While students whose first language is English can focus on learning school materials, Limited English proficient (LEP) students have to learn the school materials and the language simultaneously, which can be a big challenge for students. And the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated disparities for these students and their families.

“Roughly 5 million public school students are ELs (English Learners), accounting for about 10 percent of the K-12 population.” Source

To reach these students and reduce educational disparities, educators may need to re-evaluate how they are meeting language access for LEP students and their families. In this blog, we’ll look at how the pandemic affected LEP students, the value of families on a students’ education, and ways to use language access to improve student outcomes.

LEP Students Faced Greater Disparities in Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Many children and families struggled when the COVID-19 pandemic brought schools to a halt in 2020. Technology, digital literacy, and language differences affected children across the US. Those with a language barrier faced additional challenges. Here are just some of the many challenges LEP children and families faced during the pandemic.

Approximately 19 million Americans, which is 6% of the population, don’t have access to broadband internet service at threshold speeds. People living in rural areas make up one-fourth of this group. And although broadband service is better in densely populated areas, these areas have a high concentration of poor students whose families can’t afford it. In addition to internet connectivity issues, when the 2020-2021 school year began, schools and families scrambled to find computer devices for children, and the supply chain couldn’t keep up.

Besides the technology challenges, language barriers were evident with digital literacy. While children across the US were impacted by the learning challenges caused by the pandemic, English learners were disproportionately impacted. When the instructions for parents to help their children were in English only “Language access for parents to help them was also an issue…parents didn’t necessarily have the digital savvy, or the instructions in languages they understood, to be able to help students.”

Furthermore, according to a report by the Department of Justice:

  • “An official from one district said that even though they used translation services to help parents with the logistics of distance learning, it was difficult to explain how to navigate the technology needed to participate in distance learning via a remote translator.”
  • “And new language barriers and strains on family resources have made it difficult for English learners’ families to help their children thrive academically during the pandemic.”
  • One survey found that only “39% of the Spanish-speaking families surveyed felt prepared to support a child learning from home—compared to fully half of all English-speaking families surveyed.”
  • One California district reported that “the rate of low and failing grades among English learners had jumped by 34%—to nearly half of all grades English learners earned.”

The Impact of Families on Children’s Education

Research has shown that when families take an active role in their children’s education, children “have better academic performance than children with less engaged families.” However, one of the many barriers to family engagement is “Language and cultural differences that make communication with schools intimidating or challenging.”

“Children whose families take an active role in their children’s education—even if that merely means communicating that school matters—have better academic performance than children with less engaged families.” Source + Toolkit

Another way to achieve successful family engagement is to make the school welcoming and friendly to families. In the next section, we’ll describe ways that schools can accomplish this through language services.

10 Ways to Use Language Access Creatively to Lead to Better Student Outcomes

Schools can encourage family involvement in many ways and help reduce the barriers that might be preventing engagement.


#1. Create a reusable slide deck or document for families

that has important information about LEP services, such as available resources and how to get language support. Translate the slide deck into the local threshold languages, publish it digitally and print it, and then share it with those families who need it.


#2. Create a flyer and/or poster

that describes how language services are free and encouraged. Post these around the school.


#3. Translate any digital literacy instructions.

Make sure to include basic instructions on how to connect to live classes through zoom or other ways, how to get into whatever school program you might use, and other standard technologies.


#4. Review all messaging to make sure there’s a cultural context,

meaning that the messaging makes sense for each target culture. And avoid tools like Google Translate – these tools don’t account for cultural context, local language nuances, and specialized terminology.


#5. Ensure that you have interpreters

at school events, parent engagements, and other live events. Including parents in important events is key to instilling trust and participation by the students. Promote these services when communicating about the event.


#6. Given that language varieties exist at micro levels, integrate local community reviewers

into the process for highly localized and contextual translations. Someone who speaks the language and lives in the community will be to validate localized content.


#7. Understand how families prefer to access information

—whether it’s via multilingual emails, texts, social media, phone calls or otherwise. If they use their phones or computers to get information, consider creating and localizing a separate website with easy access and visibility to translations for resources and information like this one. If they regularly consult social media, such as the school’s Facebook page, then ensure that you provide multilingual versions of the posts.


#8. Use phone and/or video interpreters

for check-ins with the student and/or family to ask if they need help with anything. By being proactive and opening the door to questions, you might be surprised at how it encourages the relationship and participation between the families and the school, ultimately improving the student’s outcome.

Have a template translated in each needed language that asks if the parent/student can take a call with an interpreter at a specific date and time, and provide instructions on how the process will work. You can schedule an interpreter for blocks of time by language to maximize process efficiency.


#9. Create multilingual surveys to gauge feedback

from limited English proficient communities. The survey information will help you learn from your efforts and improve over time.


#10. Be innovative!

Every person, location, language, country, culture, and interaction will all be different. Use feedback and firsthand knowledge to create innovative solutions that will promote equity in education and improve the chance of each students’ success.


LEP students face plenty of barriers in education. Having family support and encouragement leads to better outcomes. Families should feel welcomed, and providing high-quality translated content and interpreters is important in welcoming families. However, using translation tools like Google Translate won’t cut it—these translations may come across as confusing or even rude in some languages. That’s why it’s important to partner with an experienced translation agency.

How can we help you with language access? Contact us at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.