Parents of EAL pupils: Support and collaboration

Written by: Kamil Trzebiatowski | Published:
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Supporting and collaborating with parents of learners with English as an additional language is crucial if we are to achieve successful outcomes. Kamil Trzebiatowski advises

This article focuses on how schools can engage with the parents of children who use English as an additional language (EAL) and how the knowledge of these parents can be used to support their child’s education.

The child and parents’ home language(s) are a resource that can be used to support learning. This is particularly important at a time when schools are closed, but it is valuable at any time to support what children are learning in school.

Parental involvement is effective in supporting children’s learning overall. Desforges and Abouchaar (2003) linked parental involvement to higher achievement and attainment in their report for the then Department for Education and Skills (DfES).

However, although the association between parental involvement and a child’s academic success is well-established, evidence in the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit resource suggests that there is surprisingly little robust evidence on which approaches are most effective in improving parental engagement, particularly for disadvantaged families.

The EEF has funded trials of nine projects focused on improving parental engagement. Three completed projects – Mind the Gap, Parenting Academy and SPOKES – aimed to engage parents in workshops or training, where they received advice on how they could support their children’s learning. In each case, the study found that participation rates were low and that it was very difficult to attract and retain the parents at the sessions.

For parents of children with EAL, there are additional challenges to parental participation. Evans et al (2016) found that staff can make incorrect assumptions about parental interest and, at times, interpret lack of achievement by pupils as lack of parental interest.

Rodriguez-Brown (2009) found that certain linguistic minority parents (those speaking a language different from the one spoken by the national majority), while holding great respect for teachers and education, felt anxious because of their own levels of language proficiency or lack of formal education.

Evans et al (2016) also noted that parents of pupils with EAL, especially those who have low levels of English and/or are new to the English school system, face a range of specific barriers including a lack of understanding of the English school system and, therefore, face difficulties in supporting children with things such as homework and assessment tasks.

Since parental involvement is important but parents can be difficult to engage, schools should be optimistic about the potential for involving parents but prepared to review and monitor activities to ensure they are having an impact.

Given the potential linguistic barriers that parents of EAL pupils can face, this article offers practical suggestions as to how to enhance parental involvement for this group.

Communication with parents

Below are some tips for how schools can maintain effective communication with parents of learners with EAL on a regular basis, both to ensure they understand what goes on in school and to allow them to support their children with homework and other school-related work.

  • Make special arrangements for parents’ evenings, such as arranging for interpreters or Young Interpreters Scheme pupils to be present.
  • Organise and invite parents who use ESOL (i.e. parents who speak languages other than English as their first language) to an EAL parents’ evening. Smaller group evenings can be less daunting and they might feel more at ease. These can be excellent opportunities to ask the parents about any school issues that they would like resolved, that you might otherwise be unaware of. Also, you might be better able to provide slower, more relaxed sessions explaining topics such as the English educational system, the importance of on-going home language use, or the philosophy of education in Britain.
  • Send translated versions of letters on recurrent topics such as detentions, school trips and absences to parents who use ESOL. Two bodies providing such letters translated into several languages are DGT Education Action Zone and Education Authority Northern Ireland (see further information). These include ready-to-use templates with gaps to fill in for dates, times, pupil names, etc.
  • Hold drop-in coffee mornings at regular intervals for parents where they can socialise with other parents in an informal setting. Invite other staff to join you whenever possible.
  • Communicate children’s progress to their parents in-between parent evenings. Where English language is less of a barrier, call home for a more personal contact; if not, send letters written in simple and clear English. Ensure that your communication includes both praise and areas for improvement for the child.
  • Celebrate cultural and religious events at the school and invite parents to participate in the celebrations.
  • Invite minority ethnic group parents to the school to give talks and/or answer children’s questions.
  • Establish which of the parents might benefit from ESOL classes and, where possible, provide classes for them to attend. Manzoni and Rolfe (2019) identified that some schools found ESOL classes helpful in conveying information about the school’s policies and practices to parents who were less likely to engage with the school in other ways.

