5 Ways Teachers Can Make Learning Communities Accessible for Parents of English Learners

October is Celebrating the Bilingual Child Month! We’re celebrating the achievements of bilingual children across the country, and the dedication of the educators who teach them.

Learning is a process that continues outside of the classroom: whether students realize it or not, they utilize curriculum-based content and skills in their daily lives at home. Time with friends, parents, and play frequently becomes a real-world application for critical thinking, problem-solving, and literacy. Since learning is a 24/7 cycle of practice and improvement that takes place in many different environments, an open and productive relationship between teachers and parents is vital to achieving top-notch educational outcomes. But establishing a consistent and trusting relationship with parents can often come with extra challenges. Teachers of English Learners face various cultural and linguistic barriers to communicating openly with their student’s parents. Engaging parents of EL students is a different process than engaging other groups of parents, due to linguistic and cultural barriers. We’ve gathered five of our favorites for helping to bridge the communication gap:

  1. Communicate clearly: avoid educational/legal acronyms and jargon

There’s something to be said for doing this even in your interactions with parents whose first language is English. It’s so easy to carry over the language that you use in your professional development and teacher training spaces into interactions with non-educator folk, but you have to remember: they may not understand all of those acronyms and technical terms. For someone who speaks little English, deciphering all of that academic language would be even more overwhelming. Using too much jargon in teacher-parent interactions can also make you seem removed or unapproachable. So remember to integrate accessible language into your PD voice during parent teacher conferences, and your conversations with all families will be far more comfortable.

2. Make it easy for parents to be included in their child’s learning

Sometimes we fall into somewhat of a rut with our opportunities for parent involvement. If possible, create events outside of traditional, formal parent-teacher conferences. Some parents might have a negative personal history with formal education, and, as a result, distrust schools as an institution. Have frequent in-class visit days, after-school programs (like a literacy station day with games, books, and food) — and make these opportunities unofficial and casual, but still focused on learning.

3. Be aware of your own implicit bias

It’s important to be self-reflective and maybe a little bit critical about the way we interact with people. Sometimes our own biases can creep up on us, and come out in ways that don’t reflect who we really are or want to be. So make a conscious effort not to be dismissive, condescending, or disengaged, even if you genuinely don’t recognize these behavioral patterns at first. It’s important for EL parents to feel valued, respected, and needed by their educational communities.

4. Ask EL parents about their needs

It’s easy to just focus on what you need from them — what you need the student to do more of at home, the kind of influence and activities you would like to see on the parents’ end, but you might find yourself having a more open and honest conversation if you take a step back and focus on what the parents need from you. This is a lot to ask, because as an educator, we know you have a lot on your plate. But again, it’s about making the parents feel valued and heard, which will ultimately pay off in the end.

5. Work around the language barriers

Using symbols, color coding, or just establishing regular patterns in the paper/email communication you send home can be a great way to avoid hiccups in language barrier issues. Parents of English Learners will learn to recognize certain types of communication (permission forms, positive/negative disciplinary updates, newsletters, and requests to meet) by the non-linguistic cues that you use on the documents. You might even find that this works well for you and your classroom community as a whole: it never hurts to be more organized!

Open and productive communication really is possible to achieve in your relationship with any family group. With a little elbow grease, creativity, and a positive attitude, you can change the way families interact with classroom experiences.