Conference time is coming up and that gnawing worry about how you can effectively communicate with parents of your English Language Learner (ELL) students may be taking hold. Don’t panic. We’ve asked ELL specialist and author, Judie Haynes, to share with you some easy and effective tips for holding conferences with parents who may or may not speak English.
Holding Effective Conferences with Parents of ELLs
by Judie Haynes
The increasing population of linguistically and culturally diverse students in our schools poses a challenge for classroom teachers who need to communicate with their families. Many classroom teachers ask me how they should communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices. My goal is to help you hold productive parent-teacher conferences.
Conferences with parents of English language learners (ELLs) require preparation. First, you need to determine whether a translator is needed. Many parents do not speak English well enough to understand what you are saying so it is important to the success of a conference to contact a translator for parents who need one. If your school does not provide translators, ask parents to bring a bilingual family member. Siblings or the child herself, should never be used to translate for the parents. When a translator is needed, the meeting time should be lengthened to ensure that there is enough time for the teacher to provide information and answer questions.
Advance planning can make your conference successful. You will want to provide a translated notice to parents with the beginning and ending times of the conference. A verbal invitation in the native language should also be issued so that parents who are not literate are informed of the conference.
Assemble samples of the student’s work to share with parents. Have a solid understanding of the student’s current English proficiency level and prepare to provide samples of this during the meeting. Try to schedule the conference so that both parents can attend. In some cultures, the father must be included since no important decisions are made without his agreement.
You want your body language to reflect a receptive attitude. Walk to the door of your classroom to greet parents as they come into your room just as you would greet guests in your home. Do not greet them from across the room behind your desk. This will help the parents feel at ease.
You should not make assumptions about the parents’ name. The U.S. custom of birth name, then family name is not universal. Learn how names are used in the cultures of your school. Children may not have the same name as their mother even though the mother and father are married. Korean and Chinese women do not take their husband’s name but retain their own family name. Children from Spanish-speaking families may have a given name followed by two surnames. The first surname is the father’s family name, and the second one is the mother’s family name. Some parents will hyphenate the double name. Others will Americanize their names so you need to ask what name they want to be called by.
There are diverse cultural norms about whom it is appropriate to touch in different cultures. Although many people have adopted the Western manner of shaking hands, in some cultures this manner of greeting is not appropriate. Asian women, for example, do not generally shake hands. A male teacher would not shake hands with a Muslim woman. People from Thailand and India greet each other by clasping their hands together. When in doubt, wait and see if the parent offers his/her hand first.
Consider the physical set-up of your conference space. A face-to face setting may be too confrontational for parents of some cultures. Arrange chairs so that your body is at a 45-degree angle to the parents. Place the parent between yourself and the translator.
Pace of Conversation
During the conference you should speak in short uncomplicated sentences and stop so that the translator can translate for parents every few sentences. If you do not give the translator time to translate, your whole message will not be conveyed. Do not use educational jargon. Include the parent in the conversation and avoid speaking directly to the translator. When you ask the parent questions, give the translator time to talk to the parents.
Don’t misinterpret parents’ meaning if they don’t make eye contact. In the U.S we feel that someone who doesn’t look us in the eye is untrustworthy. People from some cultures consider making eye contact confrontational. Sitting at a 45-degree angle to the parents helps minimize the amount of eye contact.
An important area where there are often misunderstandings is in the attitude of different cultures toward time. The U.S, Canada and northern European countries see time as being highly structured, logical, exact, and sequential. We are monochronic. People from South and Central America, Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries, Asia, Middle East, Southern Europe and Africa like to keep their time unstructured. They are polychromic. To a monochron, time is exact and being late is both rude and disrespectful. To a polychron, the time set for a meeting is just an approximation. If parents arrive at a meeting 45 minutes after the appointed time, it is because arriving up to 45 minutes after the designated time is not considered late. You need to make sure parents know when the conference begins and end.
When parents are actively involved in the education of their children, those children are more likely to achieve good grades and test higher on standardized tests. They will attend school more regularly and be less likely to drop out. This is a worthy goal that teachers can strive for when they have effective conferences with the parents of English language learners.
About the Author
Judie Haynes taught ESL in a K-6 school for 27 years. She is the author and co-author of six books for classroom teachers of English language learners. The most recent publication is Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas (ASCD, 2010) with Debbie Zacarian. Her award-winning website, everythingESL.net has celebrated it’s 11th birthday. Judie currently writes two blogs: everythingESL – a blog about teaching English language learners and Getting Started with English Language Learners .