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Lisa Dempsey

 

TNLI: Action Research: Policy & Practice: Breakfast & Book: The Importance of Making Home-School Connections

BY NICOLE NADEAU
Teachers Network Leadership Institute
Action Research Project
2004-2005


Research Question

How can I find ways to build connections with the parents of my students and in what ways do these efforts support their child’s academic and language development?

Rational

For the last three years, I have been teaching an ELL (English Language Learners) Kindergarten class at P.S.361 in Brooklyn. I left my ELL Pull-Out position to start our schools first self-contained ELL class, which I hoped would better meet the needs of my students. Because students were pulled daily, sometimes for two periods, they often missed significant chunks of curriculum. Having them in one class, not being pulled out, I believed would simultaneously support their language and academic development by teaching English through all facets of the curriculum.

Each year has brought a new set of challenges and joys from which to learn and grow. This year my class saw a large influx of students. The class register went from 14 to 24 and finally leveled off at 20 in February. In the fall, new children were admitted daily or were transferred into my class from other classes as they were identified as needing ELL services based on the New York City LAB Test for English Language Learners. Many of the children, initially, spoke no English and/or had never been to school. They needed help adjusting to school while learning a new language and culture, so I enlisted a few of our school’s Parent Learning Leaders (PLL’s) to aid our class.

I started my research by considering how PLL’s not only assisted the students in their daily routines, but, also, how they supported the children’s academic and developmental needs. I observed how the PLL’s read with small groups of students and how they talked with the children about these books. I also observed how Mrs. O., a bilingual parent would sometimes translate for students whose first language was Spanish simple commands such as “stand up” and “go to your cubby” to more complex academic concepts, such as, how to pick and write about one topic during Writing Workshop. This enabled some students to understand more fully what was expected of them. I thought, if I could get another bilingual parent into the class, perhaps, one of the parents of my students who spoke Haitian Creole, this would help to support the needs of even more of my students.

But, as the year progressed, several factors led me to change the focus of my research. Unfortunately, my Parent Learning Leaders were no longer able to volunteer in my class due to family responsibilities. Also, I was unable to enlist the help of any of the parents of my own students in our class after sending home a questionnaire asking for volunteers. For the last three years, I have also had great difficulty getting any parents of my students to chaperone trips. I wondered why I had a hard time getting parents “involved”.

As I began looking at what the research said about the importance of parental support and involvement, specifically, as it related to parents whose first language was other than English, I realized I needed to change my own definition of what constituted “involvement”. I realized I would need to find ways outside my own traditional mind set to connect parents to their child’s school experience. Therefore, my question became: How I can I find ways to build home-school connections with the families of my students and in what ways do these efforts support their child’s academic and language development.

Review of Literature

Experts in the field of English as a Second language point out the need for teachers to reach out to parents and the positive impact it has on the achievement of students. Hilda Hernandez (1997) states, “For students and parents alike, school can be an ‘alien’ place, alien in language and culture, in values and experiences. Recognizing parents as participants in the educational enterprise is critical”(43).

Cummins’ in his chapter in Educating Second Language Children (Genesee 1994) outlines five pedagogical principles to keep in mind when teaching ELL students. The fifth principal states, “The academic and linguistic growth of students is significantly increased when parents see themselves, and are seen by school staff, as co-educators”(43). Research done in England found struggling ELL readers who read aloud to their parents with books sent home from school made significantly greater gains in reading achievement than those ELL students who only worked with reading specialists at school. It was found that students increased their reading proficiency even when parents spoke no English and/or were illiterate in both the first and second language. The research also reported parents felt “great satisfaction” at being involved in this way in the school experience. Students demonstrated increased interest in learning and improved behavior at school. Cummins sights this study as, “The most clear-cut evidence of the academic benefits that can accrue to students as a result of the establishment of a collaborative relationship between the school and parents” (43).

The above study also supports Cummins’ fourth pedagogical principle for educating ELL students. This principle stresses the need for educators to integrate academic content and language learning in order to help ELL children “catch up” to their native English speaking counterparts (42). Miramontes, Nadeau, and Commins (1997) stress linking educational policy to best teaching practices. They write, “if they [ELL students] are made to wait to develop new school-based concepts and skills until they have enough English, they are blocked from using available cognitive tools to their full potential” (19).

The Study

Earlier this year, I had sent home books from the classroom library with two students whose parents had expressed a need for books. But, I also observed that not all of my students were completing their homework reading logs. Therefore, realizing other students may need books and inspired by the research findings in England that showed ELL students’ reading achievement improved when the school collaborated with parents and had ELL students read aloud familiar books to their families at home, I decided to start sending home books with all my students.

