English, So They Can Help Their Children
by Laura Pappano, from
the Boston Globe, November 3, 2002
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The class is talking about
the Boston Tea Party, and English as a Second Language teacher
Nora O'Connor makes a point about irregular verbs.
''I don't say `I putted.' I say, `I put.' You don't say `throwed.'
You say, `They threw the tea into the harbor,''' O'Connor
explains to Luisa Perez and 15 other adults at a class last
week sponsored by the Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain.
For Perez, whose 5-year-old daughter is in kindergarten and
whose son is a ninth-grader at Boston Latin Academy, there is
one overwhelming reason to learn English: To help her children
succeed in school.
''My daughter is learning letters; this way I can explain the
letters,'' said Perez, an Ecuadoran immigrant who can now also
read her son's daily assignment list and help with homework,
including using the dictionary. ''I need the English for my
children,'' she said.
The heated political debate over bilingual education may be
focused on how schools teach English to children, whether by
immersion or bilingual instruction. But what about the
parents? It may not be part of the rallying cry for either
side in the contentious battle over the ballot initiative, but
talk with ESL program directors and teachers and you hear that
parents want to learn English to get better jobs and to help
their children with schoolwork.
''When a parent doesn't speak English, it creates a tremendous
disability to that parent to really participate in a child's
education,'' said Joanne Appleton Arnaud, executive director
of the Boston Adult Literacy Fund. ''They can't read the notes
from their child's teacher. They can't participate in
parent-teacher conferences. They can't help their children
with their homework. They can't make informed decisions about
which school placement is best for their child.''
The fund supports 125 English as a second language programs in
Greater Boston. Last year 92 percent of adults in their
programs were the primary caretakers of children, Arnaud said.
How critical it is for parents to learn English may be a
matter for debate. Elsa Auerbach, a professor at the
University of Massachusetts at Boston who trains teachers of
adult literacy and English as a second language, said a 1983
study linked parental literacy with children's success at
reading. But for second-language learners, she said, parents
should model literacy, perhaps by taking English classes, but
what's most critical is rich language usage in any tongue, not
Jeanne Paratore is associate professor of education at Boston
University and adviser to the Intergenerational Literacy
Project, a partnership between the university and the Chelsea
public schools. Data collected since 1989 on participants of
the project, which teaches parents and children to read and
write in English and instructs parents on how to interact with
teachers, show ''no relationship between a parent's
proficiency in English and their interest, ability,
willingness, capacity to support their children in school,''
And yet data also show that schools that perform at levels
higher than expected have high parent involvement, she said.
The research may say it is fine - in some cases even better -
for parents to interact with students at home in their native
language, particularly if parents struggle in English.
Still, there is a growing push and high demand to teach
In Boston, Arnaud said, adults usually wait six months to
three years to get into an English as a second language
program, depending on class times.
Last month in Montgomery County, Md., School Superintendent
Jerry D. Weast called for a center to teach parents English as
a way to close the achievement gap between students who do
speak English as their first language and those who do not.
''What we have is a large number of children trying to learn
English at school, and their parents are unable to reinforce
that at home, because they themselves do not speak English,''
said school spokesman Brian J. Porter.
Involving parents and teaching them English is a key to
Superintendent Eduardo Carballo's effort to turn around the
troubled Holyoke school system. Carballo, who came to the
United States at age 14 as a Cuban refugee, created a new post
of director of adult and parent education after he took over
as superintendent in January. The district has won several
early literacy grants, including one for a program that has
preschoolers and a parent learning English at the same center.
''Everything I read says the more parents are involved in the
education of their children, the better the academic
achievement,'' Carballo said. He pointed out that some parents
have complained that they couldn't help their children with
The district's school population is 73 percent Hispanic. While
many of the students speak English well, parents may not,
''We need to make them as literate as we can in English,'' he
said. ''The truth of the matter is, without English, you will
not go far in this country, and our parents know that.''
Isolda Ortega - agency director for the Community Education
Project, a citywide collaborative of adult educators in
Holyoke - said the program can serve only about 200 adults per
year. That's only 2 to 3 percent of those who need English as
a second language classes, according to the Adult and Parent
Education Department in the Holyoke School Department.
One of the problems, Ortega said, is that many immigrants are
not literate in their first language. They are so motivated
that they complain that four-hour classes are too short, she
Yolanda Robles, a native language literacy teacher, said that
adults want to learn to read, even in Spanish, so they can
read aloud to their children. ''They don't even know how to
spell their name,'' Robles said.
The challenge for many schools that serve immigrants is to get
parents comfortable with how schools work in the United
At the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, a parent
center offers citizenship and English classes, as well as
parent training on participating in school activities. ''Our
big aim is to develop families, to give students a united
front,'' said principal Sunita Mehrotra. Although students at
the fully bilingual school may chose to do assignments in
English or in Spanish, Mehrotra said parents ''are always
pushing their kids to learn English.''
Certainly, when parents do not speak English, the equation
grows more complicated.
Richard Romero is a two-way bilingual education teacher at the
Rafael Hernandez School in Roxbury. He taught first grade in
Newton last year and before that taught at the Van Buren
School in Indio, Calif., where he taught English immersion
classes to children of migrant farmworkers. Romero said the
experience taught him that what works best - bilingual
education or immersion - as much to do with what families
bring to the schoolhouse door, Romero said.
''There is a limited amount of time for teachers to instruct
students,'' he said of bilingual education. ''Students who are
struggling, who do not have the support at home are often
unable to cope in two languages. It's too much to do in too
little amount of time.''
But ''for children who have support at home, it is not too
much to ask and it is a great opportunity,'' he said of
At the Hyde Square Task Force class and at similar English as
a second language programs statewide, there may be much
anticipation about Tuesday's vote on the English immersion
ballot question. But for Maria Diaz, mother of a fifth-grader
who is in a bilingual education program, her immediate goal
remains the same. She wants to learn English, because she is
tired of needing her brother or friends to help with her son's
''If I learn English, I can understand what he's doing,'' Diaz
said. ''If I know English, I can go to the school, and I can
speak with his teachers.''
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