A Program for Migrant Parents to Support Student’s Academic Discourse

By Heather Sellens, Ed.D.

Heather Sellens picture
Heather Sellens

Linguistic proficiency and high-level thinking have emerged as a primary focus of discussion with the onset of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The attention often centers on concerns for “at risk” children who have already been struggling with English academic discourse and tasks. One group of those children is Latino Migrant children whose achievement has historically lagged behind their peers (Ruiz, 2006). Some argue that the academic English language development standards focus on meaningful and engaging activities to build on English language development for English Learners (United States, Common Core State Standards, 2012). On the other hand, however, others contend “at risk” Latino Migrant students do not have enough linguistic support to be successful at academic tasks that require high-level thinking (Rodrigues-Valls, 2011).

Statistical analysis has determined that Latinos account for 46% of all high school dropouts (Snyder, Dillow, & Hoffman, 2007). One reason for the high dropout rates is household incomes at, or near, poverty levels (Fry & Gonzales, 2008; Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2008). Another cause is the time frame that the policy-makers require immigrant students to learn English is fallible (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2008). Immigrant students are tested in oral and written proficiency after one year. In contrast to the current policy, research found that immigrants need 4 – 7 years to master academic English (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2008). Immigrant students’ are likely to dropout of high school when they lack the language to reach for proficiency in academic coursework. There is a domino effect towards social and economic deficiency, when high school dropouts enter the workforce unprepared with the linguistic skills required by employers (Barton, 2012). The growth in numbers of non-English speaking students is continuing because immigrants who give birth to children in the United States are mostly from Spanish-speaking homes, currently over five million (Center for Public Education, 2013). English Learners comprise the fastest growing K-12 public school student populations in the United States. Thus, when five million Spanish-speaking students do not receive enough support towards English competency, the “at risk” Latino Migrant students face the probability of dropping out of school.

Migrant Students’ Access to Academic Discourse

As a consultant to Migrant Education for over 20 years, I have spoken with a wide range of administrators, parents, students, and teachers of migrant students in California. In 2006,      I interviewed administrators, teachers, parents and students in a northern California school district to inquire about their concerns and recommendations for the education of the Migrant students in their schools. I also visited classrooms to observe both teaching practices and Migrant students’ engagement during class time. Most mainstream classes failed to provide enough time for linguistic and academic engagement for English Learner students. Furthermore, I observed that Migrant students spent less than 5% of a class period in oral engagement in the mainstream class, which is consistent with studies done by Arreaga-Mayer & Perdomo-Rivera (1996). Few English Learners were provided the opportunity to either ask questions or discuss what they had learned in class. In the telling words of one teacher, “I do not have time for so many low achievers in my classroom” (Sellens, 2006).

Without frequent and appropriate opportunities to discuss vocabulary and texts, check for comprehension, and ask questions, it is reasonable to predict that Migrant students will experience much more difficulties meeting additional rigorous skills as specified by CCSS and the National Governors Association (NGA) (United States, Common Core State Standards, 2012). Most Migrant students face multiple barriers to achieve academic efficacy. Researchers, experts, and advocates have identified key limitations in the life and educational circumstances, which jeopardize migrant students’ chances to succeed academically in the United States educational system (NCBE, 2001; Kindler, 2002; Branz-Spall et al, 2003; Fránquiz & Salinas, 2004; Ruiz & Barajas, 2012; LaCroix, 2007; USDE, 2006; NCES, 2010). The scholars’ interviews and observations found that the Migrant students could be marginalized both socially by peers and instructionally by teachers (Ruiz & Barajas, 2012).

Scholars have also discovered that the conceptual framework in many schools hinders Migrant students to develop their linguistic skills in the educational system. Most Migrant students do not have enough practice in differentiated communication to make the connection between their native language and academic English in order to develop linguistic proficiency, or even have the opportunity to cultivate high-level thinking skills. Moreover, participation in challenging grade-level content coursework for English Language Learners with adequate instruction and resources, or in enrollment in rigorous preparatory coursework eludes many migrant students, because the educational system are not conducive to assist them to move to the next grade.