I chose to send home books known in my class as “Star Books” or “old favorites” because I knew my students would be familiar with them and could share them with their parents. “Star Books” is a Teachers College Reading Workshop term, used to distinguish them from other kinds of books. Characteristics that qualify Star Books as high quality storybooks include, but are not limited to, having a strong storyline, strong characters and some repetitive text. These books help support both oral language and reading development. Examples, one might be familiar with are, The Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Three Bears.

I read Star Books over and over again throughout the year and use in them our Reading Workshop in a variety of ways to teach children about different aspects of reading. For the first few to several months of school, I read each selection over a four to five day period. I also teach my students during Reading Workshop how to “read” and reread these books on their own using the pictures, their memories of the story plot, and the repetitive language based on their stage of reading development.

According to the work of Elizabeth Sulzby (1985), children pass through “stages” as the “read” and reread well-known storybooks, much like children pass through stages when they are learning to speak or write. Children are said to demonstrate “pre-reading” behaviors, also known as emergent reading, before they learn to read “conventionally”, or in other words, before they come to understand that print holds the message.

In order to illustrate the five stages of development children might exhibit in relationship to their interactions with storybooks, I will use the story, The Three Bears. Initially, children may point to pictures and name them, for example, saying, “bear” or “bear go”. At Stage II, as their knowledge of oral language and reading develops, their interactions with the text sounds more like they are telling a story or talking. For example, one of my students said, “the bears are playing” at this stage. At the next stage, children incorporate more book language in their “reading” of a story. Children often intermingle both oral and story language. They might say something like, “The bears sat in chairs. ‘The little wee bear had a little wee chair’”, hooking into the book’s repetitive language patterns. At Stage IV, children realize that the text holds the message and not the picture marking the point at which children start to transition from emergent readings into conventional readings. They usually say something like, “I can’t read this” or stare blankly at the page and are, usually, now considered “ready to read”. The last stage, stage V, in their interactions with these well-loved storybooks, is when they use their memory of the pictures, the text and newly developing print strategies to read the words.

Before I started sending home Star Books, I assessed my class to determine the children’s stages in relationship to their “reading” of these familiar books on their own or with a partner during Reading Workshop. The assessment demonstrated that each of my students could in someway interact with the text, therefore, it was my hope that even if the ELL parents were not able to read to their child, their child could “read” the familiar texts at home to their families. I realized, even if it was not possible to have parents in my classroom on a regular basis, I was making an important school to home connection by sending a student selected well-loved piece of our every day curriculum home to share with their families. And, at the very least, this intervention was ensuring that every one of my students had a book at home every night.

On Monday, December 6th, 2005 I started sending Star Books home. I, also, sent a letter home in the bag with the first book explaining the rationale behind the initiative and the procedures for handling books. The letter, however, was in English only. I knew this would not be enough to help parents fully understand the intervention, particularly, because I knew some parents were not able to read in English and/or their first language. So I arranged with the help of the principal and assistant principal an event I called “Breakfast and a Book” which took place on in my classroom on Wednesday, January 12th, 2005.

At our school, we do not have designated translators, nor is it any one’s job description, so our assistant principal arranged to have one of our aides and the guidance counselor available. Mrs. J., an aide, served as a translator for parents who spoke Haitian Creole and/or French. Mrs. W, our guidance counselor translated for parents who spoke Spanish. She is the only staff member available to translate for parents whose first language is Spanish.

Ten parents of nine children in my class of nineteen attended the event, as did both the principal and assistant principal, and the two staff members who served as translators. I planned the event for 8:30AM in my class so parents could come to school with their child and stay. I intended to inform and educate parents on the emerging literacy of their child, why I had decided to send home “Star Books”, routines for bringing books home and back to school, and to answer any questions parents might have. However, as will be shown through the interview data and discussed in the analysis, I believe this event did more for “informing and educating” me about a level of disconnect between parents, students, teachers and staff at our school I had not previously seen.


Tools

In order to collect information about my action research I used several tools: random samples of homework reading logs, assessments of reading behaviors, and interviews of school staff. I followed a cohort of seventeen students who had been in my class over a consistent period of time and I interviewed the two staff members who had served as translators for parents.

Homework Reading Logs

I examined the homework book log behaviors of my students at three different points. I randomly sampled one week of homework reading logs in November and one week in December and combined the two weeks to get a picture of log entries prior to sending home Star Books. After I started sending books home, I not only looked at the number of entries made but the kinds of book titles logged, to see if students were reading Star Books, books from home, or a combination of books. I randomly sampled two weeks of book logs between December 6tt 2004 and the January 12th 2005, before the “Breakfast and a Book” event, and combined them. After the January 12th event, I randomly sampled a week of homework reading logs for each month from February to May.

