In order to help young preschoolers who are learning to speak in more than one language, one California school district is focusing on finding new ways to involve parents in classrooms. The practice started four years ago as a way to encourage more parents to be engaged in activities that help their children develop language and also as a way to help teachers feel more prepared to integrate new languages in child care and preschool settings.
The strategy incorporates a common practice used in schools — parent interviews, typically questionnaires or surveys given to parents at the start of the school year to help identify family and child needs. But while those surveys usually ask about a child’s grade level or parents’ level of satisfaction with school safety, the Fresno Unified School District asks about languages spoken at a child’s home.
The interviews are designed to be conversational, so parents meet with teachers in person and are asked open-ended questions, such as “What are your hopes and dreams for your child?” Teachers are also advised to use the questions as a guide and are encouraged to make the meeting with parents feel more like an informal talk. The Family Language Interview asks for details about the languages spoken to preschoolers at home, a family’s interest in maintaining that language and their willingness to participate in their child’s classroom.
Early childhood leaders overseeing the Fresno program said the interviews are part of a comprehensive strategy to develop early language skills in young children. It is also the first step in reaching parents and having a conversation about the importance of a home language in developing English and other skills. The process also helps to address one of the “biggest myths around how English learners learn,” which is that maintaining a child’s home language can hinder their development of English or confuse them, said Maria Ceballos, director of the Starting Smart and Strong Initiative in Fresno, an early childhood program that first began using the interviews through a pilot program known as the Fresno Language Project.
California has more English learners than any other state, according to a report titled “English Learners: Charting Their Experiences and Mapping Their Futures in California Schools.” The report is one of 36 in Getting Down to Facts II, a comprehensive analysis of California’s education system released in September.
In the Getting Down to Facts II report on English learners in California, researchers said that to provide a quality education to young dual language learners, programs should focus on early reading skills, developing English language skills and maintaining a child’s home language.
In California, close to 40 percent of children are classified as English learners when they enter kindergarten, researchers state in the report. The California Department of Education does not track the number of English learners in the state in child care and preschool settings but states 72 percent of the state’s K-12 English learners are enrolled in kindergarten through 6th grade.
In Fresno Unified, a district in which 14,625 of its 70,725 students are English learners, finding out if parents want to maintain their home language is one of the key questions in the Family Language Interview, Ceballos said. The interview process allows teachers to show families they will support them if maintaining their home language is a priority.
“Language is a part of a family’s identity and we want them to know we see it as an asset,” she said. “It’s more than what does your child like to do and what do you hope your child learns, it also provides an opportunity for (teachers) to have a discussion about how to support your child,” she said.
The Fresno Language Project — a joint initiative with Fresno Unified, Head Start, child care centers and family child care homes — began using the surveys in 2014 in 19 child care settings, including preschool classrooms and child care homes. There are currently 280 students in these child care and preschool programs, Ceballos said.
Due to increased parent involvement, district officials decided to expand the interview program. “We found it so useful in supporting families and building relationships with them that we are moving it to our general school population,” Ceballos said. Prior to the expansion, only the 175 teachers who were a part of the Fresno Language Project used the surveys. This fall, all preschool teachers in Fresno Unified began using the interviews in their classrooms. There are 144 preschool classes in the district, Ceballos said. In upcoming years, program organizers plan to expand to transitional kindergarten, a grade for 4-year-olds who turn 5 in the first few months of the school year.
To measure the success of the strategy, Ceballos said an independent evaluation is being conducted by an outside agency, Engage R+D. The evaluation will highlight the successes and challenges teachers face in implementing the interviews and other early education strategies designed to boost language development in the classroom.
Deanna Mathies, executive officer of early learning for Fresno Unified, said when parents recognize that a teacher wants to know more about them, especially as it relates to language and culture, it encourages parent involvement. “It shows parents, ‘We have an interest in you,’” she said. Mathies said an important aspect of the parent interview is that it’s not restricted to bilingual teachers. Teachers who speak only English can also conduct the interviews with a staff member who can translate the questions, she said.
Teachers using the interview have the flexibility to choose when they meet with families. Typically teachers use “meet and greet times” at the beginning of the school year, program organizers said. The interview is not currently available online but Mathies said officials plan to create a tablet version for teachers to use.
Jessica Gutierrez, a preschool teacher in Fresno Unified’s early learning center, said she conducts the interviews in Spanish, the home language of some of her parents. However, even as a bilingual teacher fluent in both English and Spanish, Gutierrez said she sometimes relies on translation to reach preschool parents. Gutierrez said some of her students come from families whose primary language is Lao or Hmong, the eighth most commonly spoken language among California English learners.
“We have many children who speak Hmong and I don’t know it, many of us don’t, but the survey opens up the opportunity for us to meet parents and we sit and ask questions and make sure we are pronouncing the words right,” Gutierrez said. In order to help her students develop more vocabulary words, Gutierrez said she’s become more willing to accept support. “We count on families to come in and help us with activities or translation if we don’t have staff who speak the language,” she said. “You really have to rely on other parents, community members and other educators to help you.”
Parent involvement in their children’s school can improve language learning, according to a recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy organization in Washington D.C. The report, titled, “Supporting Dual Language Learner Success in Superdiverse PreK-3 Classrooms: The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model,” focuses on how one California language program, used in more than 100 schools statewide, supports teachers and students in superdiverse classrooms, defined as classrooms where more than five languages are spoken or cultures are represented.
The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model, or SEAL program, is designed to help students who speak a language other than English at home develop a stronger vocabulary starting in preschool. The SEAL model was piloted in bilingual and dual language settings as well as in English-only classrooms with English learners. The Family Language Interview used in Fresno is not associated with the Sobrato model. But like the Sobrato model, many programs that aim to increase language development for diverse students include parent involvement.
Researchers in the study that examined the Sobrato Model in superdiverse classrooms said that encouraging parents to participate in class activities, such as reading books to children in their home languages, celebrates and validates a child’s language and culture, creating a sense of community in the classroom. Parents can also translate simple words or phrases for teachers to use in a song or rhyme, it states. This helps children to see themselves reflected in the classroom.
In one Fresno classroom, where Arabic was the primary language spoken among students, a teacher asked parents to translate common class instructions, such as “wash your hands,” said Anna Arambula, a preschool teacher and professional development coach in the Fresno Language Project. Arambula was one of the first participants in the project, which began using the interviews in 2014.
While all teachers may not be able to speak a language in-depth or fully understand a student’s culture, simple translations help teachers to personalize activities and connect to students, she said. “You can just see their faces light up when you speak to them in their language, whether it is Lao, Hmong or Spanish,” she said. “It’s not that the child couldn’t connect to another teacher, it’s just a level of comfort.”