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NYC Helpline: How To: Work with Students' Families

How to Show a Non-English Speaking Parent How to Help an English Speaking Child Allison Demas

Have you ever traveled to a different country and found yourself in the middle of a store where well-meaning people are talking at you, you can’t understand them, they can’t understand you and all you want is to find the nearest restroom? You make a mental note that from now on you will learn a few key phrases to help you navigate before you travel to foreign lands. Well, for many of our students’ parents homework is that foreign land. Here’s a way to show them a few key things that will help them navigate that territory.


First of all, explain to the parents that they should simply TALK. This is true for students of any age but especially so for young children. Parents need to talk to their children in their native language. They can talk about anything - the food they are cooking, the heat of the stove, the colors of the blankets, the way water pours out of a glass. It is important that these verbal exchanges actually be conversations and not just commands. The topic doesn’t matter, the act of conversation does.


If a parent is trying to help a child with a reading assignment that requires the use of a picture book then the parent needs to do some prep work. Knowledge of the title may help give a general idea of the story, but the parent should dig deeper and look through the book alone to try to get a better understanding of the story through the pictures. This is a technique we teach our beginning readers.


The parent should have the child read the book aloud. The child will be reading in English. The parent does not understand what the child is saying. However, if the parent asks a question the child will automatically answer the parent in the native language because that is the language associated with the parent. (Here’s a tip - young children usually don’t quite understand that their parents can’t speak both languages. Young children are egocentric: “If I can speak both languages then so can my mom and dad.”) If a parent asks enough key questions, the answers, combined with the previous picture walk, will help the parent understand what is going on in the story.


A child is reading a book aloud to her mother. The mother has previously looked through the entire book to get an idea of the story.

Child: (reading in English) “So Little Red Riding Hood went to her grandmother’s house. She forgot her mother’s warning to stay to the path and soon she found herself deep in the woods.”
Parent: (in native language) “What was that again? I didn’t get that? What did she do?”
Child: (in native language) “Her mother told her to stay on the path but she forgot and went into the woods.”
Parent: (in native language) “Why do you think her mother told her to stay on the path?”
Child: (in native language) “I don’t know.”
Parent: (in native language) “Well, why do I tell you to watch where you are going and not to go the wrong way?”
Child: (in native language) “Because I might get lost or meet a stranger. Oh! Her mother wants her to be safe.”
Parent: (in native language) “Good. Read some more. Let’s see what happens.”
Child: “...and soon she found herself deep in the woods. Suddenly a wolf jumped out at her.” (To parent in native language) “Oh it’s a stranger!”


There are certain types of questions that help propel these conversations.
Here are a few suggestions:

  • Why did s/he do that?
  • What happened?
  • What was that?
  • Tell me that again.
  • Explain that to me.
  • Now why would s/he do something like that?

The parent shouldn’t want the child to figure out that the parent doesn’t understand what is being read. The key is to make the questions sound like a natural conversation. This is why experience with a conversation, as explained above, is so important.


To present these approaches to the parents you should schedule a meeting or workshop. You will require the assistance of at least one person since you are demonstrating a conversation, not a monologue.

This is a no-brainer but, please, hold the meeting in the native language.

If it’s a language that you don’t speak then get co-workers or parents who do speak it to help you. Also remember, it’s a language barrier, not a sound barrier. Raising your voice and speaking slowly will not help. Just get an interpreter.


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