Figure 1
Sulzby’s Stages of Children’s Developmental Behaviors As Emergent and Conventional Storybooks Readers *

I = Labeling and/or responding to the pictures on each page with little or no understanding of the larger story
“Attempts Governed by Pictures: Stories Not Formed”

a.) Labeling and commenting = 1.
b.) Following the action = 2.

II = Telling a story (frequently in the present tense) based on the picture in front of them
“Attempts Governed by Pictures, Stories Formed (Oral Language-Like)”

a.) Dialogic storytelling = 3.
b.) Monologic storytelling = 4.

III = Transitioning between oral and written language. They will read the story using the pictures and language, which they have internalized from hearing the story over and over again. It may sound like conventional reading.
“Attempts Governed by Pictures, Stories Formed (Written Language-Like)

a.) Reading and Storytelling Mixed = 5.
b.) Reading Similar-to-Original Story = 6.
c.) Reading Verbatim-Like Story = 7.

IV = Refusing to read the book using the pictures because they realize that print holds the message. Some children may insist on reading the print and will struggle to do this.
“Refusing to read based on print awareness” = 8.

V = Using their memories of the text and the pictures to read conventionally.
*Reading based on memory of text, pictures and conventional reading strategies

a.) Reading Aspectually (recognizing a word or letterers) = 9.
b.) Holistic Attempts

1. Reading with strategies imbalanced = 10.
2. Reading independently = 11.

Assessing Reading Behaviors and Development

In order to assess oral language and reading behaviors, I listened and took notes as children selected and “read” aloud a Star Book. I used the “Kindergarten Emergent Reading Observation Form” taken from the work of Elizabeth Sulzby and compiled by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project to determine what stage or stages students exhibited behaviors (see Figure 1). I assessed students at the beginning of the year, before Star Books went home and again in the spring.

Interviews

In order to get feedback about parent response to the “Breakfast and a Book” intervention, I wrote down the initial comments of the two staff members who translated for the event. Later, I did follow-up interviews to gain a wider perspective on parental involvement of ELL parents at our school.

Data

The data I collected comes from assessments of oral and reading behaviors, from the observations of student homework reading logs, and the interviews of colleagues who translated for parents.

Reading Behaviors

In November, when I did the first assessment, none of the students exhibited “print readiness” or the ability to read conventionally. However, all of the students demonstrated some ability to interact with the text. Nine of the seventeen students exhibited Stage III behaviors using the picture and combining story and oral language to “read” the story. Three students exhibited emergent reading behaviors typical of Stage II, or using oral language and the picture to tell a story. The remaining five demonstrated labeling (“monkeys”), or labeling with action (“man walk”), behaviors consistent with Stage I (see Table 1).

According to the final assessment done during the month of May, the class demonstrated behaviors in four stages of development. Nine students out of the seventeen exhibited behaviors that demonstrated they were ready to start (Stage IV), or had started reading familiar storybooks conventionally (Stage V). Eight students still exhibited behaviors that demonstrated emergent reading. No students exhibited Stage I behaviors (see Table 1).

However, in order to view the oral language and reading development of each student more closely, and to observe any relationship or possible connection between reading books at home and storybook reading development, I organized my data for the cohort of seventeen students on one table (See Table 2). One side of the table lists the stages and sub-categories for each child for the first and last assessment of storybook “readings”. I did this to demonstrate that as children grow as readers they may demonstrate a variety of reading behaviors. A third column shows the difference in stages from the beginning of the year to the end for each student. The second half of the table shows the scores assigned for reading log behaviors for each student taken from the random samples, as previously explained, from November through May.

Reading Logs

According to the combined two-week random sample done before I started sending books home, out of the seventeen students, eight students received a score of “5”, or completely filled out their reading logs. Two students logged “all” to “some” book log entries when the two weeks were combined. They received a rubric score of “4”. Three students logged “some” entries receiving a score of “3”. One student logged “some” to “no” entries with the combining of the two-weeks, and two students logged “no books”. One student lost the homework packets each of the two weeks and received no score.

After Star Books started going home a combined two-week random sample between December 6th, 2005 and January 12th, 2005 showed only three students fully completed two-weeks worth of log entries. Of the three, only one student logged all Star Books. The other two students read a combination of books from home and school. Six students read some to all entries over the two weeks. However, their book choices also varied. Three out of the six exclusively used Star Books to complete book log entries. The logs of the other three contained some combination of books from home and school. Five students read “some” books each week over the two-week period. The behaviors for this category were the most varied. Only one of students in this category read Star Books exclusively. Two students read a combination. Two other students solely read “other” books or books from home. One of these two students appeared to not actually be logging book titles, but words in cursive copied from a text. Three students filled out “some” to “no” book log entries over the two-week period. One of these students used a combination of books. The other two students used Star Books exclusively to make book log entries.



