs, including:
Computer-based assessments, which often offer visual representation of a student’s progress in the form of charts and graphs
Communicating with families via an app such as the free texting service Remind
Boston-based high school teacher Jessica Lander uses the Remind app to communicate with parents in over 30 languages. She is able to check in with families, discuss student needs, and remind parents of assignments using her native English, and the app translates her messages to parents’ native languages and vice versa.
According to Lander, “Our text conversations have allowed me to learn from my students’ families in a way that would have been incredibly difficult even a few years earlier, given language barriers. We share strategies on supporting a shy girl, or a boy who serially forgets his homework. I have learned more about my students’ history and background, all of which helps me better support them in class.”
4. Recognize and learn from parents
Harvard researcher Karen Mapp demonstrated in a study on parent engagement that parents are not only eager to be involved in their child’s learning, but when given the opportunity and when they feel welcomed and respected by the school community, their engagement can lead to outstanding results and a substantial impact on the the school at large.
The study took place at Patrick O’Hearn Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts, and yielded a remarkable parent engagement rate of 90 percent. Mapp focused on what the school could learn from parents' own perspectives, as well as how parents' involvement has impacted the school in positive ways.
The school’s high engagement rate is attributed to the work of parents themselves thanks to the creation of the parent-filled O’Hearn Family Involvement Committee, which has begun to have an active governance role in the school. This led to the formation of Family Outreach Program, Family Center, and Family Leadership Team, which were parent-driven and ensured families were encouraged to participate in a manner that made sense for them.
Mapp noted that the success of the program was due to the fact that “the school community welcomed parents into the school, honored their participation, and connected with parents through a focus on the children and their learning.”
Family engagement is an essential component of student success across the board, but for ELs, it is especially important for encouraging continued language development and academic achievement, as well as for ensuring that schools are recognizing and capitalizing on the strengths of all families in the school community. By working to understand and demonstrate respect for the families of ELs, school personnel will not only see increases in student success, but will foster a supportive and inclusive community for learners from all backgrounds while building stronger schools in the process.