EL Families and School Communities: The Importance of Effective Communication

Now more than ever, school communities are working toward strengthening their ability to communicate with the families of the students they serve. For families of English learners (ELs), this communication is especially important and must be two-way. Regardless of the teaching and learning format (e.g., traditional, face-to-face, online/virtual), communication with EL students and their families is a civil rights issue.

Essential Communication Between Schools and Families

Part of the federal guidance around communicating with EL families states that schools and districts must ensure that they relate essential information to families, including information regarding:

language assistance programs, special education and related services, [individualized education program] meetings, grievance procedures, notices of nondiscrimination, student discipline policies and procedures, registration and enrollment, report cards, requests for parent permission for student participation in district or school activities, parent-teacher conferences, parent handbooks, gifted and talented programs, magnet and charter schools, and any other school and program choice options. (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 38)

This mandate requires districts and schools to think and plan strategically about the linguistic diversity within their school communities. For the 2016–2017 school year, the U.S. Department of Education reported the top five languages spoken by ELs as Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Somali (U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, 2019, slide 5). The systems and structures that are in place can either aid the process of communication with EL families, or they can hinder it.

Two common examples of how potential civil rights violations are made regarding schools’ responsibility to communicate with EL families are when school districts

  1. rely on students, siblings, friends, or untrained school staff to translate or interpret for parents; or
  2. fail to provide translation or an interpreter at individualized education program meetings, parent-teacher conferences, enrollment or career fairs, or disciplinary proceedings.
    (U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015, p. 39)

Working to Improve Communication

One school leader shared with me his plan for cultivating relationships between teachers and interpreters. He held a professional learning session at his elementary school with the goal of learning how to conduct parent meetings better with interpreters. During the session, teachers learned about important nuances of interpretation, such as seating arrangements, eye contact, and communicating technical information.

Such an addition to professional learning is helpful because it allows for teachers and interpreters to meet prior to having a scheduled meeting with an EL family. It would also be beneficial for EL families to meet with interpreters ahead of time to talk and learn more about each other as well. Imagine the amount of stress an EL family might experience meeting with their child’s teacher and also, for the first time, meeting their interpreter. How might we work together to improve these kinds of interactions?

What You Can Do

Educate Yourself

It is important for educators to educate themselves about the translation services offered by their school districts. They may be provided with a tele-translation service, such as language line, or appointments with interpreters arranged ahead of time.

Engage in professional learning opportunities for school interpreters and/or share information about these types of offerings.


Advocate for yourself and your students. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. When districts send updates, calendar notifications, and announcements, ask about the availability of the messages in other languages if you have families that need that information in their home language.

Double-Check With English Learner Families

As information is shared with families, it would be beneficial to double-check with how EL families prefer to receive information. What they may have selected at the beginning of the school year could be vastly different from how they’d like to receive current communication efforts. Phone numbers and/or addresses may have changed. Checking in allows for families to keep you abreast of their needs.

My final post in this series will be next month: I’ll be recapping highlights from the past year and efforts to continue elevating the civil rights of ELs.

Additional Resources

Here are a few resources to help guide you you work toward meaningful communication with families of ELs:

Fact Sheet: Information for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Parents and Guardians and for Schools and School Districts that Communicate with Them (U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education)

Toolkit: English Learner Family Toolkit (U.S. Department of Education)

Publication: ABCs of Family Engagement: Key Considerations for Building Relationships with Families and Strengthening Family Engagement Practices (WIDA)


U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition. (2019). EL demographics across the United States. In 2019 Multiliteracy Symposium: Celebrating the diverse linguistic and cultural assets of all our students (pp. 2–5). Retrieved from https://ncela.ed.gov/files/symposium/Viana-Multiliteracy-Symposium-Power-Point.pdf

U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Dear colleague letter. English learner students and limited English proficient parents. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf

About Ayanna Cooper

Ayanna Cooper
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. As owner of ACooper Consulting, she provides technical assistance to state departments of education and other clients with the goal of improving outcomes for students. She emphasizes the importance of building capacity to develop and sustain English language programs, use English language proficiency data, and improve instructional practices. She is currently serving on the TESOL Board of Directors.
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