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TNLI: Action Research: Policy & Practice: The Mother Tongue: The Role of Parent-Teacher Communication in Helping Students to Reach New Standards

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Harvard Online Article

by Lara Goldstone
July 1999

Research Question

  • What happens when I communicate explicitly with parents about the New Middle School English Language Arts Standards for Student Achievement?
  • What is the impact of parental understanding of the New Standards for speaking and listening on their children’s performance?

In the increasingly diverse cultural landscape of the United States, verbal communication is more challenging and necessary than ever before. Hence, it is appropriate that the New Standards for Middle School adopted by New York City include a performance standard for speaking and listening that requires students to participate in group meetings and meet several criteria: to take turns, solicit other students' opinions and comments, offer their own opinions without dominating, respond appropriately to comments and questions, give reasons and evidence to support opinions, and clarify and expand when asked to do so (New Standards Middle School Performance Standards, p.24). District 2's ambitious work with the New Standards incorporates an approach to teaching which emphasizes discussing clear benchmarks of performance with the students, who then revise their work until it is "good enough." Though such criteria-based work has been tremendously helpful in improving my students' reading and writing, I have been disappointed in the past that most of my students have not met the performance standards for speaking and listening spelled out in the New Standards documents.


  • Grades on report cards for discussion for quarters 1-3 for my 64 sixth grade students.
  • check-off sheet filled out during discussions or when listening to tapes of student discussions to see if students are meeting the criteria for good discussions.
  • Notes from parent-teacher conferences about student discussion. A Chinese translator was present to help me speak with most parents.
  • Reflections from students about speaking.
  • Parent survey about student discussion from the end of quarter 2 and the end of quarter 3

Data and Analysis
Students' abilities to meet the criteria for speaking improved dramatically over the first three quarters. In general, where the standard was supported at home, students made gains in classroom discussions and were able to meet most of the speaking criteria. My data elucidated several barriers to student achievement.

Barriers to Student Achievement and Strategies for Overcoming Them

  1. Lack of confidence about academic English: Some students do not feel confident speaking about academic subjects in English. Their silence in class baffles their parents, who hear their children prattling on socially at home and on the phone with their friends Allowing students more time to wait until they feel more comfortable speaking English, creating a classroom environment of mutual trust and respect, giving students separate practice in English language skills, and showing parents how to practice speaking with their children even in their primary language about complex subjects might all help students who are not confident in their academic English abilities.

  2. Cultural mismatch: Some students have been reared to believe that voicing disagreement with others constitutes disrespectful behavior or have been conditioned to be very quiet. One student wrote, "A lot of our parents tell us not to argue. That's not respectful. If I disagree with someone’s answer, they might get their feelings hurt. It's like arguing or telling them they’re wrong." Speaking with parents about why discussions are important in school during conferences helped some students to feel more comfortable disagreeing. Parents were able to explain to their children the difference between respectfully disagreeing in a discussion with peers and disrespectfully arguing in other situations. In addition, practicing ways to disagree politely as a class, when students did not get offended or hurt, helped students to feel more at ease disagreeing.

  3. Shyness in front of peers: Feelings of insecurity are prevalent among adolescents whose identities are changing, and for whom peer approval is of paramount importance. Here again, creating a respectful and trusting classroom environment and having parents work with their children on self-esteem are key.

Obstacles to Successful Communication with Parents

  1. limited access to translators: My school district does not fund a translator for our school. 90% of my students’ parents speak Cantonese or Spanish. Most teachers at our school speak neither of these languages.

  2. limited access to translated materials: Though my district is at the national forefront of the work with the New Standards, they have repeatedly neglected to meet my director’s requests for a copy of the standards documents translated into Chinese.

  3. cultural barriers: Though I did manage to convince some parents of the importance of speaking in class, it is difficult to go against deeply ingrained ideas about how children should behave. I believe that some parents truly wanted to help their children improve their speaking grades but could not help their children practice speaking at home, because they were not accustomed to having discussions about academic topics with their children.

Policy Implications
My study suggests that student achievement increases when students feel comfortable speaking in front of their peers and when teachers communicate standards to parents, thereby indicating the need for policy changes at several different levels.

  1. (Pedagogy) Teachers should carefully cultivate a respectful and caring community in their classrooms. Though some teachers see such work as fluffy or tangential to achievement, it is essential in getting middle school students, especially those who are not confident in their English language abilities, to feel at ease expressing themselves.

  2. (District) Budgets should ensure funding for translators so that parents from all linguistic and cultural backgrounds can understand the standards and learn how to help their children achieve them.

  3. (Professional development) District professional development and pre-service training around standards should include discussion of cultural barriers and student discussion.

  4. (Board of Education) City-wide performance standards should be translated into languages so that all parents can read and understand them.

  5. (Contract) The teacher contract should allocate more time for parent-teacher conferences.

The value of excellent communication skills for students is clear, and I commend the Board of Education for its adoption of high standards. In order to level the playing field, students from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds must be given equal opportunities to achieve the rigorous criteria set forth in the standards documents. Paving the path for more teacher-parent communication with translators, conference time, and appropriate professional development is the first step to success.


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