In preparing for the school year, we teachers can easily spend countless hours setting up our classrooms with eye-catching bulletin boards and classroom organization. But how much time do we put into the unseen foundation for preparing our students–ALL of our students–for academic and personal success? What are we doing before the school year even begins to advocate for equitable learning and school engagement for our English learners (ELs) and their families?
This two-part blog post series takes a unique approach to offering advice by asking you a series of guiding questions, since only you know what will work best in your context. In part one of this blog post, we’ll focus on strategies for getting to know ELs and their families. We’ll share three steps you can take, along with some guiding questions for you to consider. We’ll also provide resources to support you as you reach out to ELs and their families in your community. Let’s get started.
Getting to Know Your ELs and Their Families
Step 1. Consider what you already know about each EL and his or her family and what you still would like to know.
- What do you know about the EL’s academic strengths and challenges, home language literacy skills, and levels of English proficiency?
- What do you know about the EL’s educational and cultural background?
- What do you know about the EL’s interests and goals?
- What do you know about the EL’s living situation, family, and community?
It’s important to begin this process by reflecting on what you already know about individual ELs and their families and what you still need to learn. In order to effectively advocate for ELs, it’s essential not only to have a clear picture of each EL’s current and past academic performance but also cultural and socio-emotional factors that may impact his or her learning. For example, an EL’s expectations for teachers’ and students’ roles in the classroom may be different than that of his or her teachers. These student expectations could impact the student’s classroom behavior and interactions.
Step 2. Determine what steps to take to find out more about ELs and their families.
- What colleagues can you collaborate with to learn more about ELs and their families?
- What types of activities can you embed into your classroom or what school and community events could you attend to learn more about students’ backgrounds, interests, and goals?
- What online research can you do to learn about ELs’ home cultures and languages?
- Do you have procedures in place to conduct home visits with EL families (as appropriate)? If not, make a plan to do this!
Once you have determined specific areas where you wish to learn more about the ELs that you work with and their families, consider steps you might take. This gathering of information can occur both inside and outside the classroom. Collaborating with colleagues can be a great first step for learning more about your students and for sharing the in-depth information you put together on your students. One handy strategy is to keep a notecard or secure electronic file on each EL that includes such information as his or her educational and family background, home language literacy, English language proficiency level, and specific educational goals the student might have.
Step 3: Use what you have learned to strengthen your relationship and support ELs and their families.
- What have you learned about ELs and their families that you can use to further strengthen your relationship with them?
- How could you better engage ELs and their families in setting goals for their learning?
- What community organizations could you collaborate with to support ELs and their families?
- How can you incorporate what you have learned about ELs and their families to set EL advocacy goals at your school?
The final step in the process is using what you know to continue to strengthen your relationship with ELs and their families and to set advocacy goals. For example, if you learn that several students at your school are struggling with issues of family separation or reunification, you might work with the school counselor to form a support group for these students and their families. As you set specific EL advocacy goals, consider how you can collaborate with families, colleagues, and members of the community to support your advocacy work.
Resources for Getting to Know Your ELs
- Connecting with ELL Families by L. Breiseth, K. Robertson, & S. Lafond
- Getting to Know Your ELLs: Six Steps for Success by L. Breiseth
- Learning about Your Students Backgrounds – Colorín Colorado
- Making Your First ELL Homevisit: A Guide for Classroom Teachers by G. Ernst-Slavit & M. Mason
- Advocating for English Learners: A Guide For Educators by D. Staehr Fenner (Chapter 5)
- Unlocking English Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible by D. Staehr Fenner and S. Snyder (Chapter 2)