Overall, compared to the first two-week sample, three students wrote more book log entries, six logged the same number of books, and seven logged fewer book title entries. One student did not have a previous sample in order to compare number of book titles logged. Seven of these students used Star Books exclusively, eight used a combination of Star Books and books from home, and two students did not use Star Books at all. Of these two student, one used text not book titles (see Table 2).

The one week random sample taken in February after the “Breakfast and a Book” event showed different results. Eight students completed all book log entries and did so with Star Books. Three students completed four entries with Star Books exclusively. Four students logged two to three books. This student continued to use text and not titles. Only one student logged no books.

Since, I used a one-week sample and previously used two-week samples, I will not compare number of books logged. However, overall, after the event, thirteen students compared to six students used Star Books exclusively to make Book Log entries, demonstrating a significant increase in the number of students who logged Star Books exclusively. Two students used a combination making the total number of students who used Star Books in some capacity to log book entries fifteen. One student logged no entries and the other was a student who used text (see Table 2).

Development of Reading Skills

Student 1 is the only student that clearly demonstrated a difference of three stages in development from the beginning of the year to the end (see Table 2). This student also logged the most Star Books between January and April. I did not have a sample for this student in May. She went to her country of birth over spring vacation and was not able to re-enter the country for a month until her paper work was cleared.

Two students, students 3 and 7, exhibited two to three stages of growth (see Table 2). Both students read Star Books exclusively after the initiative and completed most to all entries.

Student 16 clearly exhibited Stage III, sub-category 5 behaviors during the first assessment. During the last assessment, this student demonstrated behaviors characterized by Stage III, Sub-category 7 (Reading Verbatim), Stage IV, Sub-category 8 (Refusal to Read), and Stage V, Sub-category 9 (Reading Aspectually) (see Table 2).

Student 7 displayed behaviors characterized by Stages I and II while “reading” a familiar storybook during the first assessment, and Stages III and IV during the final assessment, a difference in behaviors of one to three stages.
Four students, 5, 6, 13 and 17, demonstrated growth between two stages. After the initiative, students who demonstrated growth between two stages was characterized by completing most to all entries with Star Books or a combination of Star and books from home. None of these students completely filled log entries with books entirely from home.

Student 10 demonstrated growth between one and two stages displaying Stage I behaviors initially, but by the last assessment this student demonstrated behaviors characterized by Stage II and III. The student was writing text and not titles on the book log entries. However, for April and May this student was logging a combination of Star Book and “other” actual book titles on the reading log. During this time he began an after-school homework help program.

Three students, 8, 14, and 15, demonstrated growth into the next stage of development. All three students went from stage I to stage II. Student 8 is the only student who logged fewer book entries immediately after the initiative, but then increased log entries. Student 15 did not receive a score for the first random sample because she lost the homework packets. The patterns of how many books were logged for these three students appear inconsistent, but they all used Star Books exclusively or in combination with books from home to make entries.

Students 4 and 11 displayed the same oral language and reading behaviors characterized by Stages II and III during the first assessment, and both demonstrated only Stage III behaviors during the last assessment. However, one student clearly displayed sub-category 7 behaviors, by “reading” using the pictures so it sounded like they reading the text verbatim. Student 4 logged fewer books than the second student according to the random samples, but used only Star Books.

Student 2 did not demonstrate movement between stages, but did show growth within a stage. The last assessment, as did the first assessment showed the student to be at Stage III. However, within this stage the student exhibited growth between sub-categories moving from using storybook language (sub-categories 5 and 6) to sounding like they were repeating the book’s text verbatim (sub-category 7).

Only one student, student12, demonstrated no apparent growth between or within stages. For both the first and last assessment the student exhibited Stage II, sub-category 3. Four out of the eight weeks randomly sampled no books titles were logged. Out of the remaining four samples, an average of one to two entries were made per week. The student used Star Books or a combination of books to complete entries. According to random sampling, this student logged the least amount of books.

Overall, except for student 12, students who logged four to five book titles a week and used Star Books demonstrated growth of two to three stages from the first to the last assessment. And except for student 10, students who exhibited inconsistent scores for reading log behaviors and/or who received scores of “1”, “2”, or “3”, demonstrated development of one stage or less.