Promoting multilingualism

Maintenance of the first language has been found to accelerate the process of learning a second language (Cummins, 2017; Baker, 2001; Dressler & Kamil, 2006). However, both schools and parents of learners with EAL might benefit from being reminded of the importance of bilingualism or multilingualism, and continuing to use their home language. This can be achieved by:

  • Providing parents with booklets about the importance of bi- or multilingualism, such as the booklets available from EAL Highland, translated into several languages (see further information).
  • Holding dedicated sessions in school about the importance of home language.
  • Encouraging parents to read at home in the first language and using the first language to help their children with homework.
  • Promoting the variety of languages spoken by pupils at your school and involving parents of learners with EAL in some of the activities. An excellent resource that can be used for this purpose is Newbury Park Primary School’s Language of the Month website (which provides video recordings of children speaking basic phrases in several different languages and associated worksheets and activities). For instance, a parent could be invited to tell a story or teach several words in their language to an entire class of learners.
  • Developing links with local supplementary schools (settings which provide educational support for children also attending mainstream schools, often providing specific language, cultural and religious teaching), sharing information about them with parents. A good place to start is the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education.

Parents in school

It is important that parents’ first impressions of the school and its staff are positive, and that the parents feel valued and respected from day one. Here are some concrete and practical ways in which schools can support parents in the initial days:

  • In the reception area, where parents will arrive, ensure there is a “welcome” sign translated into several languages. One such multilingual “welcome” poster is available from EarlyLearningHQ (see further information), but there are many such posters available online.
  • Provide parents with information about the school – with many visuals and ideally translated into major languages – this will serve to make sure that the parents feel included the moment they step through the school door.
  • Multilingual signs need not be restricted to the reception area. Consider having door signs such as “English”, “Maths”, “Headteacher’s Office” and others translated. Parents and their children will notice these on school tours and will feel included and welcomed. Multilingual school signs are available from Little Linguist.
  • During admission meetings, when information is collected from the parents about their background, consider using the SEGfL’s online background collation tool for new arrivals. Translated into 17 languages, it allows you to present some of the questions such as “What is your religion?” and “When did you come to the UK?” in their own language. You can then print the answers in English. No sensitive data is held online. If parents are not literate, ask a member of staff who shares the same language to help. Alternatively seek to use a translation and interpreting service.
  • When non-sensitive information is being exchanged, ask other advanced learners with EAL to help with translation. In particular, establishing a Young Interpreters Scheme in your school can be very effective. The YIS provides resources (for both primary and secondary settings) to help you train your bilingual or multilingual learners to become volunteer student translators in your school.
  • If you provide welcome booklets to your new learners on their first day, introduce this to the parents as well, explaining the structure of the school day and school rules while doing so. One such booklet is available from the Learning Village website. Mantra Lingua has also produced a tool that could allow you to create multilingual welcome booklets for parents, and Hounslow Language Service has produced welcome booklets translated into seven languages, although these are not free.


Kamil Trzebiatowski is the digital resource developer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education.

Further information & resources

References

  • Evans et al: Language development and school achievement, Opportunities and challenges in the education of EAL students, 2016.
  • Baker: Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (3rd edition), Multilingual Matters, 2001.
  • Cummins: Teaching for Transfer in Multilingual School Contexts. In Bilingual and Multilingual Education (3rd edition), Garcia et al (eds), 2017.
  • Desforges & Abouchaar: The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievements and adjustment: A literature review, Research Report RR433, Department for Education and Skills, 2003.
  • Dressler & Kamil: First- and second-language literacy. In Developing literacy in second language learners, report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth, August & Shanahan (eds), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006.
  • Jeynes: Parental Involvement and Academic Success, Routledge, 2011.
  • Manzoni & Rolfe: How schools are integrating new migrant pupils and their families, National Institute of Economic and Social Research, 2019.
  • Rodriguez-Brown: Lessons Learned in a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Community, Routledge, 2009.


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