5 Ways to Overcome Language Barriers in K-12 Education

Rick Antezana | August 21, 2023

Language barriers in education can have a significant impact on students’ academic performance and overall experience in school. To help students succeed both academically and socially, K-12 schools and school districts must take steps to break down language barriers.

Here, we’ll discuss some common language barrier challenges and how school districts can overcome them.

Language barrier challenges for school districts

Under US law, public schools must ensure that ELL (English Language Learner) students “can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.” This poses a challenge for school districts on multiple levels:

Creating an inclusive school environment

Fostering a welcoming environment for diverse students — including those who speak diverse languages — is an important challenge to consider, as 34% of school districts highlight the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in their mission statements. Students should feel welcome and supported at their school regardless of their native language and/or the language(s) spoken in their home.

Supporting students academically

One of the most apparent effects of language barriers in education is the potential impact on academic performance. A student whose first language is not spoken at school may struggle to understand instructions and grasp concepts in the classroom and may need extra time and support to complete tasks.

These students may also struggle with homework due to difficulty reading written instructions — and their parents may be unable to help due to the same language barrier. Even if a student is fluent in English, if their parents are not fluent, they may miss out on the kind of homework support that their peers are getting at home.

Communicating with family members

In K-12 settings, significant communication with parents and guardians is required. In addition to participating in parent-teacher conferences and reviewing report cards, family members also need to be able to read and understand information about enrollment, upcoming events (field trips, fundraisers, etc.), important deadlines, the student code of conduct, and more.

If this communication is not happening effectively due to a language barrier, the student may suffer from an academic disadvantages. That’s why schools must communicate information about any school program, service, or activity to limited English proficiency (LEP) parents in a language they can understand.

Additionally, research shows that the parents of K-12 children who don’t speak English have lower levels of participation in school-related activities than their English-speaking counterparts. This means their children may miss out on social opportunities, such as attending school events with their peers.

How to overcome language barriers in the classroom (and beyond)

Here are a few examples of ways schools and school districts can support students and families who don’t speak the main language that’s used in the classroom:

Record video lessons.

Recording video lessons can benefit all students by giving them the opportunity to review lessons at home. This can be particularly helpful for ELL students, as they can pause and replay the lesson as needed to account for any additional time they may need to process language. Providing transcripts, closed captioning, and/or subtitles along with the recordings can act as an additional layer of language support.

Color-code paper.

Consider printing out similar types of communication on the same color paper to help students and parents stay organized. While this is not a replacement for translating documents, it can make it more obvious what needs to be done, and by whom. For example, if all homework is on yellow paper, a parent will know by the color that their student needs to complete it.

Translate all important documents.

Whether it’s instructions for an upcoming project, a grading rubric for an essay, or an announcement about an afterschool program, it’s vital to translate important documents so that ELL students and their families can get the same information as native English speakers.

It’s important to note that while automated translation applications and platforms have become more accessible in recent years, they’re still far from perfect — and cannot be used as a replacement for professional translation services.

Use visuals in addition to words.

Where appropriate, incorporate visual elements, like pictures or icons, next to relevant text. This can offer students context clues to rely on if they don’t understand a word or phrase.

Be precise with language.

Colloquialisms, jargon, jokes, and figures of speech don’t always translate well across languages. Whether a student is translating on their own or reading a translated document, simplicity and precision are key to understanding. Make your language as precise as possible to prevent confusion, especially when it comes to instructions and announcements.

Partner with Dynamic Language to break down language barriers

With over 30 years of experience, Dynamic Language can help you provide your K-12 school district’s ELL students and LEP parents with the language resources they need.

Our education translation services include:

  • Translating written educational content
  • Translating written flyers and notices, progress reports, and notes from teachers
  • In-person and virtual interpretation services for parent-teacher conferences and school events

No matter your project or timeline, our experienced linguists will ensure your educational materials are translated properly — so all students have the opportunity to shine, regardless of their native language.

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