Pete Clements looks at why parents are a valuable resource for teachers, and how teachers can involve parents more in their children’s learning. Peter describes the value parents have in the learning process and ways to help parents develop useful teaching skills especially as classes move online.

There are lesson materials including a worksheet and teacher’s notes at the bottom of this article as well as a link to a webinar in which Peter discusses these ideas at length.

Introduction

Parents and carers play an essential role in the development of their children. However, the role they play in the formal education of their children can sometimes be overlooked or understated. The current situation with home and online learning has been a wake-up call for many schools and educators. Before the global pandemic required teachers to move their classes online, most teachers’ interaction with parents was limited to consultation days, formal reports, and informal chats around the school. With classes online and learners staying at home, parents are now in the class with the learners. This means that parents are listening to the online video presentations, supporting their children as needed, asking for clarification on the children’s behalf, and posing questions about the way the lesson is being taught.

Parents are more than just willing helpers. They have a vested interest in their children’s learning. This means they can be very attentive and dedicated when offering support, and intrinsically motivated to help their children’s progress. They also know a lot about what motivates their children and may know more than the teacher about how best to personalise the learning. The close, regular interaction that many parents have with their children means they develop a strong intuition about the kind of support their children need, the amount of support needed, and when that support should be increased or reduced. In fact, well-established approaches to provide learners with support (scaffolding), such as those outlined by Wood et al (1976), were based on evidence from parent-child interactions. Parents often know far more than they realise about how to educate children. This begs the question—how can we as teachers best use this valuable resource?

Making parents aware of their value

Some parents will be anxious about supporting their children as they learn English. This might be because they lack confidence in their own English ability. It is important to help them overcome this anxiety, and help them realise that it is not essential to be a fluent English speaker. There are many resources that provide clear models of English for learners including Macmillan English’s latest video series with Carol Read, Story Time with Carol. Resources such as these can remove the need for parents to provide a model of English but they can still be the most important model their children need—that of a language learner.

  • Encourage parents to learn the language with their children. Encourage them to show interest and engagement, and to model study skills such as looking up new words, recording learning, and doing regular practice. Also, encourage parents to ask you questions about teaching in front of their children – this puts a very positive emphasis on the fact that that teachers, parents and students, are all learning.
  • Encourage parents to help their children make connections between English and their first language. Their first language is a valuable learning tool, and it is a shared resource between parent and child.
  • Involve parents in online learning sessions (one-to-one). It is important not to treat parents as a helper or a teaching assistant, but instead to treat them as a co-teacher. Make your learners aware that you are working with their parent in partnership.
  • Encourage parents to ask you for teaching support and advice. Be there as a teacher to help explain why we use certain strategies or approaches with learners. Your teaching skills are not exclusive to you—providing parents with teaching skills might help them engage even more in their child’s learning.

Developing parents’ teaching skills

As mentioned, many parents may already have a strong intuition about how to support their children with their learning. However, they might not recognise what they are doing well. Raising the parents’ awareness of their skills should help build more confidence.

Taking the time to explain teaching methods to parents is important. Things that may seem obvious to us as formally trained educators might not be clear to parents. With some explanation, parents will understand how to stage learning activities for their children. Here are a few some simple stages to share with parents:

  • Generate interest in the topic first.

This helps the learner feel engaged and connect personally with the lesson content.

  • Have “before” tasks.

This helps the learner prepare for the topic they are going to study. It might help them predict words they will hear or read and make them feel less anxious about the text.

  • Have “while” tasks.

This keeps learners focussed and gives them a reason to read or listen.

  • Have reflection/extension tasks

This helps learners think about what they’ve learned from the text. They can share their personal response to a text or build further learning opportunities from the same context.

The worksheet and teacher’s notes which accompany this article are for a lesson based on Carol Read’s reading of ‘The Moon in the River’. They include examples of activities that parents could use for each of the stages mentioned above. Sharing teacher’s notes is another good way to help parents understand how to deliver effective learning. These often include alternative tasks, giving parents more ideas for their own activities.

Highlighting the common pitfalls

As teachers, we probably have a sense of the teaching techniques that constitute ‘bad practice’. This might not be the case for parents, so it might be worth planning how to highlight these less effective techniques. This can be difficult. Parents may have a certain perception of how to teach effectively, which comes from their own education. Times and approaches may have changed, so encouraging parents to be open-minded towards different, unfamiliar approaches might be a challenge.

It is worth considering that, as Littlewood (2006) explains, new approaches should be adapted to suit the learner’s context, rather than simply adopted. Deciding on the best way to adapt an approach to the learner’s context might require compromise and understanding between parent and teacher, both of whom want the best for the learner.

Nevertheless, there are certain pitfalls of teaching that teachers know only too well. It is worth sharing some of these with parents so that they become aware of particular approaches that may interfere with their children’s language development. Here are some examples:

  • Talking for too long: young learners have a relatively short attention span. A lot of sit-down activities and a slow pace of learning might be demotivating.
  • Forcing children to produce: Young learners may feel anxious or inhibited with regard to speaking and writing. Putting too much pressure on them to do so may make things worse.
  • Saying things like ‘You’re wrong!’: It’s fine for children to make mistakes. This is part of learning. It helps to explore these mistakes and make their thinking visible.
  • Setting overly high expectations: It’s important to consider the developmental stage of the learner, and base expectations on that. This shouldn’t be a constraint, but a consideration. Also, remember that there may be lots of activities that learners are encountering for the first time. Keep things simple and be patient.

In summary

Parents are a great resource for learners and teachers, even more so given the current situation. As teachers, we should find ways to utilise parents in our planning, and to provide them with the skills they need to effectively support their children’s language learning. Doing so will not only benefit our learners during these unprecedented times, but may also have an impact on parent-child-teacher interaction in the long term.

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