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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms
The Home School Connection: Including ESL Parents in the Classroom
Tobey Cho Bassoff

How do teachers ensure that positive communication between an ESL student's home and his or her school occurs? The simple answer is access, approachability, and follow-through.

Parents want to be involved in their child's education, so provide them with opportunities that fit their schedules. Many ESL parents find day-to-day work schedules and survival in an English-speaking world overwhelming. Adding another commitment, albeit important, at a time when they are working (which provides the necessary funds to pay for food and shelter) is often next to impossible.

By surveying parents about their work, you can plan events that take their time constraints into consideration. You can develop the survey and have it translated and sent home, or you can have your students tell you through an activity. The students are often very aware, even at a young age, of when their parents are available. I’ve found asking parents when they are available to visit the classroom works better than asking them when they're not available. For various important reasons, parents often don’t want to disclose times when their time is otherwise occupied.

Once you've found a time that works for the majority of parents, plan some programs that highlight your ESL students' work and invite the parents to attend. Two successful programs that my ESL classes have hosted are a before-school non-fiction publishing party, and an interactive math night.

For the non-fiction publishing party, I consulted Nonfiction Matters (Harvey, 1998) for the structure of the project. When it was time to share with our community, the students created invitations, which included pictures of inexpensive breakfast treats and juice, for their parents and school staff. I believe the parents were more encouraged to attend because the invitations came from their children. In addition, the time of the party correlated with parent feedback about their availablity. They sensed that I cared enough about what they said in the survey to make sure that the party coincided with their schedules, not mine.

Food also played a part in the success of the party. Many of the students in our attendance area are highly mobile and/or homeless. I’ve noticed that anytime food is provided at school events attendance increases. Therefore, I provide food at our party.

The success of past events is hard to describe. Not only did parents attend, but many extended family members came, as did neighbors and youth organization leaders with whom the students were involved. At various places around the room, reports were visible with yellow comment sheets. Visitors could sit at a desk or table, read, and then comment on what they read.

Language was not a barrier. Many parents encouraged their children to read to them in English, then had them translate the stories into the native language. They were proud of the English their child had learned, and glad the native language was not forgotten, as evidenced by their child's ability to orally translate.

The reports were accompanied by pictures, and many students encouraged their parents to try saying the name of the objects in English. Everywhere I looked I could see proud children beaming as they showed their work off to the people they cared about, and to the people who cared about them.

Interactive math night provides an opportunity for children and their families to come to our classroom to learn how to play math games that focus on concepts we are learning. I consulted Family Math (Stenmark 1986) and Matemática para la familia (Thompson 1997) for ideas on games and for copies of instructions to the games in Spanish and English. Prior to the math night, I reviewed the games with the children, then set them up at stations around the room. They were encouraged to talk about the format of the event with their parents. Many students said that their parents were excited to learn about math through activities rather than lengthy explanations that they might not understand.

In other words, the format of the event was accessible to them. They didn't need to know how to read or understand theory, they just had to play games with their kids. The math night was an "open house" where students brought their families into the classroom to explore and learn together by doing, not listening. While I was available for help, many families went to the stations and interacted without speaking to me directly. They did greet me and thank me upon arriving and leaving.

To make the event as welcoming as possible, I placed a sign on my door with greetings in all of my students' native languages. I also provided store bought snacks and drinks.

The last component to successful ESL parental involvement is a gesture that communicates your appreciation for their involvement. This can be done with a simple note that has positive clip art images accompanied with the word "Thanks" in English and/or their native language. This gesture shows the parents that you recognize their attendance and that it means a lot to you. By using a word in their native language, you are showing that you appreciate the diversity of cultures in your classroom and your school. Simple, but effective.

Whatever program you choose, remember to consider the parents of your students. You will be amazed by the participation you see at your programs if you take access, approachability, and follow-through into consideration. Good Luck!

Questions or comments? E-mail Tobey.


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