Teaching English Language Learners: Communication Between Home and School

Jennifer Oxier
Innovation Showcase

When looking at national data about American students who are identified as English language learners (ELL), overlapping definitions from two prominent sources are important to note. The U.S. Census Bureau uses the American Community Survey (2013) to obtain information about factors that disproportionately affect ELL students and their families. The survey compares statistics between "native" and "foreign" households, definitions which are determined by where the householder was born. Not all children whose parents were born outside of the U.S. are identified as ELL. However, when organizations such as the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) gather information on this population, they note that students are identified as such when their parents report that they do not speak English at home, and when schools confirm that the students' test scores reflect difficulty in English (Nwosu, Batalova, Auclair, 2014).

How Many Students Are Affected?

MPI reports that, "In 2012, there were 25 million English Language Learner (ELL) individuals ages 5 and older in the United States, accounting for 8.5 percent of the 294 million people ages 5 and older" (Nwosu, Batalova, Auclair, 2014, p. 5). Further, "In 2012, 17.4 million children under age 18 lived at home with at least one immigrant parent. They accounted for 25 percent of the 70.2 million children under age 18 in the United States" (p. 7). According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2013), about 50 percent of foreign-born individuals speak English "very well." The reader can summarize these varied findings: Not all children reported in the census as being in foreign households are ELL, but nearly all ELL students come from families that would be included in the U.S. Census Bureau's category of foreign households. The census points to some clear educational difficulties that affect students born into foreign households more strongly than those born into native households.

Family Factors Facing ELL Students

Overcoming the language barrier is only one concern with which educators deal. Also important are household income, housing conditions, and automobile ownership. The U.S. Census Bureau (2013) reports that the median household income for native households is $52,997, compared to $48,137 for foreign households. To give an idea of the quiet space typically available to ELL students, 1.9 percent of native households have more than one occupant per room in a household. In non-native households, that statistic goes up to 11.9 percent. McKool (2007) found that one factor deterring at-home reading in low-income families was the distraction of taking care of siblings. This report also pointed to the importance of children having the time, space, and atmosphere to read uninterrupted and to see other family members doing the same. Crowded housing does not make this impossible, but it does make it more difficult.

Approximately 8 percent of native households have no car, whereas 13 percent of foreign households lack a car. While car ownership does not prevent school success or college attendance, the practicalities of day-to-day business become more complicated. The effort of obtaining transportation cuts into time students could otherwise spend on studies. Additionally, Flores, Batalova, and Fox (2012) uncovered the correlation that ELLs who worked in high school were more likely to go to college than ELLs who did not. Lack of access to a car can impact access to employment. In native households, 0.7 percent report that no one over the age of 14 speaks English only or speaks English "very well"; in foreign households, 27.2 percent report this (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). For foreign households, the language barrier impacts parents' interaction with school activities.

Relevance of Country of Origin

In Frequently Requested Statistics about Immigrants and Immigration (2014), Nwosu, Batalova, and Auclair address questions about country of origin. The article notes that in 2012 the largest immigrant group came from Mexico, comprising 28 percent of all foreign-born individuals in the U.S. After this group, India, China, and the Philippines contributed about 5 percent each. A common question regarding teaching ELL is about the relevance of a child's birthplace. While this question is too complex for a simple answer, a few facts are clear. When all demographic groups are taken together, results reflect that about 50 percent of people born outside the U.S. report speaking English "very well" (U. S. Census Bureau, 2013). When broken down into groups, the Census records that about 39 percent of those from Latin America and the Caribbean report a high level of English familiarity. This is also confirmed by the 2012 National Survey of Latinos (2012, slide 86). However, as previously noted, by the time these families have been in the U.S. long enough for their children or grandchildren to be counted by the Census as native-born, nearly all have learned English. In other words, those newly arriving from Latin America may be less familiar with English than those from other areas, but nearly all acquire English by the second generation. This counters the popular, but unfortunate, misperception that some cultures try harder to learn English than others. Because immigrants from Mexico are the most numerous, it is statistically more likely that any given individual will interact with someone from Mexico who is still learning English. However, it would be a faulty assumption to attribute lower English skills to less effort. As MPI (Nwosu, Batalova, & Auclair, 2014) notes, many people, presumably including educators, ask about the relevance of country of origin regarding a child's education in English. It is crucial that educators bear in mind factual information rather than anecdotal experience when addressing the needs and abilities of their students as individuals.

