dedicated to helping all schools and all families work together better so all kids learn more
Building the Bridge Icon and Images.008.jpeg

Educator: Working With Families That Are Learning English

Working With Families That Are Learning English 


Do you have a lot of English Language Learners in your classroom? Beginning to see that what you learned in your high school French class is only taking you so far? Wondering how to engage with families when the barriers seem so high?

Don’t worry, you can do this. And the good news is, the more you learn to connect with families of diverse backgrounds, the better you will become at connecting with ALL families. So let’s wrestle this problem to the ground.

To help me, I enlisted the help of a dear friend and inspiration colleague, Christina Thuli. She has a whole section of her website devoted to helping you, as a teacher, connect with families. Here are some of the things we talked about:

1. Talk about the elefante in the room.

The absolute worst thing you can do is ignore the fact that your students and their families are learning English. Instead, talk to them about it. Ask how it's going. Offer support, resources, a friendly person with whom they can practice speaking English.

Don’t assume anything about them. Instead, ask. Ask what language they speak at home. Ask what language they would like to speak with you (later in the year, parents may want to practice their English). Ask what holidays they celebrate. Ask where they are from. Ask what questions they have and what support they want.

Have patience and understanding and know that families who don't speak English are just as concerned about and interested in their child’s education as the PTA president who you see at school all the time. Keep reaching out.

Also, know that families who don’t speak English very well may be reluctant to come to school and speak with you. I know from personal experience that trying to talk to a teacher in a language that I don’t speak very well about a subject that I am highly emotionally invested in (my child and their success) is super, duper, duper intimidating! (Read more here). Also, in their culture “supporting your child‘s education” might look different than coming in and talking to the teacher. So they don’t think it’s needed or even appropriate.

Don’t give up on them! Have patience and understanding and know that families who don't speak English are just as concerned about and interested in their child’s education as the PTA president who you see at school all the time. Keep reaching out.

2. Get help.

Of course, communicating with someone who doesn’t speak English is difficult. So get some help.

First look in your school community. Are there other teachers, paraprofessionals or families that speak the same language as your students and their families? Use them! Invite a group of parents who all speak the same language to come in at the same time. This will foster communication and they can help clarify things for each other and build some community.

Second, look to outside agencies and volunteers. In this beautiful melting pot that is the United States of America, you WILL be able to find someone to help you. You just may need to get creative. Also know, that help is just a phone call away with a telephone translation service.

When you do get someone to help you, use the translator wisely. The best possible thing you can do is connect with the families personally. Don’t jump straight into the school handbook! Instead build a foundation of trust and understanding. Remember to ask them questions in addition to giving them information.

And remember, although you want help with language translation, what you really want is a cultural ambassador. Navigating verb tense is only about 10% of what these families are struggling with. Adapting to a new culture, learning a new school system, navigating a new city—all under the haze of homesickness--is hard. So work to give them the support they need. (To read more about how to enlist other parents, read here)

3. Get trained.

Working with refugee families is a particular challenge. Laura Conrad has an online workshop that will will help you learn some of the basics with working with refugee families. (Read about our conversation of how to get started if you’re new to working with English Language Learner families here) And her colleague at English Learner Portal, Kelly Reider, has an online course of targeted strategies, just for beginners. Check out more resources here.

4. Create multi-lingual classroom and school.

Make your classroom and your school a place where multiple languages are celebrated. You don’t have to have kids in your classroom who speak Chinese in order to learn a Chinese song. You only need one courageous and curious teacher who likes to teach her kids that learning languages is magical.

 As with everything, you can be a model. If you don’t already speak another language, start learning one. Research the language or culture of your ancestors and share with your students you journey as you try to reclaim some of your heritage. (Here’s an excellent book about this Noa’s Ark by David Schwarzer.)

If you want some help with this, you must check out Christina Thuli’s Language Learning classrooms. “Culture and Language Integration” She has so many great ideas! I will highlight just two.

  • Post words in different languages around the school.

Ms. Thuli says, “It is so important for students and families to see their languages written in the school. In my school, we learned how to say good morning in each language our families spoke and for 2 weeks we would say good morning in this went so far with all students, and truly embracing the cultural and linguistic diversity of our students and families. One family came to visit our school when our morning greeting was Bengali, and they spoke Bengali! This was what made them choose our school, they said. They felt so welcomed there that we would take the time to not only learn it, but include their language in our school.”

  • Host an Intercambio where families and staff can practice speaking each other’s languages. Create a warm, welcoming and low risk environment where everyone can be a language learner.

5. Treat your student’s home language as an asset.

The truth is being fully literate in two (or more) languages is a HUGE asset. These kids are going to be communication rock stars! They are going to be able to navigate between cultures and bring people together.  

But right now, they may only see the struggle of learning multiple languages. So give them some vision. Find out about the benefits of bilingualism and share them with kids and families.

Encourage parents to keep speaking to their kids in their home language and if they can, to read and to write in their home language, too. You’d be surprised how many parents think it is better for their child if they try to adopt an English-only home (and how many teachers may have told them that. Read more here).

Get books and audiobooks in the home language of your students and encourage families to check them out. Ask them for suggestions as you build your library. And again—don’t just make it an “ELL kids library.” Make it a library that’s available to anyone who wants to read in another language.

6. Teach differently.

There is lots and lots of research about best practices with teaching ELL kids.  But let me tell you one practice with which I have experience.

We moved to Mexico a few years ago and my kids were Spanish language learners. Homework took FOREVER and writing anything was like pulling teeth. Then, we began to make and post sentence frames. Suddenly the kids began to hear and see patterns in the language. They memorized a few frames that helped them navigate recess a little easier (Yo quiero jugar_____). Soon, armed with these frames, they could sit down and start a summary without constant nudging.

Like most students, my kids are bright and eager learners. But not being able to speak the language is a particular challenge and it’s not one that just kinda goes away. Meet the needs of your ELL students and share these scaffolds with their families.

Start here: If you have students in your class who speak a different language than English at home, sit down with Google translate and learn how to say, “Hello, my name is ________. What is your name? Nice to meet you” and “Welcome! I’m glad you are here.” Invite families to correct you and help you learn this simple but powerful phrase.

Challenge yourself: If you have students who are learning English, you must check out Christina Thuli's Language Learning Resources. Why haven’t you done this yet?

@ copyright 2017 by All rights reserved.

See more articles for Educators.


We are always looking for feedback. Thanks for helping us become better!

Check all the apply *