Connecting with ELL Families: Turning Challenges into Successes

So you want to connect with your ELL students’ families in more productive and meaningful ways? Three common challenges–communication, parental involvement, and cultural divides–may be issues in your classroom. So let’s consider how these sites of potential struggle can be turned into areas of strength for your classroom and your students.

Issue 1: Communication

  • Don’t assume that lack of communication means lack of caring. “These parents just don’t care about their children’s education! None of them return my phone calls! No wonder their kids are failing!” Maybe you uttered (or thought) any of those statements during a particularly trying week or you may have heard them from frustrated peers. In either case, remember that significant barriers to communication exist for ELL families. Moreover, expectations for communication between school and home vary significantly across cultures. Assuming that a lack of communication means that parents aren’t involved is an example of having a deficit perspective, where you only see challenges  Removing the negative mindset about communication allows you to meet ELL parents without preconceived stereotypes.
  • Try multiple forms of communication. Mail or email letters early in the year, introducing yourself and helping set the tone for the year. Provide multiple methods of reaching out. Some parents are more comfortable with written communication while some prefer phone calls. With some families, a lack of shared language may require an interpreter and knowing this as early in the year as possible will help you facilitate better lines of communication.
  • Share positive feedback. Many parents dread a teacher phone call because they assume their child has done something wrong. Instead, reach out to parents to share something that a student has done well. While you are certainly busy, such contacts can produce positive returns that make your job easier in the future. A parent who hears good news may be more open to a follow up contact dealing with more concerning issues.


Issue 2: Parent-engagement events

  • Do some fact finding. Don’t assume that you know why parents and family members aren’t attending conferences and/or family events. Reach out to families and find out why they haven’t attended in the past. Then follow their guidance.
  • Make parent-teacher conferences more accessible. Outside of specific recommendations from families, consider how to make events like parent-teacher conferences more accessible and appealing. Make the invitation to parents and families (including extended families) clear and note that interpreters and childcare will be available. Send multiple invitations and reminders so that parents can plan accordingly.
  • Consider non-traditional opportunities for engagement. Don’t, however, make the conferences the be-all-end-all of family engagement. Consider hosting an ELL family picnic, hosting a digital exhibit of student work, or putting on a cultural showcase. Often we get stuck in the same “but this is what we’ve always done!” rut and fail to see new opportunities for outreach.


Issue 3: Bridging the cultural divide

  • Research potential areas of disconnect. Don’t rely only on your anecdotal experience. Reach out to peers, find online resources, and ask families themselves to help you identify areas where attitudes and expectations about education may differ between cultures.
  • Bring family members in as experts. You already likely know to invite parents and family members into your classroom as often as feasible and productive, but help make the connection even more powerful by acknowledging the expertise of your students’ family members. Have guests give job talks about the work that they do or used to do, have them talk about their home countries, or have them show how to make a favorite dish. Too often ELL parents are treated with the deficit perspective when compared to non-ELL parents. By acknowledging the positive areas of expertise and wisdom in your students’ families, you can create a relationship built on mutual respect that encourages parents to feel as though they are valued in your classroom.
  • Make sure the curriculum reflects your students’ families and values. While it may well be impossible for you to change your curriculum so that it fits neatly with the values of every cultural background represented in your classroom, it is worth making sure that you are being both cognizant and considerate about potential issues. Look through your curriculum for any areas where the narrative is exclusive or disrespectful. Then try to find areas where you can include and celebrate your students’ cultures and values. Don’t be afraid to reach out to peers, families, and students for suggestions. Often we miss what our “hidden” curricula are teaching, so a fresh pair (or many pairs!) of eyes may help.

Though this list is by no means exhaustive, keep these ideas in mind next time you or someone you know becomes frustrated with the challenges of connecting with ELL families. Instead, keep looking for the opportunities for productive, fun, and meaningful engagement that will benefit your students, their families, and your school as a whole.

References and Resources

Arias, M. B.; Morillo-Campbell, M. (2008) Promoting ELL parental involvement: Challenges in contested times. Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Breiseth, L.; Robertson, K.’ & Lafond, S. (2015) Connecting with ELL families. Colorin Colorado!  

“Five ways to engage parents of ELL students.” (2013) Concordia Online Education.

Flannery, M. E. (2010) Welcoming ELL parents into the classroom. National Education Association.

A former teacher from a high ELL-incidence district in Massachusetts, Alea is now finishing her doctorate in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also works at Mawi Learning as the School Partnership Specialist. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Alea can most often be found watching her beloved Red Sox, reading an unabashedly trashy romance novel, or eating her husband's homemade bread.

Category: Tips and Tricks