Teaching is bridge-building.

English language learners are often not given the time to sufficiently master a language (which generally takes 5 to 7 years), and subsequently continue to struggle to keep up with their native English speaking peers in English-only instructional environments. These students are likely to be labeled as low- or under-achieving, and poor performance is frequently equated with intelligence rather than effort. ELL programs place students in tracks that systematically perpetuate these labels and stereotypes among isolated ethnic and racial populations. Through my work volunteering with ELL students in primary-level classrooms, I have become increasingly aware of the connections between students’ reading levels and parent involvement in reading outside of school. In particular, the Spanish-speaking ELL students I work with, who are primarily second-generation immigrants, seem to have far less support from parents with reading than their non-ELL peers. Parent involvement is a major indicator of student success, especially in elementary school. How do the school and social-class contexts for these underprivileged ELL students impact their parents’ involvement in reading? How can teachers facilitate and encourage parent involvement?

In one of the classrooms I work in, I frequently collect and go through the students’ reading journals. Each entry is divided into 3 sections: (1) the students write a few sentences about what they read and things they found interesting; (2) the students have a blank space to draw something from or related to what they read; and (3) parents write a note to the teacher regarding the conversation they had with their child about the book. It is this third section that I have found most interesting, as these written responses by parents are a reflection of their engagement in reading with their child, as well as their level of involvement and communication with the teacher. Some parents write extensive notes, often praising their child for noted progress and even thanking the teacher for her role in their growth and development. Usually, these are from (upper-)middle-class parents. On the other hand, other parents write very little, and exhibit limited engagement in reading with their child. These notes usually come from lower-class parents. Furthermore, about ten of the ELL students have parents that can only speak Spanish. The teacher does not know Spanish, so she has no way to know what these parents have written to her. I have been able to roughly translate some of these notes, and the vast majority of them are very basic explanations about the books (which have been sent home with Spanish translated versions) rather than detailed accounts of their conversations with their children. None of these entries include notes to the teacher.

There seems to be a dominant (and false) ideology among many Spanish-speaking parents that they cannot help their child with reading, and that reading in their native language will inhibit their child’s ability to learn English. What factors and forces have created this illusion of inability, which seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How is this shaped and reproduced by the exclusion (via language barriers) of entire disadvantaged communities in parent-teacher and family-school relationships? The push for rapid English acquisition can lead to discrimination and stigmatization, which exacerbates the negative impacts of cultural dissonance and perceived lack of acceptance. Can parents suffer from stereotype threat and labeling in the same way students can? How is parent involvement influenced by socially constructed perceptions of (in)ability to provide adequate support? Furthermore, lower-class families tend to have weaker parent-networks, as these relationships are often formed through costly out-of-school activities. Parent-networks provide social capital for families and students, encourage bonds between teachers and parents, and facilitate collective support in response to school issues. What gains could be made if social capital was cultivated for the underprivileged ELL students and their families? What can teachers to do build bridges between families, students, schools, educators, parents (…) to empower young diverse learners to succeed?

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One thought on “Teaching is bridge-building.

  1. sfujinari says:

    I totally agree with all of your observations regarding ELL students. These are some of the reasons why I feel so passionately about doing what I can to support them. Every child deserves a great education, one that does not discriminate by race, culture or income level.

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