• Shelley Purchon

Communicating with EAL parents

Updated: Mar 7

Engaging EAL parents can be difficult for teachers. Children who have English as an Additional Language (EAL) often have parents with Limited English Proficiency, and unless an interpreter is available, parents evening will be difficult to manage. Read on for some strategies teachers can use to communicate with non English speaking carers.

Should you ask the child to interpret?

As a child grows older, they are often asked to interpret for their parents, but this can bring its own problems.

  • How can you be sure they are telling the parents exactly what you said?

  • What if you're saying something negative about the child?

If the parents speak little English, you might assume you have no other option. Don't jump to that conclusion. Read my tips below and try them out at your next parents evening - you might be pleasantly surprised.

Change the way you speak.

If you bring me into the school, I will train all the staff how to do this. (Click here to read about my work with one Newcastle school.) I'll speak to you in Spanish, and you'll be amazed how much you can understand, even if you've never learnt another language. Of all the tips I pass on at my training sessions, the two most vital are -

  • Speak less. Cut out redundant words and give them time to process every phrase.

  • Theycan'ttellwhereonewordstartsandthenextonefinishes. Help them out by exaggerating the gaps between each spoken word.

Speaking this way takes practice and effort, it doesn't come naturally. That's why at an English Unlocked training session you'll start off by speaking to a mirror. Planning ahead what you want to say (and trimming it back) are other skills that really help.

Get them onside.

Speaking as a parent, there are two very easy things a teacher can do which will immediately earn my trust and respect. Let me see that you know my child, and (ideally) that there is something about her that you like. One sentence, spoken with an affectionate smile, could nail this. "Samina always helps me tidy up." "Marius loves playing football."

Be aware of your non-verbal cues

Even when you share a language non verbal cues are important, as this graph shows.

If you don't share a language they're more important still. With non English speaking parents, your facial expression and body language will shout far louder than anything you say. Be extra aware of your facial expressions. Given that teaching EAL kids can come with extra challenges, you may be feeling stressed, but try not to let that leak out. Only use your face and gestures intentionally - used right, they can be an extra resource.

Give the EAL parent a role.

When an EAL parent speaks English less well than their child, they often assume there's nothing they can do to help them academically. This isn't true, and parents' evening is a great opportunity to affect this child's home environment by recruiting their parents' help.

Decide what you would like the parent to do.

Maybe you simply want them to know that their child is doing really well in every subject. That's easily done- just show them some school work and your 'I'm so impressed' face.

But let's assume it's more complicated than that- what could this parent do to help? Here are some suggestions-

  • Listen to their child read, even if they themselves can't read English.

  • Encourage a love of books, even if they're not English ones.

  • Create a 30 minute window of time every day when there are no siblings or screens to distract them from homework.

  • Arrange for an older sibling or cousin to help with homework.

  • If the school provides a homework diary, the parent could check it every day.

The more specific your suggestion is, the easier it will be to explain. It will also help if you...

Use props.

Don't just tell them how to do it- show them. Open up a homework diary and show the parent what to write in it. You can also use the child's work to show the parent how they are doing - your comments in coloured pen or the tidiness of the work will speak for themselves.

Secondary school children might have a print-out of predicted grades. Look at this through the eyes of a parent from a different culture and language background, and notice how very bewildering it is. You can help them by using a highlighter pen or a ruler to guide their eye to what really matters.

Pictures can help.

Does your school own Communicate in Print? This is a great visual resource bank which you could use if the parent's English is extremely limited. If your school hasn't bought that, you could try using the pictures on this free online tool. Alternatively, try Quizlet, a free website where you can create flashcards using their images.

Weed out jargon.

Take a moment to notice all the acronyms and specialist vocabulary which you would normally use in this interview. Even if the parent has great English, they might not know about phonics or carpet time. Instead of saying 'Arun's predicted to get expected in his SATs', you might lead with 'Next May Arun has some important tests. They are called SATs...'

Have blank paper on the table..

..and invite them to use it. You can use it too for writing key words, dates and names. Taking everything in when it's all verbal is a lot to ask. If they have something personalised to take away, they can consult it later and keep processing the information They might also show it to someone with better English who can help them make sense of it.

Make a fuss of them for coming

The parent might have come to this appointment with a sense of dread. If you use body language to show that you're very pleased to see them, they're more likely to come back. This is a trick which teachers who have been trained in the Thrive Approach use to encourage child attendance, but you can use it with adults too.

Remember -they might care more than you think.

If it is proving difficult to build a relationship with this EAL family, you may have jumped to the conclusion that the parents just don't care, or at least not about school. But perhaps they are just flummoxed by the culture of the school? Or intimidated by schools in general? Bear in mind that schooling is very different the world over. Depending where they come from, they might-

  • have good reasons for being mistrustful of schools (for example Czech gypsies, read more here.)

  • avoid meeting your eye or asking you questions, out of deference and respect.

  • have nothing of their own to say, because parent involvement isn't encouraged back home.

Focus on building rapport.

You are not going to cover as much ground in ten minutes as you would with a native English speaker, so just let go of that as an ideal. Focus instead on building a rapport and getting across one or two well chosen points. If you can do that, consider it a job well done.

Free taster!

On March 16th 2022 at 4pm, you can experience listening to a foreign language and trying to understand it. You'll learn 4 simple tips from this exercise Click on the button to claim your free ticket for this 30 minute workshop.

Plug your skills gap.

English Unlocked provides workplace training for staff who work with non-Anglophone clients. Two kinds of training are currently available which can help you to transcend the language barrier-

1. As a native English speaker you are probably harder to understand than you need to be. How to communicate better with those who have Limited English Proficiency will show you and your team how to slow down without dumbing down your English.

2. Interpreters are an expensive resource. How to work effectively with an interpreter is a half day course which will show your staff how to make the most of interpreters, recognise competence in interpreters, and work in harmony with them.

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