Indeed, Migrant students’ barriers intensify in districts where there are high concentrations of English Language Learners (Rodríguez-Valls, 2011). Furthermore, the Migrant students’ educational divide widens when their education is interrupted as their Migrant parents move from seasonal employment to another. The missed time, lack of continuity, and the time needed to adjust to different academic settings, expectations, instructional programs, and new school environments every time they move, cause formidable challenges (Ruiz, 2006).

Proposition 227 Outcomes for Migrant Students

In addition, Migrant students are even more limited in their opportunities to develop academic discourse with Proposition 227 (1998). Proposition 227 requires all students in California to receive instruction predominately in English. Conversely, research suggests that students acquire cognitive and academic language best in their first language (Cummins, 2000). Therefore, Migrant students, and most English Learners, do not fully develop the foundation to negotiate high cognitive and academic school tasks in their weaker language when they are limited to receive instruction mainly in English. Consequently, when Migrant students do not develop fluency in high-level communication skills in their native language, the results are seriously weakened for cognitive and academic language abilities in the language of instruction: English.

Teachers do not have Sufficient Training to Support English Learners Language Needs

Increased classroom diversity has brought teacher efficacy issues to the forefront of the education reform, but studies have shown that many teachers were not fully trained to meet the demands of a diverse student population or feel they under prepared (Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005). In California, teachers of English Learners may have only received a 45-hour workshop to pass the Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development (CLAD) exam, a 45-hour workshop to obtain an ELD/SDAIE certificate or participated in an online course with no support or follow up.

latino teacher with studentAdditionally, there exists a correlation between the number of English Learners and the
mainstream teacher’s sense of efficacy toward English Learners (Sellens, 1994). In a study of 250 mainstream teachers, I found that with higher numbers of English Learners in the classroom, teacher efficacy decreased. Teachers of English Learners said they felt “overwhelmed” by the amount of English Learner students, and the diverse teaching methods required to influence English language comprehension, and subsequently many reported they were “unsupported by their school administrator” (Sellens, 1994).

Nevertheless, all teachers who possess a teaching credential, are expected to execute
differentiated instruction to assist the English Language Learners. Overall, too many English Learners are provided instructors who themselves admit they are not prepared for effective instruction of these students (Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005). What’s more, teachers with little or no training with English Language Learners may indeed regard their teaching methods as effective (Sellens, 1994). Nonetheless, recognizing, latino boy w teacheremphasizing, and strategically integrating children’s knowledge, skills, and abilities is central to the instruction, and teachers need to improve educational opportunities for English Learners (Genessee, Lindholm-Leary, Sanders, & Christian, 2006). Scholars have concluded, “students with limited English proficiency are the least likely of all students to have a teacher who is actually prepared to instruct them” (Garcia, Arias, Murri, & Serna, 2010, p. 61).

Common Core State Standards Require Rigorous Academic Language Proficiency

Common Core State Standards (CCSS) require that all students, including Migrant students, receive the same course work in all grade levels (United States, Common Core State Standards, 2012). All students need to show the ability to speak, read, and write formally in English. In addition, CCSS focus on students’ conceptual English understanding in all subjects. Students are required to communicate and take tests to demonstrate high-level proficiency in listening, reading, writing, and speaking in all subjects. The linguistic proficiency for CCSS requires all students to demonstrate high levels of language structure and development. Currently, Migrant students cannot fulfill the CCSS requirements without intense language development and participation in critical academic discourse.

A Program to Involve Migrant Parents to Achieve Academic DiscourseUnknown-1

Parental involvement has a long history as an important focus of educational dialogue. Studies show that parental involvement positively affects the academic achievement of children no matter which ethnicity was being studied (Jeynes, 2010). Migrant families are concerned with their children’s education as well, though they tend to move from one area to another throughout their lives. Consequently, their children’s education is constantly disrupted when they move, therefore, the only constant the children have are their parents.

