The home-school connection 2

This is the second part of a two-part article where Theresa Zanatta shows us how parents can be encouraged to create opportunities for their children to learn English at home.

Theresa Zanatta

[Families today take many different shapes and forms. In many instances, biological parents are not always children's primary caregivers. In this article, the words 'families' and 'parents' are used in the inclusive sense to refer to the group of any and all people who form the main community of caregivers to children.]

The first article - The home-school connection 1 - gave the rationale behind involving the parents in student learning and outlined two classroom routines that help to achieve this, namely the making of hands-on learning tools which pupils take home to show their parents and the production of an English folder to store these materials. This second article offers three more classroom routines and suggestions for further reading on this topic.

  • Three more classroom routines for involving parents
    • Routine 3 - Inviting parents to comment
    • Routine 4 - Pupils teach their parents
    • Routine 5 - Student letters home
  • Further Reading
  • About the author

Three more classroom routines for involving parents
Routine 3. Invite parents to comment on student-made classroom activities
As detailed before in The home-school connection 1, a critical aspect of parental involvement is creating opportunities for parents to have first-hand, demonstrable evidence of what and how their children are doing in class. However, it's rarely possible to invite parents to the class to have them see their child's progress first-hand and to provide them with an opportunity to question and comment on their child's activities and progress.

This can be remedied, however, by encouraging parents to write the date, any comments or questions, and their initials on the back of the student-made learning tools that go home. The specific comment or question can then be addressed in a simple and short follow-up note, telephone call, and/or email.

For many teachers, finding the time to make a call or write a short note to answer the question or give feedback on the comment may be problematic. However, teachers who understand the benefits of connecting regularly with parents and who have looked to find and create new opportunities to contact parents state that they eventually save time by doing so.

What often in the past were long, unfocused, frustrating and repeated parent-teacher conferences with difficult and unmotivated students, are over time reduced to short, specific, and focused feedback that is both more remedial and proactive.

Routine 4. Model for students how to teach their parents and vice versa
Using the student-made learning tools and the English portfolio as the prompt, the teacher is in a position to model and show students how to show parents how to foster and encourage parent interest and involvement. Many parents need a reason to become involved. Many need to be shown how to become involved. And many parents need to hear and have modelled the language that is necessary to encourage and foster literacy and language development.

How many parents do you know who have been taught how to teach their children how to read, how to learn a second language, or better yet, how to read and learn a language better? Dare I ask how many English teachers have been taught how to teach young learners how to read in English?

Let me give a concrete example to illustrate this point. During class time, imagine that your students have just written, illustrated and 'published' their own individual, take-home, pop-up books. (For the most basic elementary levels of English language learning, a simple pop-up book can take the form of a picture dictionary.) The task that the teacher gives to the students to connect with their parents involves the pop-up book they have made (or any other take-home storybook that students have at their disposal).

Very simply, students first show the storybook to their parents, then read it in English to their parents, and end by explaining what they have read and what they liked or disliked about the story. This last part of the task is carried out in the mother tongue. It is this student-made pop-up book which becomes the key learning tool for connecting with the home. (For very young learners, students tell parents what they see and what they can remember in English and then will naturally go on to explain what they have said in their mother tongue.)

By first showing, then reading the book in English and finally explaining it in the mother tongue to their parents, students complete a rich, interactive literacy activity which is critical to language development and perfection. In fact, the student will have completed it for the second time!

Every English teacher knows that repetition is an essential factor in the development of accuracy and fluency. Predictable, meaningless, academic repetition, however, is demotivating for most children, especially if they are struggling and have had difficulty doing it the first time around. However, having a student create, write, illustrate, and publish their own story, then read it to their classmates and finally have the opportunity to take it home and show, tell, and "read" it to their parents, creates a very different context, one that is both meaningful and personally relevant.

But, perhaps more importantly, students have demonstrated for parents the three basic steps involved in literacy skill development: that is, before reading (showing and describing the book, the theme, the pictures, and so on), reading the book (the processes of decoding, articulation, and pronunciation), and finally, after reading (explaining what was read and discussing both personal and critical responses).

These three steps form the basis of literacy skill instruction and development. The student has experimented with these three steps in class, has practised the steps through the creation of their own personal book, and finally has demonstrated them to their parents.

As a result of this kind of activity, parents are coached, or taught, how to encourage and nurture literacy development in order to get parents and kids reading and talking about reading together.

Routine 5. Send student-written letters home
Apart from the hands-on, student-made realia and portfolio, students can take home student-written notes to parents. These can be simple notes which the teacher dictates to the students. Students listen, write, and then correct what they have written together. An example of a simple note:

Dear Mum and Dad,
These are three words I can say in English:
In today's class, Miss Grey, my teacher, read us a story and we sang the song _______. Call Miss Grey if you have questions. Her number is 93 265 7272.
Love you,

With a simple note like this, dictated in the final 7 to 10 minutes of the class, a teacher reviews the genre and format of letters, the date, numbers, and three new class words which a student chooses for him or herself – not to mention the skills of writing, reading, listening, speaking, and proofreading. (You don't have to teach the past tense for students to write this note. The important thing for them to do is write what they hear – after having written, read, and sung several times they will automatically learn it!)

Of course, with older and stronger students, the last 5 to 7 minutes of class can be left for them to write their own letter home. With students who are not yet writing, a very simple piece of paper cut out in the shape of an animal, or a form they're studying, or a mascot they're studying with can be used as the stationery on which students can draw three words they learned in the day's class. This goes home for parents to see, for students to show and tell, and for parents to initial and send back. When the notes come back, they can be posted on a space on the wall to provide a word wall of all the words the students in the class together have learned to say.

This last simple task takes very little class time, provides meaningful and relevant language practice, and invites parents to become involved in a regular way in what their children are learning and learning to read.

The call for parental involvement in getting our students to read both in English and in their mother tongue has been made. It's efficacy has been demonstrated time and time again. It is up to us to find ways to incorporate this important aspect of teaching into our daily classroom practices.

Further reading
If you would like to find out more about the home-school connection, you might like to look at some of the following books:
Epstein, J.L. (1991) Effects on Student Achievement of Teacher Practices of Parent Involvement". in S. Sivern (ed). Advances in Reading/language Research, Vol.5: Literacy through Family, Community and School Interaction. Greenwich, CT.
McAllister, S. (1993) Developing Home-School Partnerships: From Concepts to Practice. Susan Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York.
Office of Educational Research and Improvement. U.S. Department of Education. (1996) Reaching All Families: Creating Family-Friendly Schools
Oatman, E. (1994) "Tips for memorable read-alouds". Crayola Kids. Vol 1. Number 1. p. 51.
Parson, S. (1999) Transforming Schools into Community Learning Centers. Eye on Education. New York.
Shockley, B. (1995) Engaging Families: Connecting Home and School Literacy Communities. Michalove and Allen. Heinemann. Portsmouth.

About the author
Theresa Zanatta is an author, teacher, teacher trainer and education consultant. She has been teaching English in Spain and Canada for more than 15 years, and she has given courses on ELT methodology in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Canada and the United States.

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