Parent participation – underutilised benefits?
'As teachers of primary-aged children, we have found out that learning is most successful when home and school are working together. …… This is particularly true in the teaching of a foreign language.' Anne Farren and Richard Smith in Bringing it home *
What 'home' says or even thinks about how a child is achieving at school is important to the child's self-esteem and consequently his self-motivation. Many children spend most one-to-one time at home with their parents, siblings and members of the extended family and like to please them and hear their praise for what they do. 'Sasha's in the school play and he has to say something in English. He's getting very good in English,' mother told grandpa over the phone within Sasha's hearing. Imagine how proud Sasha felt and what affect this has on his attitude to English at school. Conversely if parents are not pleased with the way English is being taught at school, their criticism can be felt by the child, even if it is not actually verbalised in front of them.
Good liaison between the school and home is very important if participation is to be successful and beneficial for the child. Many parents show more interest in English and the way it is taught than in other subjects like History or Music. This could be because many parents are innate language teachers who have already successfully taught their children to speak their 'home' language. Some parents who began English in Secondary School, and learned through grammatical analysis methods, may expect their young children to learn in the same way and initially may be sceptical of Primary School language acquisition methods.
Before children start learning English as a foreign language it is useful for parents to have some brief explanation, either in the form of an English News Letter or through an informal meeting, about the following:
1) How young children pick-up English Young children pick-up English using many of the same skills they used when their parents were teaching them how to speak their home language. Much of what children say in English initially will be single words or blocks of language. Girls may be quicker than boys to use English and it is not helpful to make comparisons (Issue 11). At this stage parents should not expect them to know anything about the grammatical rules of their utterances or even how many words they comprise. (eg What-are-you-doing?)
2) Parents' participation Support at home in English should be similar to that which parents gave when they were helping their children to begin to speak their home language. Support can take place at regular time in the day (eg an English Time or English Book Time) or at any time when the child shows he wants to speak English (eg the child starts a rhyme and mother and child go on together). It should always be a fun time and not be associated with formal Homework tasks.
3) Links to activities There has to be some logical reason for the child to use English instead of his home language; an English language based activities can provide this. Using English language to communicate is only part of the learning that takes place whilst participating in activities. Activities can also broaden the child socially, cognitively, emotionally, creatively and even in some cases physically. In any English based activity there is usually some cultural content that naturally leads to comparisons of differences and similarities. Learning English for the young child is not 'a subject' like Geography or Maths; it is about communicating in another code and broadening at the same time.
Types of participation
The degree of participation allowed by Education Authorities or Individual Schools varies from country to county. In some countries the system of Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) is not allowed.
Even if formal parent participation is restricted, some form of sharing between the child's two worlds of home and school is natural for the child and, if positive, can also be beneficial. Parents often encourage sharing by asking, 'What did you learn in English today?' The parent should not be disappointed if the child replies 'played a game' in home language, as it difficult for the child to repeat odd new phrases in English that are not linked to an activity or some action that is going on.
- Participation is easier for a parent when it is based on some activity that is familiar to them and the child, like reading a picture book. A parent needs to be confident that he understands how to participate in the English activity that the child brings home. If a parent is unsure of what is expected of them, this can give the child negative feed back about his parent's English ability and the place of English in the home. Where activities are new, parents need a note of explanation and suggestions of what English phrases to use.
- Activities to be shared should not be sent home until they have been well prepared in class and children feel confident enough to take the lead in sharing, so 'showing off 'their English ability. Success starts off a chain of praise that motivates and stimulates the child to go on. Any criticism can de-motivate and regaining confidence is not immediate.
- Discussion about the activity can be in either English, the home language or in bilingual speech where the child speaks in home language and code switches to use English words he knows well or words he may not know in the home language. Look at dirty Bertie. Tu as vu his hands .Dirty yuk! As children become more fluent the use of the home language diminishes.
- Parents should be encouraged and feel comfortable using some of the same innate parentese skills they used when they taught their children how to speak, like repeating back, stressing important words, speaking more slowly, and giving praise more generously.
Bringing home Realpicturebooks-
- Picture books provide parents with a ready-made activity that is easy to share.
- Selected picture books with short texts, that have been read and re-read many times at school, can be borrowed and brought home. By this time the text has generally been picked-up by heart and the child is ready to read it aloud to others and find satisfaction in reading it silently, too.
- Each reading increases the child's skills and confidence.
- In sharing children can read the text in English and discuss the pictures in home language, broadening his visual literacy skills (Issues 6& 13).
- Sharing a picture book bonds. Phrases in the text often become in-family English.
- Children enjoy having their own time with the book to browse (Issue 10).
- Having the book to themselves may result in creative extensions like copying the pictures.
- Being proud to show the family a beautiful book and reading it to them can motivate.
- Book borrowing can lead to making mini-home libraries of English books. This is more likely when there is a Class English Library Corner to act as a role model.
Allowing and encouraging parents to participate in natural ways should be a benefit for the teacher in that another older person is spending one-to-one time to hear the child use English, discuss his interests and encourage him. It also provides the parents with an opportunity to participate in something the child is doing at school and show him that they, too, like to learn English. Young children whose parents are involved in their learning make significantly more progress than those who are not. Dr Maria Evangelou and Professor Kathy Sylva* The parent's role model in sharing English picture books may do more than support; it may be inspirational creating a life-long love of English, art and books.
*Bringing it home - Farren and Smith published by CILT ISBN 1-904243-19-3
*The effects of Peers Early Education Partnership (PEEP) on Children's Developmental Progress - Evangelou and Sylva - Dept of Educational Studies, Oxford University