Communicating with families when you don’t share a language creates obvious barriers. In this week’s Summer Catch Up Series article, I provide an example of how to adjust a letter to parents when translation is not possible.
Which routine parent letters could you work on adjusting this summer while you have a little extra time?
The best way to make your written communication comprehensible for families is to have it translated into the parents’ native language. However, I realize that’s not always possible or feasible. In those instances when you must write in English, the next best thing you can do is to follow these four tips:
- Use simple, active sentences.
- Consider the vocabulary you use and eliminate, or explain, educational terminology.
- Remove idioms and humor.
- Be clear, concise, and explicit.
This week, I’m going to show you how to use these tips for revising a letter. My example is an actual letter sent to parents, which I found online, although I have no affiliation with the school that sent it. I’ve removed their letterhead and names to keep it anonymous. I don’t know if this school includes English Learner families, but these revisions would make the letter more comprehensible to all families, including native English speakers with low levels of literacy.
Before you go further…
Click below to read the original version of the letter.
Original Opening Paragraph
It is very important that your child is here on time every day when school is in session. Research shows when students attend school regularly they have a better academic performance and better grades!
Revised Opening Paragraph
Students should come to school every day.
It is very important that your child comes to school every day. Students who come to school every day learn more and often have better grades!
Rationale for Revisions
Parents don’t care about “research.” There was no significant reason for referring to research, particularly when the specific research was not cited.
If you look at the full original letter linked above, you’ll notice that I changed the font. The original one looks more like handwriting, which can be difficult to read because some of the letters are not in their standard format. This can also make it more likely translation apps will not be able to read it accurately.
(A Spanish-speaking colleague read both versions of this letter after it was translated by a common translation app. She confirmed that the app did better with the revised letter. Some of the words in the original letter did not even translate as actual Spanish words!)
Original Paragraph #2
As a school we would like to reward the classroom with the best attendance in each grade level with an extra 30 mins of recess with one of the counselors. (at the end of each quarter).
Revised Paragraph #2
We are having an attendance contest. The contest begins today and ends on November 30. The classroom with the most students at school every day will win a 30-minute recess on November 30. One classroom from each grade will win (Kindergarten – Fourth Grade). If your child comes to school EVERY day, they will receive the Perfect Attendance Award in May.
The original text includes a very long sentence with several prepositional phrases. These are difficult to eliminate, but it’s worth the work because shorter sentences are always easier to understand, even if they feel a bit choppy to you.
It probably doesn’t matter to parents that the recess is with the counselor, so I deleted that bit of information.
Instead of saying “at the end of each quarter,” give parents a specific date. To some, a quarter is only a U.S. coin. They won’t understand the educational use of the word here.
I also moved the referral to a perfect attendance award here as opposed to its inclusion in a later paragraph about how a child becomes ineligible to receive it. It’s typically better to err on the reward (receiving award), rather than the punishment side (not receiving the award), of an issue.
Original Paragraph #3
We know that things come up at home, kids get sick or don’t feel well so, make sure you provide a legitimate note from you or the doctor for it to be excused. If your child has 5 unexcused absences within 30 days or 10 within 90 days, a referral to the State Attorney’s Office will be submitted by the Attendance Social Worker.
Revised Paragraph #3
Students who are sick should not come to school.
When your child is sick, please do these things:
1. Keep them at home.
2. Call the school (555-5555) and tell the front office secretary, Ms. Medina, that your child is sick. This will be an “excused absence”.
3. If you take them to a doctor, please ask the doctor to write a note explaining that your child is sick.
4. When your child is well again, give the doctor’s note to Ms. Medina.
“Unexcused absence” – If you do not call Ms. Medina or send a note to her, your child will have an unexcused absence. If your child has 5 unexcused absences within 30 days or 10 unexcused absences within 90 days, the Attendance Social Worker (Mr. Taylor) will contact you. He will also tell a state government office about the unexcused absences. U.S. law requires that students come to school if they are not sick.
I reordered this information because the original letter discussed absences, then tardies, and then went back to absences. Information is easier to understand if the topics are orderly and consistent.
I added additional information about what parents should do if their child is sick. The original letter assumes parents know this information. Although it’s likely that most do, some may not, and it never hurts to reinforce procedures like this.
Throughout the letter, there was reference to excused and unexcused absences and tardies, but this idea was not explained. I chose to add this paragraph, which would help to explain the concept and elaborate on the reference to the State Attorney’s Office.
I really struggled with rewriting this part, and I still don’t think it is as clear as it could be. It made me realize again how difficult it is to explain some of our standard school policies to families who are not familiar with them.
Original Paragraph #4
Please, encourage and help your child to be here on time; if a student arrives later than 8:30am, they must stop by the office to receive a tardy slip before going to class. Students with 3 or more unexcused tardies will not be considered for the perfect attendance award. Parents/Guardians must sign-in, in the front office when your child arrives late.
Revised Paragraph #4
Students should arrive before 8:30 am.
School begins at 8:30 am. It is important for your child to arrive at school between 8:15 am – 8:30 am. A student who arrives after 8:30 am is tardy (late). If your child is late, a parent or guardian must come to the front office with them. This way, the school will know that the child has arrived. The child will take a tardy slip (a form from the office) to their teacher. It is okay for your child to arrive after 8:30 am. Students should come to school every day, even if they will arrive late. If a student arrives late many days, they may receive punishment.
In the original, this was the second paragraph, coming directly after the information about the attendance contest. This paragraph is an example of the importance of being clear and explicit. You cannot assume parents know what “tardy” means or at what time their child is counted as tardy.
Also, it’s important to remember that many cultures are not as time-controlled as those of us in the US. Being “on time” controls much of our daily schedules, but this is not true in other cultures where people and relationships are the focus, rather than time.
This does not mean that the school must accept student arrivals at any time throughout the day, but it does mean we should be very clear about our expectations and any consequences of non-compliance. (Perhaps we could also consider revising our tardy policies to account for these cultural differences.)
Original Closing Paragraph
*Tardiness/ Chronic early dismissal – A student failing to make an effort to attend class in a timely manner shall be considered truant and subject to a disciplinary action. Please provide an excusal note if your child is tardy and feel free to contact us if you have any questions.
Revised Closing Paragraph
Please call Ms. Medina or me (555-5555) if you have any questions.
I deleted the first part of this paragraph and just included it as one sentence at the end of the previous paragraph. It seemed that the primary point of this paragraph was to let families know that there could be consequences for chronic tardiness.
Something to Consider
Why do we typically write letters to families that are more complicated than necessary?
Perhaps we worry about what they will think. Some of the revised sentences may come across as too simplified for native English speaking families, particularly those with higher levels of education. Do we fear offending them? Or worry they’ll think we’re less intelligent and therefore not competent to teach their children?
It’s possible some families will think that way. However, most families are too busy to analyze the situation deeply. If you’re really worried about that, simply send a note early in the school year explaining that the communication from your classroom is written following plain language guidelines so that all families will be able to understand.
Maybe that this is just the way we learned to write. In college, your English professor expected you to sound scholarly, which often included long sentences in passive tense. It’s also easy to assume everyone understands the same educational vocabulary and school policies that you do. Using these types of sentences and vocabulary may make you sound knowledgeable, but it often doesn’t communicate your meaning to others. Consider which is your higher goal.
Learn more about writing in plain language
Here’s a government document that’s really helpful. While not written specifically for communicating with EL families, it has a lot of great advice that is applicable to almost any written communication.
Check out the complete revised version:
The article above was originally published on December 10, 2019. Excerpts here are slightly modified.