TCHERS' VOICE / English Language Learners

Strong Home-School Connections for English Learners: A Proactive Approach

At the start of the school year, there’s so much to do. We’re planning out the curriculum for the year, setting up class lists, and working with colleagues. The first post in this series asked you to consider how you use classroom space as a support for your language learners. Now we turn our attention to one of the most important items on our teacher to-do lists — getting to know our students and their families.

English language learners (ELLs) comprise the fastest growing group of students in our schools, yet many of us are underprepared to serve them. If this is you, you’re not alone. Here we will explore how to get to know your ELL students and their families so you can start the school year building strong relationships where students — and you — are set up for success through three main strategies: 1) promoting true engagement; 2) employing multiple modalities of communication; and 3) enacting a whole school approach.

Involvement or Engagement?

We often refer to working with families as “parent involvement,” but this term itself can be problematic to our work with ELLs and many other students we serve.

First, it connotes that a family has a parent present, when many families may be intergenerational, or even comprised of a foster parent or guardian for our unaccompanied minors. ELL students come from many different kinds of backgrounds.

Second, involvement doesn’t mean the same thing as engagement. Engagement means a reciprocal, two-way relationship. Involvement, on the other hand, can mean a one-way, school-to-home connection, not a back-and-forth, more equitable exchange. Engagement, we hope, means that we involve families in designing a communication plan that works for them and isn’t just on the school’s terms. Engagement for families and students alike means we build on the assets of our English learners from the get-go.

Different cultures have different paradigms about schooling. We need to be sure we're considering what our families need, and not simply do what may have worked for us when we were in school, or what has been done at our school before. Taking the time to listen to students, as this video shows, can make a huge difference.

Multiple Modalities of Communication

Many educators unintentionally make many mistakes when working with ELL families. Sometimes, we think that a one-size-fits-all approach is going to work with all parents regarding communication. It does not. We need different strokes for different folks. For example, if a parent is not checking a child’s folder, maybe sending a letter home about an event through the child’s book bag isn't the right option for them.

There are other options for communication out there. Some involve technology. Don't underestimate the technology skills of your families. Other options are more low tech. Whatever form of communication you use, keep in mind that using a family’s native language is important. Not providing this sends a message to families that their attendance at an event is not important to you. Whatever option you use, if you don’t build a trusting relationship with families they won't show up at any school meeting or event. And it takes time to build that trust.

  • Seesaw is a great way to connect with parents of English learners. If a parent’s device operates in the native language, Seesaw will adjust to that language. It's simple to use and there's a great community on social media that will support it. Follow #Seesaw4ELs on Twitter for more information.

  • Talking Points is an app that can send parents texts in their native language. You can link it to your school’s student information system for support.

  • Try to stand outside to greet parents during drop off and pick up. Building a consistent relationship will engage parents more in communication.

  • Administer a survey to families on how they want to receive communication. It helps families understand that their voice is important, but they're also building a relationship with you.

A Proactive, Whole School Approach

True family engagement goes beyond holding a periodic multicultural event. Build trust over time by having a welcoming school and classroom environment, language supports available like interpreters and translated documents, and be sensitive to cultural issues you may not be aware of. Try building a school-wide and district-wide strategic approach for how you define and create strong relationships with all students and families, and reflect on it periodically with a task force of educators and families.

We’ve seen strong indicators of educators growing connections with culturally and linguistically diverse families, evident in how the traditional “parent-teacher conference” is turning into “family listening sessions” or “student-led conferences.” We’ve been honored to be a part of home visits with interpreters and social workers if a family prefers being in the home as a way to strengthen the relationship with the school or learn more about home language issues.

We’ve also been honored to serve on a school board of trustees with student and family representatives, sharing student perspectives with the leadership in making decisions.

Guidance counselors with whom we've worked have created Family Advisory Groups, recruiting key parent liaisons from under-represented groups in the school. These groups help steer goings-on at the school — from looking at why ELLs aren’t taking AP classes, for helping families understand key, large-scale assessments, to family literacy events, to exposing the barriers for engaging families at school.

Old Fashioned Microphone

Check out the Tch Talks Podcast on 5 Things You Can Do to Reach and Teach Your English Learners with Sarah Ottow and Nicole Shimizu. Sarah and Nicole discuss practical ways to get to know your students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds during the summer to prepare for school.

Confianza offers an online mini-course and in-district professional development on this topic where we focus on creating student success plans and family engagement opportunities. Visit our site to learn more.


Sarah Ottow, founder of Confianza, has partnered with countless school districts and companies nationally and internationally. Her focus is on reinforcing relationship skills and value identification of the ever growing ELL population, while improving student outcomes and profitability within organizations. With Sarah’s extensive and diverse background in identifying needs of faculty, students, and employees coupled with her education in curriculum and social justice, she creates programs and tools tailored to the exact needs of each organization and population of English learners. Connect with Sarah on Twitter: @SarahOttow and learn more about Confianza at www.ELLstudents.com.


Sarah Said has fifteen years of experience working with English learners in the Chicagoland area from all parts of the world as a teacher, building administrator, and District Level Director of English Learner/Bilingual Programs. In her current role, Sarah is overseeing an English learner program that is driven by the Expeditionary Learning model. She has worked at every level in some capacity from ages Pre-Kindergarten to adult. In addition to her work in schools, Sarah is also a contributor for Confianza on topics from cultural responsiveness to family engagement. Sarah is an advocate for equity in schools and strives to give the best to all students. Connect with Sarah on Twitter: @MrsSaid17.

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