Interviews

After the “Breakfast and a Book” event Mrs. J., our trilingual aide, reported parents left feeling “very” happy and now would feel much more comfortable approaching me. She said they had previously felt they “couldn’t” and had been “intimidated”. Two parents cried and thanked “us” for helping their children. Mrs. W. reported that some of the Spanish-speaking parents were surprised and quite happy that there was someone at the event to translate for them.

I used follow-up interviews to clarify the parents’ responses to the session. Mrs. J., said she could not quite explain what was so “special” about that morning but she said, that it was very “important”. She said, “They were so happy to be there”. She said some parents at our school had “never” spoken to or even met their child’s teacher because “they can not communicate”. She said the parents were” scared to go” and speak with their child’s teachers because the parents felt they would not be understood. She said, “Some parents are frustrated because they do not have the English”. And, in turn, she said the teachers had never asked her for “help” in order to contact or speak with these parents.

When I asked her if she felt there should be more of these events with translators, she responded, “Yes, [the parents] need someone to help them talk to teachers.” She pointed out that there are students who are not in ESL, but whose parents do not speak English. She said some kids will “act up” because “they say, ‘I don’t care you can call my mother – she doesn’t speak English!” When I asked her why she felt these kinds of events are important, she said because some parents speak no English and they need some one to communicate with the teacher. “Having someone that can be between them and the teacher makes them feel very comfortable.” In closing she commented, “I don’t know what you did last time, but it made me feel that if everybody did the same thing, they will succeed.”

Analysis

An analysis of the data from my study suggests when teachers and school communities make the effort to connect with families it has a positive impact on student achievement. Due to the limitations of this study, a case for the impact on oral language and reading development of reading Star Books at home cannot be made. However, a comparison of reading log samples with the difference in stages of development of each of the seventeen students from the beginning of the year to the end clearly suggests a relationship between the amount one reads at home and the rate of development. This was most poignantly illustrated when the reading log behaviors of the student who demonstrated the greatest gains in reading development are compared to those of the only student who made no apparent growth. Simply put, the first student read the most Star Books and the second student read the least number of books.
Interestingly, the data from the second random book log sample suggests sending books home was not enough. What the data does appear to suggests is families need and appreciate having translators available. After the “Breakfast and a Book” event, where translators were made available, reading logs between February and May showed more books and Star Books logged. In addition, parents not only benefit from having resources, such as books, to help support their child’s academic success, but, as I found out from two explicit requests, want and need them.

Lastly, the data also suggests teachers may not fully understand the disconnect between home and school a second language can create, the extra efforts they may need to make in order to connect the school and home experience, the resources available to help them communicate with parents and the success that comes from such efforts.

New Questions for Research

Considering my findings and what the literature suggests about the impact of building strong, informed relationships between families and schools on student behavior and achievement, what else as teachers can we do to connect with and support families? What other factors, besides language, might be hampering teacher efforts?

Also, remembering the limitations of this study concerning understanding the relationship between Star Books and oral language and reading development, I propose a few further questions for research:

  • Does book choice make any difference on oral language and reading development?
  • If so, what kinds of books are better for supporting a child’s development?

Policy Implications

On a small scale, my study suggests that when teachers and schools explore ways to connect with families by attempting to understand and support both the needs of families and students, it has a positive impact on student reading development. Therefore, I would like to suggest the following policy implications:

  1. Language is a potential barrier to parental involvement, therefore, teachers and the whole school community need to employ special efforts to communicate with and involve parents in their child’s school experience.
  2. We want parents to be involved, so we need to provide the resources in order to do so. For example, we can provide books, translators, translated materials, and events that make families feel comfortable and for which produce positive experiences.
  3. We did not have translators at our school so we found staff members who could provide these services. Therefore, we need to examine or reexamine the resources already in place in our schools. We need to better utilize, support and appreciate the wealth of experienced, dedicated staff members employed in our public school system.


References

Cummins, J. 1994. “Knowledge, Power, and Identity in Teaching English as a Second Language.” In Educating Second Language Children: The Whole Child, The Whole Curriculum, The Whole Community, ed. F. Genesee, 33-58. Cambridge: the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Hernandez, H. 1997. Teaching in Multilingual Classrooms: A Teachers Guide to Context, Process, and Content. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

Miramontes, O.B., A. Nadeau, and N. L. Cummins. 1997. Restructuring Schools for Linguistic Diversity: Linking Decision Making to Effective Teaching Practices. New York: Teachers College Press.

Sulzby, E. 1985. “Children’s Emergent Reading of Favorite Storybooks: A Developmental Study.” Reading Research Quarterly, XX(4): 458-481.

 

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