Surveying ELL Freshmen

Many studies have established that ELL college students report more difficulties than their English-only peers. In particular, the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey (Soria & Stebleton, 2013) of college freshmen attending the University of California, Berkley, found that ELL students face more obstacles to their education than English-only students. Alkhadwaldeh (2012) also used a survey to assess difficulties that ELL students face, specifically in their language development. This study recommends that teachers gain an understanding of what their students are facing to develop a precise picture of how that impacts reading comprehension, and use this insight when planning lessons and evaluating students.

Use of a survey with high school ELL freshmen provides an opportunity for improved teacher-parent communications via a deeper understanding of students' home lives and familial perceptions of educators and the education system. Questions may, for instance, seek to discern how much time students spend helping family members or working to contribute to household income, whether or not quiet space is provided at home for study purposes, and what methods of transportation are available to the family.

Other survey questions may shed light on students' perceptions of how well schools are equipped to help and understand immigrant families. Burbank and Hunter (2008) and Guo (2012) emphasize that parents often feel that schools do not understand and respect families of ESL students. Both studies indicated that parents were better equipped to be partners in the educational process when they felt understood and respected by educators. In Burbank and Hunter's (2008) case, the researchers noted that after advocates held meetings to help parents navigate the basics of parent-teacher communication, parents were more likely to engage. Feedback indicated that, after speaking to someone parents perceived as sympathetic to their situation and who represented education, they intended to initiate communication with educators in the future. In Guo's (2012) study, the researchers focused on how immigrant parents felt they were perceived by educators. In almost every case, parents believed that educators did not have respect for their knowledge and experience until an educator demonstrated otherwise. Through a series of interviews, the parents in this study revealed interactions with school personnel which influenced this perception. Their responses underscored the reality that educators can expect that their gestures of communication are often counteracting previous negative impressions held by parents. When administering surveys, it is important for teachers to understand and use the survey as an opportunity to improve the three-part partnership of the school, the student, and the student's family.

After administering surveys to high school freshmen, educators could correlate the findings from their students to the findings that Soria and Stebleton (2013) highlighted for college students. Similarly, community colleges could administer surveys to their incoming students and correlate findings with those of other studies. By better understanding students' needs, teachers have an opportunity to strengthen their instruction and interactions with students. Additionally, conferences with students and their families can improve not only communication between school and home, but also parental and student perceptions of instructors. Finally, students' reflections on their own barriers have the potential to improve their ability to articulate what help they need and what areas they may be able to work on for their own success. In this context, it also seems that by working together, secondary school and community college educators could further bridge the communication gaps between home and school for English Language Learners.


Alkhawaldeh, A. (2012). High school students' challenges in English reading comprehension in Amman second directorate of education. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 39(3-4), 214.

Boardman, A. G., Eppolito, A. M., Klingner, J. K., & Stonewise, E. A. (2012). Supporting adolescent English language learners' reading in the content areas. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 10(1), 35.

Burbank, M. D., & Hunter R. (). The community advocate model: Linking communities, school districts, and universities to support families and exchange knowledge. Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship, 1(1), 47.

Flores, S. M., Batalova, J., & Fox, M. (2012). The educational trajectories of English language learners in Texas. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Guo, Y. (2012). Diversity in public education: AAcknowledging immigrant parent knowledge. Canadian Journal of Education, 35(2), 120.

McKool, S. (2007). Factors that influence the decision to read: An investigation of fifth grade students' out-of-school reading habits. Project Innovation, 44(3).

Zong, J., & Batalova, J. (2015). Frequently requested statistics about immigrants and immigration in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states#7

Pew Research Center. (2012). National Survey of Latinos. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/category/datasets/pages/2/?download=20420/

Soria, K. M., & Stebleton, M. (2013). Immigrant college students' academic obstacles. The Learning Assistance Review, 18(1), 7.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Retrieved from http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_13_1YR_S0501&prodType=table

Jennifer Oxier is pursuing a master's degree in counseling from Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College in Texas.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.