Supporting LEP Students and Families Through Online Learning

Interpreting Services, Translation Services

Over the course of the past several months, our nation has shifted toward online learning as a way to continue educating students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This disruption to typical learning has resulted in a learning curve for students and educators alike. But for students whose primary language is not English, there are new and different challenges that do not present themselves for students who speak English primarily.

So what does the world of online learning mean for students and families who have limited English proficiency?

And how can your institution help support these families through the end of the academic year?

How important is LEP support for our schools and educators?

Throughout the US, there are roughly 4.9 million English-learning students who are educated within our public school systems, and 76% of those students speak Spanish as their primary language.

The breakdown of languages spoken at home will vary greatly depending on the classroom and school district, so it is important to know for which languages you may need to find resources to best support individual students and families.

Being able to communicate effectively with both students and their families will help ensure you meet the needs of your students so that they are prepared for success when in-person instruction can resume.

Specific challenges you may face with your LEP students and families

Some challenges you are likely to face during this time of online instruction are specifically related to technology and language access.


If your school district or state is not already providing devices for each student, it is possible that your students do not have access to the technology they need to complete assignments.

While this disparity in access is a concern for all students, it impacts English-learning students disproportionately.

According to Colorín Colorado, it is estimated that 25-50% of English-learning students either do not have access to the technology they need for online instruction, or access to the Internet at all.

Limited access to technology and the Internet has become a huge roadblock for students with the shift to remote learning and must be considered.


You may be experiencing language barriers, either with your students, their parents, or both.

Even if your English-learning students understand English well and don’t need much additional support in the classroom, it’s possible that their parents do not understand English on the same level. If a student needs support on an assignment, it may be difficult for their parent to step in and help. For younger students who do not communicate well enough to clarify their questions with teachers directly, this can prove especially problematic.

Moreover, even your students who communicate well in the classroom may struggle to shift the bulk of their English communication to virtual or written communication.

There is also a risk that the progress your English-learning students have made could be lost without in-person support.

Tips for supporting LEP students and families remotely

Here are a few tips for supporting your English learners and their families while educating remotely.

Get to know your students’ families’ needs.

If you are able to communicate with students and families to learn about their specific situations, it may help you overcome barriers later on.

Send out a Google Form (or similar) to ask questions about access to technology, language comfort for both the student and family members who are able to assist with school work, etc.

Keep in mind that students without access to the Internet or those who are not technologically savvy are not likely to reply to something like a online survey. For these students, follow up with a phone call or email.

For students whose parents do not speak English well, it would be helpful to have these surveys translated into their native languages. See if your school district partners with an interpreting provider who is able to assist with over-the-phone interpreting when making phone calls, if necessary, as well.

Decide what information these families may need translated

Access to important information throughout the academic year is important at any time, but is even more critical now. Some things you may wish to have translated are:

  • Communications about school closures, updates, potential reopening dates, etc.

  • All information as it relates to COVID-19 and any precautions your school is taking

  • Assignment instructions or messages about how to get assignment support in the family’s native language if the child is struggling

When looking to translate different materials, you will not always have to start from scratch. Many COVID-19-related materials have already been translated into many languages by the CDC, for example. Utilize what is already readily available when possible.

Work with your school’s superintendent when possible to see if your school has resources available for translating information like assignment instructions. They may also be able to let you know what your options are for translating additional information if a student is struggling.

If a student is truly struggling to complete assignments because of language barriers, and if your district will allow it, you may also consider allowing students to complete certain assignments in their native language. This will allow the student to learn the material, and their language acquisition improvements can come later.

For anything your school does translate for students and families, however, it should not be handled with a free translation tool such as Google Translate. While these free tools have their benefits in some situations, many of translations they produce are often erroneous, which could lead to even more confusion for your LEP students and families.

Compile a list of helpful resources for your LEP students and families

Whatever your institution is able to do to help support English-learning students and families, compiling the information into a list that is easy for them to refer to would certainly be helpful.

Some examples of helpful resources you may wish to include (if offered) are:

  • Locations of Internet hot spots provided by your school

  • Contact information for local Internet providers who are offering free or discounted services for students

  • Where to obtain paper packets if work cannot be completed online

  • Ways to communicate with the student’s teacher if the parent does not feel comfortable doing so in English (i.e. over-the-phone interpreting options or communicating via a bilingual staff member—or better yet, an interpreter—if available)

  • Resources for additional language practice or instruction online

The most important thing is that you are there to support all students, LEP students included, as much as possible at this time. This is uncharted territory for everyone, so know there will be unexpected challenges that arise, likely each day! We’re all in this together, so please let us know if ATS can assist with any translation or over-the-phone interpreting needs. We’ll be happy to put any COVID-19 related translations at the front of our project queue.

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