The start of a new school year marks an excellent time to determine priorities and set goals that encourage and support the success of our ELs. One topic to consider as you begin the 2019-2020 school year might be EL family engagement. In this blog post, I will discuss why EL family engagement matters, what it looks like, and steps that educators and schools can take to foster greater family engagement by removing obstacles that may be preventing participation.

Why Does EL Family Engagement Matter? 

Research shows that family engagement of both English-speaking families and families of ELs can support a variety of positive student outcomes (Ferguson, 2008; Lindholm-Leary, 2015). For example, family engagement is associated with:

  • higher grades and test scores,
  • higher levels of language proficiency,
  • better social skills, and
  • higher rates of high school graduation and enrollment in postsecondary education.

However, in strategizing for greater EL family participation, it’s important to recognize both traditional and non-traditional forms of engagement.

What Does EL Family Engagement Look Like?

EL family engagement can take many forms. It’s essential to use a strengths-based approach to recognize the many often unseen ways that EL families are already engaged in their child’s education (Staehr Fenner, 2014). For example, EL families often have strong beliefs in the value of education, and education may be a fundamental priority in their family (Noel et al., 2015; Sibley & Dearing, 2014; Tobin, Adiar, & Arzubiaga, 2013). Families may model respect for teachers and engage in rich dialogues with their children about the events of the school day. Therefore, it’s essential that we build on the practices that are already in place as a means of further engaging families and fostering warm and respectful relationships.

How Can Our School Support Family Engagement by Removing Potential Obstacles?

There are four steps that schools can follow to support family engagement by removing potential obstacles.

1. Identify EL Family Engagement Priorities 

In thinking about EL family engagement, it’s important to determine what the priorities are for your school. For example, you may prioritize supporting families in checking students’ homework folders each day and in children completing their homework assignments.

2. Work Collaboratively to Identify Possible Barriers and Solutions

Once you have determined priorities, you should work collaboratively with other educators and families to identify possible barriers and solutions to family engagement in that specific area. It’s important to find out from EL families directly about the barriers they might have and not make assumptions based on your own observations or experiences. There are a variety of barriers that may stand in the way of EL family participation including:

  • language
  • transportation
  • time
  • childcare
  • understanding of school system and role of parent or guardian
  • fear

Are there any additional factors that you would add to this list?

Once you have determined the possible barriers, consider what supports you might provide to overcome that barrier. Some examples of these types of support include providing interpreters at conferences and school events, having family liaisons who speak families’ home languages, and hosting ESOL family nights in which information about the schools and community is shared.

ESOL teachers and EL families who are well established in the school and community are good resources for identifying other possible obstacles and solutions. In chapter two of our book, Unlocking English Learner’s Potential (2017), Diane Staehr Fenner and I offer recommendations for how to collaborate with other educators and families in support of ELs. It can also be a valuable exercise to brainstorm the community resources that are available that might support your efforts. For example, if you are having difficulty getting EL families to attend parent teacher conferences, and you’ve determined that transportation and timing might be barriers for families consider if there is a space that you could use in the community that is closer to the families of the students you teach. Also, could you offer the conferences at times when you know more families might be available?

3. Work Collaboratively to Implement Solutions

Once you have determined possible solutions, seek out strategies for collaborating with others to provide the supports needed. You will want to collaborate with other educators, your district office, and community members, institutions, and organizations such as refugee services or local community colleges.

Returning to the homework folder example, you may discover that some families don’t understand how the homework folder works, that they can’t understand the assignment, that they don’t know the due dates for the assignment, or they don’t know how to help their child in completing the assignment. You might consider working with other educators in your district to host an EL family night to explain the homework folder and resources available for families. You could also seek out parent or community volunteers who are willing to help explain assignments or help students complete tasks. You might offer an after school drop in center for homework support that is run by older student and/or community volunteers.

4. Evaluate Your Results

The final step in increasing family engagement is evaluating your results. How effective were the strategies that you implemented in getting the results that you wanted? It can be valuable to keep records of family participation and note any strategies that are especially successful. Some of the more promising practices for engaging EL families include:

  • providing a welcoming environment for ELs and their families,
  • offering orientation programs,
  • using technology to support two-way communication,
  • recruiting EL family members for district- and school-level parent advisory committees, and
  • offering adult education programs for EL family members (National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine, 2017).

Once you have achieved success, decide on your next priority and continue the cycle of building EL family engagement.

We encourage you to share this blog post and sketch note with colleagues to keep the conversation going and start off the 2019-2020 school year by fostering a shared sense of accountability in overcoming barriers to EL family engagement. Click here to share our blog post and sketch note on Twitter, or click here to download this sketch note immediately.

To wrap up, there are many barriers to EL family engagement, but overcoming those barriers can foster strong school and family relationships in support of the ELs you serve and offer a rich cultural resource for all students and families. To explore more strategies for engaging EL families, check out our Creating a Culturally Responsive School Climate online course or our Effectively Advocating for English Learners online course based on Diane’s book, Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators (2014). Also, please share family engagement practices that you have found to be effective in your school or district.


References and Additional Resources

Breiseth, L., Robertson, K. & Lafond, S. (2015). Parent participation.

Breiseth, L, Robertson, K. & Lafond, S. (2011). A guide for engaging ELL families: A guide for school leaders.

Ferguson, C. (2008). The school-family connection: Looking at the larger picture: A review of current literature. Austin, TX: National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools.

Lindholm-Leary, K.J. (2015). Sobrato Family Foundation Early Academic and Literacy Project after five full years of implementation: Final research report. Cupertino, CA: Sobrato Family Foundation.

National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine. (2017). Promoting the educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Noel, A., Stark, P., and Redford, J. (2015). Parent and family involvement in education, from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2012: First Look. NCES 2013- 029-REV. Available: [February 2017].

Sibley, E., and Dearing, E. (2014). Family educational involvement and child achievement in early elementary school for American-born and immigrant families. Psychology in the Schools, 51(8), 814-831.

Staehr Fenner, D. (2014). Advocating for English learners: A guide for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Staehr Fenner, D. & Snyder, S. (2017). Unlocking English learners’ potential: Strategies for making content accessible. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Tobin, J., Adair, J.K., and Arzubiaga, A. (2013). Children crossing borders: Immigrant parent and teacher perspectives on preschool for children of immigrants. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Sydney Snyder