How to Empower Immigrant Parents to Help ELL Students
For several decades now, researchers have been conducting studies that consistently signify what teachers already know to be true: Parental involvement strongly impacts academic success.
Although many schools do a great job of encouraging parental involvement, they often overlook a certain group—immigrant parents.
Immigrant parents are valuable members of the school community, but do they know that? And are you, as their child’s teacher, tapping into that value? Let’s look at a few ways that you can start empowering immigrant parents to help ELL students not only in your classroom, but also across your community.
The Challenge: Involving & Empowering Immigrant Parents
One major reason why ELL families are left out of the mix when it comes to school involvement is the language barrier.
Many immigrant parents cannot communicate in English or have a limited ability to do so. They also may not be familiar with the American school system or understand the school’s expectations for them and their children.
In addition to language and cultural differences, immigrant populations often face other challenges including economic hardships and social mobility. All of these factors make it much harder to create a home-school partnership.
Oftentimes, due to their own lack of English literacy skills, ELL parents feel as if they cannot support their child’s mastery of the language. Of course, as we’ve already mentioned, that simply is not true. All parents can contribute to their child’s education in valuable ways regardless of their language, education, or literacy level. They just need to know it—and that’s where you come in.
5 Tips for Empowering Immigrant Parents to Help ELL Students
As an ESL teacher, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your students’ parents are aware of their role in their child’s education and that they’re being included in the school community. Need some help getting started? Here are five tips for teachers to empower immigrant parents to help ELL students.
1. Connect Early On
To build a strong relationship with ELL parents, as with any parent, you must first establish a good foundation.
Be proactive. At the start of a new school year or whenever you’re notified of a new enrollment, be sure to write a letter to the students’ parents. The letter should include a brief overview of who you are, what your goals are for their child, what they can expect in your classroom, and any other important information, such as how to get in touch with you.
Finally, mention how excited you are to welcome their child into the class, and let them know that you will be reaching out within the week to check in. Keep your letter simple and to the point, yet friendly, and translate it into the students’ native language. You could also ask a translator to help facilitate the conversation during your follow-up phone call, if possible.
The call should be short, just long enough to introduce yourself personally and invite them to an in-person meeting where you can get to know each other better and answer any questions they may have. We suggest having a translator present for this conversation, as well.
If you don’t have access to a translator, apps such as Google Translate, which can perform automatic, two-way speech translation in 40 languages, and iTranslate Voice, which supports 42 languages, are incredibly useful tools.
Communicating with immigrant parents early on will help ease the transition and make them feel less intimidated, setting the stage for a successful home-school partnership.
2. Educate and Equip
Frequently, the key to empowering immigrant parents is simply to consider what they don’t know and then tell them. We can’t assume that the American method of schooling is universally shared and understood.
Many cultures and countries have vastly different ways of doing school. So, when families immigrate to the United States from another country, our education system is likely foreign to them (at least somewhat). The responsibility then falls on the school, more specifically the ESL teacher, to explicitly share their procedures and expectations with ELL families and equip them to thrive.
Depending on their cultural norms, some immigrant parents may not know how they should be supporting their children’s education at home, such as helping their children with homework or reading to them. You can help by hosting parent workshops after school to provide tips and resources, share educational activities, and demonstrate techniques that parents can use at home with their children.
3. Encourage Participation
Now that your ELL parents are comfortable and well-equipped, it’s time to encourage them to be active participants in their child’s education both inside and outside of school.
Ways that Parents Can be Involved in the Classroom:
Ask yourself how your ELL parents can contribute to your classroom in a way that works for them. Then, create opportunities for them to do so. Perhaps you could provide the necessary technology for them to make a video or join a ZOOM® video call so they can share about a special holiday or tradition? Or maybe you could host a Culture Day where each student could bring in an item, food, or music to celebrate their heritage? Then, invite parents to participate either in-person or virtually.
That said, it doesn’t have to be a big event. In fact, many parents would likely prefer something simple and low-risk. Just try to be on the lookout for ways that each parent can participate in the classroom, even if that means participating from home.
Ways that Parents Can be Involved at Home:
Your EL’s parents can participate in their child’s education every day at home, but they might need some guidance knowing how to. Here are a few ways that you can empower immigrant parents to help ELL students outside of school.
Encourage immigrant parents to:
- Read to their child in their native language if they are unable to read in English. Reading, speaking, writing, and listening in a student’s native language will strengthen their ability to learn English.
- Engage in meaningful conversations as a family in both native language and English.
- Watch educational videos and television shows together.
- Ask about their child’s experiences at school and discuss.
- Create a quiet study environment and limit distractions.
- Hold their child accountable for their progress.
- Help with homework.
- Celebrate efforts.
What if Your Students’ Parents Can’t Speak English or Read?
There are many ways that parents who cannot speak English or read can support their child’s mastery of the English language. It’s important to note that ELLs who are fluent in their native language find it easier to learn the English language. So, by continuing to develop literacy skills in the home language, parents are also reinforcing their child’s English language development.
If the parent isn’t able to read, they can tell oral stories, sing songs, or make up storylines together with wordless picture books. All of these actions contribute to their child’s literacy while also reducing language stress and anxiety among English language learners.
4. Seek Out Community Support
Because ELL parents often experience economic and political challenges, it may be difficult for them to prioritize helping with their child’s education at home. Many local organizations offer support for immigrant families, such as social services, medical care, job placement, language classes, citizenship classes, and tutoring. Teachers can help with meeting the unique needs of long-term English language learners by providing their parents with a list of community resources and programs.
You can start by asking your school guidance counselors and administrators or your district’s International Office if they know of any helpful programs for immigrants in your area. You can also visit the Informed Immigrant website to find organizations around you. By taking the time to research local organizations that you can share, you’ll help immigrant parents find the assistance they need so that they can focus more time on supporting their child’s learning.
5. Ask for Feedback
One of the best ways to empower immigrant parents is to ask for their opinions on class, school, and even district matters. All parents have valuable ideas and insights to share that can improve the school community. So, don’t miss out on your ELL parents’ insights simply because of a language barrier. Rather, reach out consistently to ask for their feedback. Then, use their feedback to inform your classroom decision-making.
Immigrant parents see first-hand the language stress and anxiety among English language learners at home. If your EL’s parents have concerns at the school or district level, be an advocate for them. Share their feedback with the appropriate personnel and communicate with the parents that you did. That way, they know you value their opinion and take their concerns seriously.
We understand that teachers have a lot on their plate already, but empowering immigrant families to help ELL students must be prioritized despite the associated obstacles. The more involved that immigrant parents are in the school community, the better the outcome for your English learners.