Reaching Out to the Parents of English Language Learners

by Mabel Schumacher, Ph.D., Fort Atkinson

Imagine yourself as a parent in a different culture. Your child is in school learning the language, and you are at home continuing to communicate in your native language even though you are also trying to learn the new language. When letters come to your home, you rely on your child to read them to you. When the phone rings, you know it’s going to be someone speaking too rapidly in a language you are learning, but have not yet mastered. You get the picture. At best it’s a challenge; at worst, it’s frustrating and defeating. With this scenario in mind, we realize that as educators, it is critical for us to reach out to parents to communicate appropriately.

According to English Language Learner (ELL) educators, there are several things that school districts can do to assist ELL parents to participate in their child(ren)’s education. There are also a number of things to avoid to ensure effective communication.

Recognize the importance of reaching out to all parents. Districts that communicate effectively have established a climate that invites and welcomes the involvement of all parents. Those districts actively reach out to encourage parents of all cultures to be part of the school environment. Sensitivity to and respect for cultural nuances provide a foundation for this type of school climate.

In a school district, the attitude of all district representatives?from administration and board members to teachers and support staff?is an important key to establishing an environment that recognizes the richness of all cultures and the potential for beneficial exchange.

Respect and embrace cultural differences. According to Evelyn Poole-Kober of the Department of Information Studies in Tampere, Finland, “we live in the world where there is a need for collaboration across cultural boundaries both internationally and internally within countries. Cross-cultural collaboration may be facilitated through an understanding of others’ cultures. Cultural differences are not necessarily disadvantages but can be enriching and provide many benefits.”

Don’t fall into the trap of using just anyone as a translator. It is not appropriate to use the parents of other children because of confidentiality issues and the possibility of embarrassment by both parties. The communication will not be effective if the individuals are uncomfortable with the topic and the process.

It is not advisable to use the student as the interpreter. The position of the student as translator has been described by ELL teachers as “awkward and untenable” which could result in the student’s “contradictory respect and loyalties to both teachers and parents.”

Don’t be afraid to use up-to-date technology to involve the necessary interpreter services. Telephone conference calls and web-based meetings with interpreters can offer to parents the opportunity to be involved.

Provide an appropriate translator for the parents. If school personnel cannot speak the parent’s language fluently, it is the district’s responsibility to provide a translator. When communicating about children, it is critical that someone who understands the nuances of the language help to convey the information. This is also true of written materials.

Recognize the possibility of a perceived “power differential.” Cultural norms, immigration status, uncomfortable past experiences, and lack of facility with the language can all diminish the effectiveness of communication with a parent. Districts can do several things to help ELL parents overcome their misperceptions. Home visits, meetings away from the school site, and the inclusion of parent advocates in meetings may help parents to feel more comfortable.

It is a district’s responsibility to reach out and make the efforts — and yes, the accommodations — that will allow parents of all children to play a vital role in their child(ren)’s education.

Use understandable language. Educators have a language of their own, and it’s very easy to slip into acronyms and vague terms that mean different things even among educators. To communicate effectively with ELL parents, it is best to avoid jargon at all times. If, however, there are specific concepts that parents need to understand, then make that information available in layperson’s terms and translated into the family’s language. Provide this information in written form in their native language so they are aware of it before they need to use it.

Sources: Teaching, Michelle Marsh Garcia, Top 3 Ways to Accommodate Parents of English Language Learners,, The ABCs of Family Engagement, Web Exclusive,

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG