Parent involvement and language barriers

Parents’ lack of English language proficiency, aggravated by a view on the part of many school officials that ELL parents lack the ability to become involved in the education of their children, create ‘daunting barriers’ for parent involvement, says a new policy brief from two western university research centers.

M. Beatriz Arias and Milagros Morillo-Campbell, both of Arizona State University, argue that despite the barriers, “schools and policy makers can and should respond with a variety of measures to foster parental involvement.” The brief, “Promoting ELL Parental Involvement: Challenges in Contested Times,” was published jointly by the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State and the Public Interest Center at Colorado University in Boulder.

English Language Learners (ELLs) account for more than 10% of the student population today in the United States. Arias and Morillo-Campbell contend that in the last decade, they have become increasingly isolated from English proficient students, whom they remain behind on standard measures of achievement.

Given that gap, “it is very important to identify practices that may improve ELL parental involvement and thus student achievement,” they say. “Yet many programs make little effort to promote ELL parental involvement, defining parental involvement only in terms of the schools’ needs or in terms of a deficit-based perception of ELL families.”

Five kinds of barriers retard greater parent involvement, the two scholars say:

• School-based barriers, primarily the view on the part of school officials that ELL parents, in various ways, lack the ability to become involved;

• Parents’ lack of English language proficiency;

• Parental educational level;

• Disjunctures between school culture and home culture; and

• Logistical issues, such as work hours and transportation limitations that make it difficult for ELL parents to attend school conferences.

“As much as ELL parents may want to become informed and involved in their children’s schooling,” they write, “the too-frequent reality of current anti-immigrant sentiment and English-only policies makes access to school sites more difficult than ever for many parents… The attitudes of teachers and administrators can have a significant impact on parental involvement.”

Arias and Morillo-Campbell note that “while English-only policies may restrict teachers’ use of instructional language, in communication with parents, schools may use the native language. Schools may choose to use translators and interpreters for school and teacher conferences, or teachers and staff members may be able to directly use native language in communication with parents.”

Arias and Morillo-Campbell examine successful models in both the traditional and non-traditional approaches for ELL parental involvement and urge policymakers and school leaders to consider the following four steps:

• Support culturally and linguistically appropriate parental involvement programs for ELL parents;

• Install non-traditional programs that offer reciprocal involvement by schools and parents;

• Sponsor professional preparation of teachers to work with ELL parents; and

• Provide community-based education to inform parents about school values and expectations and work with parents to help them become advocates for their children.

You can download the entire brief as a PDF file.

  • Tammy

    What if the school is making efforts?

    I do agree that schools should have programs in place and be sure teachers know how to interact with ELL families but what happens when the parent just doesn’t get involved after trying and trying.  My district has literacy classes for parents, communications in various languages and so much more but parents  like many of some of our American parents are working.  Checking their child’s backpack for communications, attending school functions, making conferences  etc… is many times left undone.  I experience this weekly as I do all that I can to build a bridge between home and school and even the language barrier.  In a weird kind of way, I feel as if I am enabling the parent, because quite frankly some ELL parents want to leave it all up to the teachers and the schools that their child attends.  What do you do different parents nonactive ELLs parents that is different from what we do with American parents?