Tools and Resources
Part 4 of Supporting Multilingual Students

Strategies to Empower Parents/Caregivers of Multilingual Learners

Leveraging Spanish-speaking parents’/caregivers’ language for at-home learning support

Why and How to Empower Parents/Caregivers?

When I think of parents/caregivers who only speak Spanish at home and don’t have a pedagogical background, I can’t imagine how overwhelming the school system can be for them as they try to support their children. I’m a bilingual educator and a mother of two elementary schoolers. As parents, we desire to help our children, but sometimes it is difficult if we don’t have the knowledge and tools to do it. Parents who are unfamiliar with the U.S. school system might lack the strategies to help their children effectively. It can get chaotic when our children come home with homework, progress reports, assessments, and teachers’ recommendations for performance improvement. There is a myriad of new information to navigate. Therefore, educators must help parents of multilingual learners from the get-go.

In my years of experience working with Spanish-speaking families, my goal has been to empower parents to support their children’s academic success. I highlight the impact that activities they develop at home in their native language can have on their children’s second-language learning and academic success. It’s not easy to understand and share the feelings of another person. When educators feel empathetic for entire families, however, we help parents and caregivers feel better about the support they can provide for their children.

I have developed a series of parent/caregiver workshops where parents learn strategies they can use during their daily interactions with their children to contribute to their academic progress. My desire is for parents to understand that language is not a barrier when it comes to supporting their children’s education. During in-person workshops, I provide school supplies and a variety of materials to engage parents in their new role as partners in education. Let me describe some of the strategies I share with families of my elementary school multilingual learners that you could implement in your school setting.

Strategies for At-Home Support for Language Development

It’s a general belief that parents who speak only Spanish can’t support their children academically because of their little to no knowledge of English. However, implementing some of these strategies could help them realize that Spanish and English are similar in some ways, and that the skills that students develop in one language can be transferred when they are learning a different language.

Identifying Story Elements

We read a fable aloud, talk about it, and discuss other fables parents could have read at some point in their lives. After the discussion, we identify the characters, conflict, main events, and moral lessons of the fable we read together. Parents hear and learn how these are skills their children could transfer into English when they read other texts in that language. 

Identifying Beginning Sounds

Many consonant sounds are similar in English and Spanish, so we talk about a game we used to play when we were kids: “stop” or “basta.” For this game, you draw a chart with several columns, each of which represents a category: name, animal, fruit, city/country, etc. It is a competition where one person yells out a letter and everyone starts writing a word for each category that starts with that letter. The person who completes the chart first shouts “stop” or “basta,” and everyone should stop writing. We discussed how the “b” sound in “butterfly” was the same “b” sound in “ballena.” I explain how crucial this skill is when children are learning how to read and how they could even practice it orally in daily conversations (see more examples of this game at Spanish Game for Children: ¡Basta!).

Making Up New Scenarios

The kinds of conversations we have with our children do not necessarily have to be led by yes/no questions. We could ask questions such as If you could change something about this day, what would you change? What was the most beautiful thing that happened to you today? I share with parents about the importance of talking with their children about their day. When parents share information about places, people, and situations, they are modeling the language children are expected to use when we ask them about their day at school. 

Reading Fiction and Non-Fiction Texts

If you ask a parent about reading, “books” may be the first reading source that comes to mind. However, parents should be introduced to reading other materials: calendars, recipes, the news, nutritional labels, store brochures, etc. I explain that there are different types of texts students need to be familiar with and, as parents, we can contribute to their learning if we teach them what to look for in each text. During the workshops, parents have lots of fun reading the calendars and recipes because they have the chance to see how many concepts their children can learn and practice just by talking about these reading materials. 

Recognizing High-Frequency Words

A common question from parents is How can I help my children with sight words if I don’t speak English? During these sessions, parents are provided with ten index cards, some markers, and five sight words. I ask them to write one sight word on each index card. We need two sets, so each sight word is written twice. We play a matching game, and I show them how they don’t need to know how to pronounce the words—they just need to match them. I share several activities to practice using index cards. For instance, students could organize the cards in alphabetical order, they could write the consonants in one color and the vowels in another, parents could pull an index card and ask their child to find the one that matches the word, etc. 

Parents/caregivers want to support the school and their children, but they need guidance. I believe that we all win if we empower parents. Our students will not only have support at school but also at home, which will definitely impact their language development and content learning. We are in this together, and parents play an important role. It is time to make parents active participants in their children’s education.

These articles on the importance of teaching foundational skills and observing foundational skills instruction may also give you some ideas for strategies you could incorporate into your family engagement workshops.

You may also want to read Serving Language Learners From an Asset-Based Lens and Practical Ideas to Support Newcomer Students from the Peers and Pedagogy blog.

What Are Your Thoughts?

  • What strategies or activities would you recommend to empower multilingual learner families?
  • What other skills could parents/caregivers support at home that would transfer to their children’s language development?

One thought on “Strategies to Empower Parents/Caregivers of Multilingual Learners

  1. I believe parents want to support schools, but some need guidance- we all win if parents are empowered- we are in this together.
    Make parents active participants in children’s education

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About the Author: Luisa Palacio is the Multilingual Learner (ML) and Migrant Education Program (MEP) Coordinator for Northampton County Schools, NC. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Modern Languages: English and French, a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration with a major in Human Resource Management, and a Master's degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). She has more than 20 years of teaching experience.