Lessons from Teachers: How to Include Families with Limited Formal Education

Parents with limited formal education themselves are often excluded from conversations with their children's schools—but schools can and should do more to proactively include these families. Three veteran teachers share their strategies for doing better.

By Arlene Sanchez and Elysa Severinghaus

“Me mandaron este reporte sobre mi hijo—está en inglés, pero aún si estuviera en español, son como 30 páginas en blanco.”

These are the words of an EdNavigator member who left Guatemala seeking safety and educational opportunity for his children. Jorge is describing a report he and his wife received detailing the results of their son’s recent educational evaluation, which—in theory—should provide information about their son’s academic growth and achievement, and any additional support he needs. But for Jorge and Gladys (not their real names), the report conveyed no comprehensible information for them: It was 30 pages of written text, in English.

Growing up, they did not have access to a formal education beyond elementary school. Nor did they receive formal literacy education in Spanish, a language they have learned more since immigrating to the United States than prior, since they spoke primarily K’iche’ in Guatemala. The family now lives in a community where the schools rank above the 80th percentile in the state, and where more than 80 percent of adults have attained a bachelor’s degree.

This contrast is simultaneously the source of transformative educational opportunities for their children, and the cause of crucial missing pieces in the family’s overall educational experience. The evaluation report tells that story: It reveals that their son is progressing in some academic areas, while needing additional support in others—support his school is ready and able to provide. But by assuming that the parents would be able to access and interpret the information in the report, the school has excluded them from being able to engage in their son’s educational journey.

For families who have not had access to formal school experience, such assumptions can be profoundly problematic. Consider all the other small and large ways schools typically communicate with parents, and how those approaches might leave out families like Jorge’s: The teacher sends out a weekly e-newsletter, but you cannot read it, even if you go through the trouble of roughly translating it online. A letter comes home about an upcoming field trip, and you miss a deadline you didn’t know existed. Your child asks for help with homework, but you find yourself helpless, and often, ashamed. As a result, the school labels you as ‘unresponsive’ or ‘difficult to engage’ and starts finding ways to work around you.

What can teachers, school leaders, and other school team members do to actively include parents who have limited formal education?

To find out, we connected with Perla Vitela Cancilla, Loredana Graça, and Alaina Bearden, all veteran educators in Boston Public Schools who have been working with students with limited or interrupted formal education and their families for years. Here’s what we’ve learned from them, as well as through our own experiences supporting members like Jorge and Gladys:

Start with something small. Try sending a voice memo in the parent or guardian’s native language, instead of a text or email. If you don’t speak the parent’s native language, you have a few options: Google Translate is an efficient tool for basic translation. Ask a native speaker to record an audio version, which you could send along via text or WhatsApp. You could also try an app like TalkingPoints, which is meant to support parent-teacher communication. If the parent owns a phone that can download apps, they are able to download the app to communicate in their native language with their child’s teacher. Class Dojo also recently released a Translate feature enabling translation into 30 different languages. If a parent struggles with reading in their own language, encourage them to use the speech feature on their phone, which reads texts or emails out loud to the listener.

Create opportunities for co-learning. In an ideal world, all parents would come to school meetings and support their kids day in and out at home. But parent engagement is not one size fits all. There are varying degrees of literacy and comfort with written and spoken language, just as there are different approaches to engagement. A great way to create an inclusive co-learning community is through home visits at the start of the school year. In addition to learning about your students, teachers can use this time to ask about the parents’ experiences with school, what their current home routines are like, what goals they have for their child for the coming school year, and to establish expectations about communication. If the parent does not speak English, bring an additional person to support with communication or have the student serve as your translator throughout the conversation. For families with limited or interrupted formal education in particular, just opening up a conversation is a great way to connect. Make sure families hear from you that their child’s fluency in their home language is a skill that will benefit them in and out of school and encourage parents to engage at home in whatever way feels reasonable to them.

Build community among parents who share language. Connect parents who speak a language other than the dominant one with other adults who can directly relate to their experience and help them troubleshoot challenges in their native language. Creating a safe space for vulnerable conversations among parents can especially empower families to support one another as they move through the American school system. At the beginning of the school year, create an opportunity for parents to come together and connect. To keep communication going, it may be useful to create a WhatsApp group for all parents in your classroom, or for parents who speak the same language.

Differentiate communication about student learning. Differentiation is at the core of family engagement. For parents with limited English or limited literacy skills, it is critical that verbal check-ins happen often, too. Go beyond the mailed copy of a student’s IEP or an emailed resource about how to support a child’s learning at home. Invite parents and guardians to visit your classroom on their days off from work. Suggest that parents listen to the audiobook version of books you are reading in class, and if the audiobook is offered in the parent’s native language, encourage the parent and student to listen to or read the book in the language they are most comfortable in. If you are teaching a new concept in math or science, send along a picture or a video to the parent. Ask students to teach their parents one skill they’ve learned during the week. To hold the student accountable, you could have students record it (as a video or voice recording) or to report back to the class the next day about how it went.

Learn about local resources for adult learners. ESOL classes for English language learners, GED courses, community events for students and parents, playgroups for younger children, and parent support groups are all invaluable resources for parents who are new to the country. Make this information available in your classroom, or offer to connect parents in individual conversations. Community resources like these can be critical in helping parents feel a sense of belonging and can build their confidence to better engage with school—which in turn will benefit their children. Looking for a place to start your search? Check out the Massachusetts Adult Literacy Hotline.

For school leaders, build a culture of inclusive engagement. This work can’t rest on teachers alone. School leaders play a key role in creating school cultures where inclusive family engagement is expected and prioritized, and where teachers have the support and resources to make it happen. Since school priorities are often set at the top, make it a point to articulate the importance of home visits at the beginning of the school year and carve out the time and resources for teachers to do them (for example, by dedicating some of your end-of-summer professional development time to them). If your school supports a large number of families that are new to the country, create a “Newcomers Packet” to provide families with information about the school, neighborhood, and the basics of the American school system. This document should be translated into your parents’ native language(s), too. Make the time to check in with families and answer any questions they may have. Throughout the year, continue to set aside professional development time specifically for strategies to engage with families with limited formal education, so teachers are able to crowd-source their ideas and learn best practices.

For educators, meeting every family where they are is certainly not always easy or straightforward. But every child’s first and most influential teacher is their parent—so it is deeply important that educators and families find the right ways to collaborate. Students whose teachers work proactively with their caregivers to make sure their needs are being met will undoubtedly do better—and families that are engaging with school for the first time will be encouraged to deepen their engagement and participate more over time.

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