I recently attended the eleventh annual ESOL Conference held at Kennesaw State University. Presentations were mainly focused on good teaching practices that can be applied in classrooms that contain English language learners. The truth of the matter is, most classrooms in Georgia contain at least a couple of students who are not yet fluent in America’s mother tongue, so all educators can benefit from knowing about such practices.
However, the presentation that struck the greatest chord with me had a much broader focus than those that were exclusive to teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages.
Dr. Debbie Zacarian, the keynote speaker on multiple days of the conference, hails from Massachusetts where she is the director of a center dedicated to English language education and student achievement. The thrust of her speech was that parents lay the most essential groundwork for their children to be academically successful, not teachers.
Of course, dear reader, this probably strikes you as common sense, but it was refreshing to hear a seasoned educator talk about how important the role of parents really is when it comes to how well a child will perform in school.
Dr. Zacarian’s speech was intriguing because her data went beyond the ideas that most of us have about how “good education parents” help with homework, are involved in the classroom, and enforce social boundaries that stop a child from sabotaging his or her performance in school.
Of utmost importance, whether a child comes from the United States, Mexico or Timbuktu, is the literacy framework that a child’s parents put in place before the child has even started formal education.
In fact, this literacy framework is a giant indicator of whether or not that child will ever be successful because it determines where his or her starting block is set in the metaphorical racetrack to achievement. If that starting block is too far behind the starting blocks of peers, it is very difficult for that child to ever catch up.
So what is a literacy framework?
Parents who value education begin working with their children to develop vocabulary and higher-level thinking skills long before those children ever reach the classroom. They intrinsically foster an environment that is geared toward learning, and they act as personal coaches who exercise intellectual development when they read, write and speak with their kids.
As a consequence, when those children do go to school, they carry with them academic language and skills that put them miles ahead of their peers. They have a sound literacy framework—like a well-exercised body--upon which a teacher can build new skills.
The power of this framework should not be underestimated and can be translated into a long-term predictor for future socioeconomic success.
Research shows that the average toddler with professional parents has a vocabulary of as many as forty five thousand words. The average toddler who has working class parents brings to his pre-school a vocabulary of around twenty six thousand words. An average toddler with parents on public assistance has only thirteen thousand words to carry into her first classroom.
Who do you think is better positioned to do well?
It is no accident when parents who have graduated from university have children who will attend university, and it is fascinating to see that the biggest advantages don’t cost anything to give and are given when the kid is still in pull-ups.
However, a parent from a lower socioeconomic class can be literacy oriented if he or she puts an emphasis on developing a child’s intrinsic ability to learn.
For example, Dr. Zacarian told an anecdote about how she saw a woman with a preschooler at a museum. The mother was asking the child about the colors in the painting and why the child thought the artist had chosen to draw some of the objects differently from some of the other paintings on display. Did the child like the colors? Did they make her feel happy? Sad? Like a summer’s day?
Dr. Zacarian knew even though the preschooler was not capable of giving a high level critique of an Impressionist’s technique, the mother was fostering an ability to compare and contrast, generalize, and engage in abstract thinking.
But does a parent need to take a child to an art museum to engage in this type of teaching when time and money are short?
I think about how my son and I used to have picnics in a field in front of an apartment complex in which we lived with a very tight budget a thousand years ago. He would spin himself silly and collapse beside me on a blanket to eat his PB and J while gazing up at the endless canvass of blue above us.
We would look for art in the clouds. We would make up stories about the alligator cloud that looked like it was about to eat the princess cloud. We’d find a plot together, step-by- step, creating logical sequences. We’d talk about the differences between alligators and crocodiles. We’d use all the words we needed, new words when necessary, to give our monarch a reason to be in that horrible predicament.
Then we’d play chase again, the Mommy turning into an alligator, looking for the little boy that might taste like peanut butter.
Oh, it was fun! He had no idea he was learning! And I had no idea I was building a literacy framework, but that is exactly what was happening.
Of course, when he got to school, my son would still sometimes stumble on the education track. His race was nowhere near over, and good teachers needed to join his coaching staff.
However, research tells me kids like mine always have starting blocks well ahead of many of the children we say today are “falling behind” in education because of the thinking games we used to play at picnics.
The thing is, those “falling behind” kids were behind from the POP of the starting gun, and parents who want them to win the race of life need to consider how they can move that starting block to give that kid a fair shot.
In truth, this is why Georgia has a Pre-K program… to help those children who are not building a literacy framework at home.
Still, the fact is parents must step up and become more engaged in that early education process or we will always have children who find the achievement gap too insurmountable to close.
Parents are the most important “coaches” when it comes to their children not starting from behind, much less being left there.