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Successful Parent-Teacher Conferences with Bilingual Families

How can you hold an effective parent-teacher conference with the parents of English language learners if they can’t communicate comfortably in English? This article provides a number of tips to help you bridge the language gap, take cultural expectations about education into account, and provide your students’ parents with the information they need about their children’s progress in school.

Teacher tips for parent-teacher conferences with bilingual families

Before the conference

Encourage parent attendance
To prepare for a successful conference night, encourage bilingual family involvement and consider bilingual invitations, child care, and other steps to encourage parent attendance.

Make personal contact
After sending the conference invitations home, call the parents or greet the families at school and ask them if they will be able to meet with you.

Make an appointment with the parents
Take a tip from sales people: give parents an appointment time. When you offer the appointment time, ask the parent if they will be able to come at that time or to suggest a time that is more convenient for them. Then describe the parent-teacher conference and what they should expect.

Give parents a reminder call
Another tip from sales people: The day before the conference, make a reminder call. Be aware that families may have children in other grades or in other schools, and do your best to coordinate with all staff involved on the appointment times for the family. If possible, be flexible if a family can’t make the appointment on conference day, and arrange to meet the family on another day after school.

Arrange for an interpreter
It is very important that students are not the interpreters. Students may not feel comfortable interpreting for their parents. They may not know the appropriate vocabulary to interpret the educational information. And they may not necessarily be forthcoming if they do not like the information being presented. (Some teachers have reported that a few of their Spanish-speaking students told their parents that ‘F’ stood for “Fantástico”.)

Enlist help to find an interpreter if necessary
If you do not have an official interpreter available at your school, talk to your principal and/or school district about the need to get one. If in-person interpreters are not available (and you may not be able to get one for a low-incidence language such as Urdu or Farsi), there are companies that provide interpreters over the phone so that you could set up a phone conference with your student’s parents. If another bilingual parent offers to serve as an interpreter, make sure that the conference parent is comfortable with this. Also make sure that this does not violate privacy policies in your school district.

Consider training parents to become interpreters
If interpreters are not readily available at your school, consider offering an “interpreters’ training” for bilingual parents, and enlist the support of those parents who have become familiar with the school and educational environment. Offer the training they need so that they feel comfortable and confident with their skills in a new role as an interpreter for other parents. Again, make sure that this does not violate privacy policies in your school district.

Create an interpreters’ schedule with other teachers
Be aware that interpreters may have many classrooms to assist. If possible, collaborate with other teachers to establish an “interpreters’ schedule.”

Train interpreters and staff
Before conference night, have a training session for interpreters and staff in order to make the process successful and ensure that all people involved have the skills and understanding necessary to support the families.

Meet with the interpreter
Meet with the interpreter before the conference to go over the meeting schedule and agenda, and to address any questions or concerns. Be sure to define the kind of information that will be shared and to reinforce the fact that the interpreter is translating the information, not offering advice or opinions.

Review educational terms and vocabulary with the interpreter
Make sure that the interpreter feels comfortable interpreting certain vocabulary words that may not exist in their own language such as “special education,” “state standards,” or “curriculum.”

Allow more time for translations
Conferences that include an interpreter will take more time while you, the interpreter, and the parents exchange information.

Be aware of cultural differences
If possible, get some background information about your students’ cultures and educational expectations that their parents may have. The following true anecdote illustrates the importance of this: a kindergarten teacher held a conference with parents who were from an African country. The kindergarten teacher was very concerned about their child’s excessive talking, activity, and inability to pay attention or play quietly with the other children. The parents beamed at the teacher and described how happy they were that their child was displaying such inquisitive and active intelligent behavior. They had a very different perspective on the behaviors of a successful learner.

During the conference

Speak with the parents, not the interpreter
During the conference, always make eye contact with and talk directly to the parent (as opposed to speaking with the interpreter).

Speak evenly and pause frequently
Speak at a measured pace (not slowly or more loudly), and pause often so the interpreter can translate a manageable amount of information.

Use simple documents in your explanations
Use documents for visual support, but keep them simple. For example, don’t offer a full-page single-spaced description of the curriculum. Offer an example of the student’s work and a bullet list or rubric to show how it is evaluated, or a simple calendar with curriculum projects filled in.

Discuss educational plans and the parents’ expectations
Some schools develop educational plans with the parents, and this may be a new concept for ELL parents. Simplify the process by asking the parent, “What do you hope your child will learn this year?” or “What do you want your child to get better at?”

Offer translated information if possible
Many schools now offer basic student progress forms in two languages — English on one side and a second language on the other. Teachers fill in the appropriate information for each student and then give the parents the form, showing them the translated explanation of the form on the back. Some forms include classroom schedules and an area for grades and test scores, while others use very basic symbols such as smiley faces. While the teacher’s remarks themselves may not be translated, the parents will have an explanation in their language of how their child is being evaluated, and will be able to get a good sense of their child’s progress from the form. If your school offers such forms, they can be a highly useful tool in communicating with parents.

Offer information about local support resources
Parents may not know about resources such as the public library’s homework-help program or a tutoring support program offered in the school or community.

Encourage reading at home
Emphasize the importance of reading at home in the student’s native language and/or English. The important thing is to encourage the joy of reading and to continue to support the development of both languages.

Leave time for parent questions
Underscore the importance of ongoing communication between the home and the school. Provide the parents with ways that they can contact you and communicate their questions and concerns with the necessary bilingual support.

After the conference

Send a thank-you note
One of the most important results a parent-teacher conference can yield is the development of a partnership between the teacher and the parents. Once the conference has been completed, send a note home to the parents and tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them and talking about their child, or make a call to the family within a few weeks of the conference to inform them about the positive progress you have noticed in their child.