Engaging Families of Pre-K–3 ELs

I have written several blogs on engaging parents of ELs in their children’s education. In this blog, I want to focus on young students in Grades Pre-K–3. I asked Karen Nemeth, a nationally recognized expert in early childhood education, to address this issue. I hope you will work with your administrators to implement some of these suggestions for the 2016–2017 school year.

Family engagement is on every educator’s mind. It is most important for the youngest ELs because family literacy and language experiences have such a big impact on learning for ELs in preschool and early elementary. Most programs address family engagement by offering a variety of special events and hoping family members will attend. I don’t know any school that gets 100% attendance, and it seems that the families who don’t attend may be the ones who need the most support. Maybe it’s time for a completely different view of what family engagement can mean to support very young ELs.30

Let’s shift the focus of family engagement so that each school creates a plan for how they will develop a relationship with each individual family. Let the relationship be the goal rather than attendance numbers at events. The family engagement plan could then be a menu of strategies that range from large scale family fun days to smaller workshops requested by parents, to opportunities for one-on-one meetings at school or a local coffee shop. The goal will be to make positive contact with each family and use that contact as a pathway to open communication when needed. With our focus on families of ELs, our suggestions will include strategies to build relationships across language and cultural barriers.

  • Simplify messages, forms, and papers. Fewer words mean easier comprehension and fewer translation expenses.
  • Use icons and predictable sentence patterns to enhance readability for people who are new to English.
  • Color-code messages home to support understanding and response. For example: green paper is for forms that require payment, blue for signature needed, yellow for mandatory forms, pink for invitations to events, and so on.
  • Use a variety of media to make sure each family is contacted in a way they are most likely to receive. Districts using Remind.com messaging system on mobile phones are able to utilize the different languages it offers, but keep in mind that some families respond better to paper notices, and some prefer emails or voicemails.
  • Form a committee of experienced bilingual family members who can reach out to newcomer families to make sure they feel welcome and they understand school policies, forms, and invitations.
  • Show families and staff how to use the camera function of the Google Translate app so that mobile devices can be held over documents and the translated version appears on the screen.
  • Take a step back and reconsider the traditional “back to school night.” How does your school operate this event? Do families of ELs have the opportunity to have conversations with their child’s teacher? How could that time be used in ways that are more conducive to building individual relationships with families? Try dividing the event into two or three evenings and setting up smaller groups or individual appointments with teachers to share about children’s work and activities.
  • Sometimes family members just need to feel needed. They may not make time in their busy schedule for a parent workshop or a family fun night, but they may come in to help make the school a better place for their child. Ask them to translate labels or stories to their home languages, to start a school garden, or to play and read with small groups of children.

By making the focus on establishing an authentic relationship with each and every family, teachers and administrators can allocate time, energy, and resources to build a more effective system that benefits the school and the children.

Here are some resources to help:


Karen Nemeth is an author, consultant, and presenter focusing on effective early education for dual language learners. She is a consulting editor and author for NAEYC, the co-chair of the early childhood SIG of NABE.  Karen is the author of many books on teaching dual language learners, including: Many Languages, One Classroom, and Many Languages, Building ConnectionsShe coauthored Digital Decisions and New Words, New Friends, a bilingual book for young children, and was editor of  Young Dual Language Learners: A Guide for PreK-3 Leaders.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.