K12 Records Resources

August 29, 2023

The Scope of Language Barriers for ELL Families in Schools


Even if your schools are in English-speaking communities, some of the families in them speak English as a second language.

What’s more, the number of English language learners (ELL) in schools is climbing. In 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics found roughly 10 percent of students public school students (5 million) identified as English language learners.

As the United States becomes more diverse with each passing year, accessibility is a growing concern for school leaders. It’s important for school officials to understand the impact of accessibility on ELL students and families.

Let’s unpack the scope of language barriers for ELL families interacting with schools.


Why are language barriers a problem in education?


The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has guidance on the legal obligation to communicate with parents in languages they understand.

However, those guidelines don’t specify how districts need to meet these needs. While that leaves school districts in the dark, English language learners are the ones who bear the burden. 

Balancing learning complex ideas with trying to master the English language is a lot to ask of anyone, especially ELL students. They may experience low self-esteem if they can't engage or keep up with their classmates. That may cause them to self-isolate and take a larger emotional toll.

It becomes even more difficult if the ELL student speaks a language other than Spanish

If an ELL student struggles to communicate in the classroom, it may indicate they're speaking their native language at home. Their guardians may have less of a grasp of English than they do.

When that’s the case, families can’t help with homework or communicate with their school as easily. They rely on technology, translation services, and help from their community to support learning students. 


How do schools communicate with ELL families?


Schools and guardians communicate about the well-being of the students. Families need to know how their child is performing in school. And school leaders want them in the loop.

Information is typically communicated through:

  • Newsletters
  • Report cards
  • The school’s website
  • Email about safety or meetings
  • Transcripts and record requests

For the most part, ELL families get the same access to communication as English-speaking households. Some schools in predominantly Spanish areas translate documents for parents and guardians, but this isn’t a formal practice. Furthermore, there’s not as much support for non-English and non-Spanish speakers.

Guardians need to understand what is happening with their child. And schools need up-to-date information on students. Most of this communication happens in person, through applications, over phone calls, texts, social media, emails, and online communication.


ELL families are at a communication disadvantage


On the surface, this seems like a wide arrange of options that would ensure accessibility. But it’s harder for ELL families because the important information is shared in English. When they don't have a firm grasp of the language, they rely on technology or translation services to comprehend the details and postulate a reply.

ELL guardians end up responsible for the burden of translation. It costs money and time, which are limited resources for many ELL families. Which makes this exponentially more difficult for families communicating with schools using paper-based technology.


What barriers make it difficult for schools to communicate with ELL families?


ELL families have to go the extra mile to communicate with schools. 37 percent of English language learners live in poverty

What’s more? 81 percent of U.S. public schools serve at least one ELL student. 

Many schools across the country still operate on paper-based technology. So when schools with paper-based processes need a signature, it creates an undue hardship for ELL families.

Districts and schools make their best attempt to close the communication gap with guardians through translators and tools. However, guardians don’t always get the support they need. When the efforts of the schools are inadequate, they’re left seeking help on their own.

As a result, guardians resort to deciphering the documents themselves. In some cases, they need third-party support that requires them to take time off work and afford transportation.

Furthermore, the cost of printing and mailing isn’t small for low-income households. It’s money they don’t have.

As such, they have an increased risk of missing application deadlines, important deadlines, or administrative changes. Consequently, communication is one-directional from the schools to the parents using antiquated paper-based processes. 




The number of English language learners (ELL) in US schools is increasing, posing challenges for both students and their families.

Language barriers in education can lead to difficulties in understanding complex concepts, low self-esteem, and limited communication between ELL students and their families.

Moreover, the use of paper-based processes in schools further hinders communication, particularly for low-income ELL families who struggle with financial and logistical constraints. ELL families often bear the burden of translation, which can be costly and time-consuming.

Next, let’s explore how to improve resource access for English language learners.


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