Ultimate guide to effective document translation for K-12 school districts

Managing translation and interpretation for K-12 education involves a lot of moving parts. Here’s how to hire the right language support for your needs.

The importance of localization in education can’t be underestimated. Translation services for schools can build bridges between teachers, students, and parents and guardians.

However, finding the right interpreters and translators can be difficult, especially for school districts that have a large number of languages and dialects to represent. Knowing how to tackle the challenges of language barriers can make the difference.

Here are some frequently asked questions teachers and administrators have about translation and interpretation for K-12 school districts.

What can translation be used for in K-12 education districts?

Translation for K-12 schools is more common than many people realize. Even a mid-size school district may have a dozen or more languages represented among its students, and it’s not unusual for a school to have more than 50 dialects represented. Each of these language groups will require unique considerations, cultural knowledge, and specialists. For some languages, it can be difficult to find qualified local translators or interpreters.

Translation services ensure that students get the best possible education. Furthermore, the US Department of Education requires school districts to provide translation for English Language Learners (ELLs) students and Limited English Proficient (LEP) parents and guardians. This includes not just in-person interactions, but any kind of communication you provide to students and their families.

Translations can be made for everything from everyday instruction to published materials and parent-facing communications with LEP guardians.

Common instances of translation needs include:
  • Registration and enrollment forms
  • Course materials like books, worksheets, booklets, syllabi, tests/quizzes, homework, and audio and video materials
  • Certificates
  • Permission slips for students to participate in activities
  • Brochures or flyers
  • Evaluation forms and reports
  • Transcripts
  • Parent handbooks
  • Medical forms and policies
Common instances of interpretation needs:

In-person interpreting:

  • Parent-teacher conferences/in-person meetings
  • Interviews
  • Enrollment
  • Individualized education plan (IEP) meetings
  • Events and conferences

Remote interpreting needs:

  • Phone calls to parents
  • Virtual meetings and classes (elearning)
  • Automated calls

Emergency updates

Communicating important updates during an emergency can be difficult, and a language barrier can make the situation even worse.

Translations for LEP guardians make getting the word out about snow days, cancellations, delays, police incidents, and other emergencies more effective, and limits the opportunity for misunderstandings, confusion, and disruption.

What are common language barriers for K-12 education

Students who haven’t grown up in an English language household often face unique educational challenges. Communication barriers can be detrimental to the growth and success of a child and their education.

When foundational information isn’t properly conveyed due to language barriers, children are forced to move forward in life with incomplete knowledge and skill sets.

Some common barriers/challenges include:
Creating an inclusive school environment that welcomes all languages
Supporting students academically both in the classroom and with homework
Communicating with families to support student success

How do you overcome language barriers in school districts?

Hiring individual translators to cover every language and dialect that your students speak at home can quickly become cost prohibitive, and the administrative time to organize those resources can drain valuable resources. Vetting freelancers to ensure they are qualified and eligible to work with students is another key step that also requires staff time.

While translation is a federal requirement, there are many schools that need translation for over 50 languages and dialects spoken, meaning providing services for thousands of students and families within the constraints of the district’s budget.

Where do administrators start with a task like that?

Here are a few examples of ways schools and school districts can support students and families who are facing language barriers:

  • Use direct language (instead of jargon, colloquialisms, or expressions that don’t easily translate)
  • Use visual cues, icons, videos, and pictures to help convey meaning alongside words
  • Use color-coded notices
  • Record video lessons when possible, and provide captions, subtitles, and/or transcripts for video elearning materials

5 Ways to Overcome Language Barriers in K-12 Education

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What are common challenges with interpretations and translations?

Multilingual access to materials is vital for improving communication between teachers, administrators, parents and guardians, and students. However, providing that access can be a daunting task, especially for larger school districts. Here are some common translation and interpretation challenges school districts face:

Accommodating a large number of languages

Finding a reliable translator for some languages and dialects is more difficult than others (especially when the locally available population of native speakers in your area is small).

Providing for the translation needs of teachers

Some teachers would like direct access to translators, but this isn’t always possible, especially for small districts.

Getting in touch with parents and families

Staying up to date with LEP parents is more difficult when you don’t have convenient access to up-to-date phone numbers, mailing addresses, and emails.

Resource constraints

Most school districts can’t keep translators on full time to handle ad hoc requests for every language their students speak. Limited budget and available time make managing incoming requests difficult when resources are scarce.

Multimodal communication needs

Various types of communication are regularly dispatched by a school district: long form and short form, in-person and virtual, urgent and non-urgent.

Fast turnaround times

Many situations warrant high-volume and quick turnaround on translations that freelance translators can’t facilitate.

Formatting fears

A lot of documents produced by school districts aren’t easy to translate, in part because they aren’t formatted in a way that translates well to translation.

Documents that involve a lot of design or digital-interfacing design elements may not adjust cleanly into a different language where text is significantly longer or shorter. In other instances, a simple cultural miscommunication may make carefully arranged user experience (UX) confusing or nonsensical — for example, when translating a web page to a language like Arabic that reads right to left.

What are the benefits of offering translation and interpretation services for K-12 education?

Beyond legal requirements, translation and interpretation services offer teachers and administrators at K-12 schools the ability to connect with students and guardians on their own terms, in a language they understand and use regularly at home. Translation levels the playing field so parents and teachers can easily discuss what is best for a child.

Facilitating multilingual settings for families can also provide numerous quantifiable benefits, including:

Improved student experience and performance

When you can speak to children in a language they’re comfortable with, it helps bring out the best in them. Students who enter the American school system with a limited grasp of the English language are often forced to make up ground on fundamental skills and concepts before they can excel academically. Bridging that gap can lead to better comprehension of concepts and better overall performance.