Scholarly research shows that when teachers and parents use high quality children literature and build on students’ native language and literary skills, those students achieve academic success (Goldberg, 1996, p.385 – 359). It is not unusual that higher socio-economic children perform better in schools. Zweirs (2008) recounts a study by Williams (1999) regarding text discussion of mothers who read to their children and ask high-level questions:

The higher social-class group of mothers more frequently asked children to elaborate on parts of (a) book, connect it to their own experiences, provide explanation, evaluate the story as a text and respond to ‘Do you think…? questions.’ During these interactions these mothers apprenticed their children in the skill of attending to certain kinds of meaning. Not surprisingly, these types of interaction in the higher-social-class pairs strongly resemble those found in literacy activities and assessment practices at school (Zweirs, 2008, p. 4).

migrant policyMigrant parents can, with training, support the development of cognitive academic language by engaging in the same type of reading behaviors demonstrated by the mothers in the Williams study (Zweirs, 2008). Migrant parents who engage in text discussion while reading aloud to their children in Spanish will expose their children to similar activities and assessment practices performed in any classroom.

Program: Question – Answer – Relationship in Spanish Develops High-Level Thinking

In the California Central Valley I train Migrant parents to read picture books aloud in Spanish to their children using the high-level Question – Answer – Relationship (QAR) technique. Migrant parents are coached to engage their children in QAR questioning while reading narratives to them. The QAR procedure differentiates between literal thinking and high-levels of thinking. QAR questions teach students to be consciously aware of whether they are likely to find the answer to a question “Right There” on the page, between the lines, or “In My Head” (Raphael, & Au, 2005). The “In My Head” questions cannot be explicitly found in the text so having the exact question, the parents deciphers the question process as a step toward better reading comprehension and a bridge to academic discourse in any language (Raphael, & Au, 2005, p.206-221).

mom readsIn the California Central Valley I trained migrant parents during our meetings in how to discuss narratives with their children. In one session migrant parents perused the book The Upside Boy, El Niño de Cabeza. We discussed the need for questions that focus the conversation on “Right There” types of questions in the book, as well as questions to encourage the children’s opinion: “In My Head” questions. Migrant parents read to their children, El Niño de Cabeza, and asked QAR questions. In The Upside Boy, El Niño de Cabeza, the protagonist Juan is nervous about attending a new school and is thinking about what he is finger-painting when the teacher approaches Juan and asks him a question about what he is drawing “What is that?” Mrs. Sampson asks”. Juan thinks, “My tongue is a rock.” Below is a translation of a Migrant mother’s interaction with her five-year-old daughter while reading a passage in The Upside Boy, El Niño de Cabeza, where Juan thinks, while finger – painting, and is afraid to talk because he feels his tongue has turned to stone:

Mother: “I draw sun broncos with my open hands. Crazy cars made of tomatoes and hats of cucumbers. I write my name with seven chilies.” “What is that? Asks Mrs. Sauce?

Mother: “What is Juanito doing with his fingers?”

Daughter: “Uhm………Uh drawing!”

Mother: “What is in the drawing?”

Daughter: “One tom…one car made of tomatoes.”

Mother: “Why do you think his tongue is a rock?”

Daughter: “For him not to be able to speak English” (Sellens, 2013).

The above is an example of how migrant parents engage their children in both literal and inferential questions in order to support their children’s growth in multi-level thinking skills.

Thus, it is anticipated when these sessions continue, Migrant parents will have the educated skills to increase oral language during reading times, check for comprehension, and ask their children questions, which will develop academic discourse and high-level thinking. Successful parents readers will then become the “trainers” of the next group of migrant parents who enter the school system.

In conclusion, Migrant parents who assist in academic discourse will ‘frontload’ the rigors of CCSS type questioning. Certainly, school districts with migrant students should consider the significance of training Migrant parents to read, discuss, and interact with higher-order thinking questions for their children’s academic success. There is no better time and opportunity than the present, to engage Migrant parents to give their children the support to attain educational achievement.

©Heather Sellens, Ed. D. 2015


Editor’s note:

One comment

  1. Thanks Dr. Sellens. I enjoyed your article.
    Sue OConnor, Director, Intensive Spanish Summer Institute
    Lake Tahoe Community College


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