Six Insights for Parents/Caregivers with English Language Learners [Research]

Young girl looking left while sitting on stairs

Year after year, diversity in classrooms continues to grow. In the USA alone, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 4.4 million public school students (a little over 9 percent) were English language learners (ELLs) in the 2011-12 school year. This means that almost 1 in 10 students was learning the English language at the same time he or she was learning the academic subjects. Behind those 4.4 million students, though, are several million parents or caregivers who, along with teachers, want to see their child achieve academically and socially.

Multilingual Learner book coverBeing a parent/caregiver of an ELL student can be challenging, especially when one is trying to learn a new language and understand new cultural situations along with one’s child. In my last blog post, I provided several tips for teachers to help their multilingual or ELL students achieve academically, but this time around the tips are for the parents/caregivers. These tips are reflected in our latest book, Multilingual learners and Academic Literacies: Sociocultural contexts of Literacy Development in Adolescents.

In this book, my colleagues and I move beyond a focus on the linguistic features of academic language as the benchmark of language learning to one on academic literacies and implications of the emphasis on academic literacy practices for classroom instruction, research, and policy. The notion of academic literacies presented in our book is intended to apply in particular to multilingual adolescents. Academic literacies involves making meaning from interactions and engagement a given situation. These knowledge, skills, competencies, and understandings are the ones we want to work on developing, rather than simply focusing on discrete features of language and addressing language in a distinct or disjointed manner from academic content.

Multilingual learners are learning the language of instruction at the same time they are learning rigorous academic content, all while trying to remain balanced between their primary culture and the new one that they are now learning in. Parents/caregivers can help their students make the transition into an English speaking school environment by helping students develop English and academic literacy at home. Try using the strategies below to help your ELL child become academically successful in not one language, but multiple.

  • Don’t be afraid to use your native tongue. This tip may be the most important since it is the bridge between your child’s learning situations — that is, the connection between his or her primary language and culture and new language and culture. You can explain unfamiliar words and concepts in the language familiar to your child and continue to build his or her literacy skills in the primary language, while practicing and developing English and academic literacies. Consistent opportunities for practice and meaningful practice and reinforcement of learning the new language and understanding the new culture are important.
  • When it comes to homework, have a routine. Establishing a good study routine at home can make a significant difference in your child’s learning. Provide a quiet environment  by removing or minimizing any potential distractions and make sure that your child has all the supplies he or she needs including pencils, books, paper, etc. Take the time to answer any questions your child may have. If you don’t know the answers, you can help your child find resources to help answer the questions he or she has, or you can help your child write down the question to ask his or her teacher. Even if you cannot yet speak English yourself, you can still check on your child to see if homework assignments are finished.
  • Study the same thing in new ways. Try picking a folktale or children’s story with which both you and your child are familiar. Although your child may not understand all of the words at first, your child should generally be able to follow the plot of the story and will pick up new vocabulary and grammar along the way. Asking questions about the story’s plot, characters, etc. can help with your child’s understanding. You can also try watching movies in the new language or even play games that involve language, such as Scrabble, to practice and learn language at home.
  • Use creative outlets to practice and learn language. A fun way to practice and learn language is to engage in creative activities. For example, make a scrapbook together featuring things that have taken place in your new home, city, and/or country and write all the captions and titles in your new language. Does your child like to paint or write? Have them draw a picture and write or tell a story about it. The possibilities are as limitless as your child’s creativity.
  • Encourage involvement in extracurricular activities.  Extracurricular activities such as being a member of the school’s newspaper or yearbook committees provides additional meaningful opportunities to develop language and literacies. Such activities can help students link the perspectives, strategies, roles and responsibilities they experience in the classroom with those outside of the classroom. Understanding and using language and literacies skills across settings is important in learning and achievement.
  • Stay connected and collaborate with teachers. By staying informed, you can keep up to date on your child’s linguistic, academic, and social progress in school. Understanding what is going on in school will give you a better idea of how you can support your child at home. Coordination and partnership between the school and home helps children thrive and succeed in their new learning environments


About the Author
Edynn Sato, Ph.D.

Edynn Sato, Ph.D.

Edynn Sato, Ph.D., principal research scientist, works across pan-Pearson, focusing her research and innovation efforts on addressing issues affecting the learning and achievement of English language learners and students with disabilities in our U.S. schools as well as internationally. Her expertise and experience includes providing research-supported technical assistance to educators in areas related to the implementation of standards and assessment, as well as accountability and systems of support for diverse learners.

Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Sato worked in various academic, nonprofit, small for-profit, Fortune 500, and Internet-based organizations. Her previous roles include Associate Director of the Assessment and Standards Development program at WestEd, where she contributed to general leadership of the program and oversaw its research agenda; Director of Special Populations for the Assessment and Accountability Comprehensive Center and Co-Director of Special Populations for the Standards and Assessment Implementation Comprehensive Center, national federally-designated centers charged with providing technical assistance to states; and a researcher at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evaluation/CRESST, involved in various evaluation projects and in the research and development of performance-based assessments, as well as assessments related to language development. Dr. Sato received her Masters’s degree and Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.