It’s vital for students to understand the teacher, but the teacher must also be able to understand the students’ questions. Education is a two-way road that requires conversation and comprehension.

Improved effectiveness in communicating with parents/guardians

Without effective translation strategies in place, many LEP parents and guardians get left out of important conversations about their children’s education. Translators and interpreters enable better communication and understanding of information coming from administration and teachers, so parents and guardians stay actively engaged in their child’s academic journey.

Compliance with language access regulations in the education field

Schools are required to provide students and their guardians with access to translators, interpreters, and translated materials to ensure they can understand necessary information. It’s the law!

Better-quality communication

Partnering with a professional translation company can help ensure that you’re not just getting documents and important communication translated, but that your translations are completed with a high level of quality.

How to set up a K-12 education document for translation?

To set up your documents for success when sending them off to be translated there are a few best practices you should follow:

  • Ensure you don’t have any difficult-to-translate expressions, like idioms or sayings
  • Make sure the document is easy to understand as a whole
  • Provide a glossary for translators to use
  • Specify words or phrases that should not be translated (e.g. proper nouns like the name of a school program)
  • Double-check English spelling and grammar to prevent miscommunication

Looking for more tips?
Learn how to prepare a document for translation.

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How do you determine the quality of translation services?

When deciding on a translation service or options, it’s important to keep in mind that some services may be a better fit for certain requests than others.

Start by asking your prospective translator or translation service provider some essential questions:

  • What is the standard turnaround time for documents or scheduling appointments?
  • What is the availability of the person/organization for regular assignments?
  • What communication options are available from the service provider?  (e.g. video or phone interpreting)
  • What is the cost (hourly, per project, or on contract)?

These basic questions will help you identify which partners will fit with your needs.

Translators and interpreters for K-12 education tend to have multifaceted skill sets. Here are a few quality indicators to look out for: 

  • Native understanding of a language, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and syntax
  • Knowledge about cultural aspects, of the original and translated languages, including colloquialisms
  • Ability to effectively convey meaning rather than simply offering word-for-word translations
  • Ability to proofread without changing important information or interjecting personal opinions
  • Dedication to quality of the end product and overall consistency
  • Respect for students and guardians and what they have to say

Does your translator or interpreter need special certification?

In some instances, translators are required to have completed a certification in order to serve clients, notably in healthcare and legal settings. Guidelines vary from state to state, but a certification is one way to ensure that your translation services partner adheres to state guidelines for best practices.

What are the options for interpretation and translation in schools?

There are many types of interpretation and translation for schools, and it’s best to select the most appropriate option for the situation.

Here are the most common interpretation services for schools and what they entail:

American Sign Language (ASL)

ASL interpreters join in the classroom to facilitate communication between the student, instructor, and class.

Over the phone interpretation (OPI)

Rather than face-to-face, interpretation is done over the phone. OPI is especially helpful when there’s an immediate need for translating shorter information.

Video Remote Interpretation (VRI)

A remote interpreter communicates directly with students or parents and guardians using a video conferencing platform like Zoom.

On-site interpreting (OSI)

In-person interpreting allows the most personal approach and helps build trust over time, especially in an educational setting.

How do you choose between in-person or remote interpretation?

There are pros and cons to each type of interpretation, both remote and in-person.

In-person / on-site

  • In the room with the student/parents/teachers
  • Ability to observe all participants
  • Provides the most accurate interpretation
  • Builds trust over time
  • Especially ideal for deeper or more technical topics (as long as the interpreter understands the topic at hand)
  • Generally requires more notice than other types

Remote (Using VRI or OPI via computer, tablet, or phone)

  • Interpreter can be located anywhere
  • Ideal for elearning scenarios
  • Allows for non-verbal cues to be seen
  • Can be scheduled or on-demand
  • Requires good WiFi and technical knowledge for using the selected software/hardware

Remote (OPI)

  • Some meaning may be lost due to lack of access to non-verbal cues and facial expressions
  • Less expensive
  • Can be scheduled or on demand
  • Less personal

How do you choose the best translation partner for K-12 schools?

Picking the right translation and interpretation company all depends on your school or district’s specific goals and needs.

What are your primary needs for translation and interpretation?

What languages do you need to be covered, and what format(s) will be required?

What technology does the service provider offer?

Can they save your organization time and money by leveraging previously translated content?

What does their quality assurance process look like?

Even if your provider is a native speaker of the translated language, people make mistakes. Additional rounds of review for translated documents can be helpful to ensure quality of the materials.

What is their availability like?

Do you need to schedule ahead of time, or are they available 24/7? Schools often need to convey important information quickly. If you’re working with a team that has set hours, you may not be able to ensure important information gets out to all families at your school.

What’s the turnaround time?

Depending on your school’s needs, a week-plus turnaround time might not be adequate for serving your student’s needs. Establish expectations early to avoid costly mistakes down the line.

Does the partner have subject matter experts?

Some subjects require more expertise to translate effectively than others. A translation specialist with a background in a specialty subject matter can transform the communication experience for students and parents alike.

Break down language barriers with Dynamic Language

A partner like Dynamic Language can transform the way you communicate with students and guardians alike. Our high-quality translation and interpretation services cover hundreds of different languages and dialects with in-person and remote options, and feature industry-leading turnaround times.

Dynamic Language also offers subject matter experts, as well as secure options for communications, certifications, and more.

Get in touch to learn more about our services

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