Years ago I visited a city school that clearly celebrated the diversity of their population with lots of materials in English and Spanish. But, I observed some children who were not participating in the stories and songs. The teachers told me those children spoke Arabic or Urdu or Korean – and they didn’t have any resources for those languages. Can we really afford to overlook any child?  

I realized that children who speak less common languages need every bit of our best teaching and care and I decided to become an advocate to give them a voice. I learned that there are over 11 million young dual language learners in the United States, and more than 3 million of them speak a language other than English or Spanish. That’s a lot of young children who need language and literacy support to be ready to succeed in school – in hundreds of different languages! I have traveled throughout the country to collect strategies that make learning accessible for children from any language background.  Digital media often come to the rescue in diverse programs, so I’ll share some of those ideas here for ReadyRosie readers.

When teachers and administrators tell me they don’t have staff that speak all the languages of the children in their school, I remind them that there is one educational partner that can be counted on to know the child’s language:  the child’s family!   The first strategy I suggest for multilingual programs is to do more to engage with diverse families.   Go beyond the traditional “parent night” to get to know each and every family and help them build their capacity as partners in their child’s education. This means schools need to be open to a variety of communication strategies so they can connect with each family in a way that meets their needs. Keep in mind the families that don’t show up at parent nights might be the families that need you the most.  This is challenging when families speak different languages, but showing them a video or photo of their child doing something fun at school is a great way to start a positive relationship. This gives the teacher and parent something to enjoy together and helps the parent feel included. From this first step, more positive interactions and invitations to be part of the school community can follow.

Many schools send home newsletters and information packets to keep parents informed about what’s happening at school.  As the number of families speaking different languages keeps growing, we need schools to rely less on wordy print documents and think of creative alternatives. Some programs have had success forming a committee of families and staff that speak different languages to serve as ambassadors. When it’s time for important information to be sent home, they can follow up with a phone call to help new families understand what they need to know. Some schools have posted informative videos on their websites as another way to communicate. A video showing the school’s fire drill process or demonstrating how children use the school library can be understood by families no matter what language they speak. Equipped with this kind of information, the parents can then explain the procedures to their children in their home language to support school success.

As the school uses these strategies to build the foundation of a positive relationship with each family, they pave the way for a deeper connection.  We know all parents want their children to succeed in school and video can be a powerful tool to help them contribute to their children’s success. It’s not enough to tell parents they should read and talk about books with their children – you need to show them how to do it! The videos provided by ReadyRosie can help diverse parents learn to be teaching partners. They send powerful visual messages that can inform families regardless of their language.

While the ReadyRosie videos may show kitchen counting games or how to act out a story, schools should make it clear that all these activities can be done in the family’s home language. In fact, research tells us that the deeper, richer conversations families have in their home language provide a better foundation for later English learning. Some of the skill families can learn from video include the playful use of every day materials for learning, the benefits of encouraging children to do more of the talking in conversations and book discussions, ways to use expression and funny voices to make stories more engaging, and how to find interesting vocabulary words in ordinary activities.  Families also get the powerful message from the ReadyRosie videos that ordinary parents can be extraordinary teachers for their own children.

Digital media can also help educators share resources in home languages to support learning. Make a class book with photos from a recent field trip and email copies home to families to encourage interesting conversations with their children. Then, invite the families to add some words to the book in their home language and send it back so you can use it as a multilingual resource in the classroom. Send home recordings of songs you are working on in school so the children and their families can enjoy singing them to build that home-school connection. Ask families to send in music from their home language and culture to enrich the multicultural experiences of all the children.  One program I know asked families to send in photos of their child’s dinner plate with a typical meal. They collected them to make a class book showing what each child eats for dinner and then laminated the photos to use a props in the dramatic play kitchen. Imagine how the parents felt when they visited the classroom and saw that they had contributed to important and popular classroom learning materials that celebrated the uniqueness of each child and family.

Technology gives us so many opportunities to create, collect and connect information to support learning in any language. It is one of the most powerful tools available to help schools effectively educate each and every child in the context of blossoming diversity. I encourage educators to learn more about how they can use these tools to make sure that no child is left out due to language barriers. Including all children is the key to successful schools.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Do families that speak languages other than English or Spanish find images or information that meet their needs in your school or community?
  2. How can ReadyRosie help you communicate the message that each family’s home language is an asset that is valued in your school community?
  3. What ideas from this article gave you a new strategy you can use to help diverse families become more included and engaged?

September 10, 2015

Contributed by Karen N. Nemeth, Ed.M., Founder, Language Castle LLC and author of 9 books and many articles on the topic of early education.