How Technology Helps Teachers Cross Language Barriers

12/05/2016 01:34 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2016
Photo courtesy of Miracle Reynolds

As educators like myself prepare to kick off the first parent-teacher conferences of the year, many of us are thinking about how best to build relationships with the parents and other caring adults our students’ lives. Academic research shows time and time again that parental engagement has an outsized impact on a student’s success. It’s important for all the adults to stay connected with what’s happening in a child’s life at school and at home.

I’ve found that building a relationship with parents allows them to feel more open and willing to share important things about their child with me. It also has been a great way to encourage volunteer help in the classroom or ask for support at home. And, as the research shows, students whose parents or caregivers are involved in their education also are more likely to perform better academically.

But building these relationships can prove to be challenging when there are communication barriers. Nationally, the number of students for whom English is not the primary language spoken at home is rising. Today, more than 17 percent of incoming kindergarten students nationally are English-language learners, and the National Education Association projects that, by 2025, 25 percent of public school students will be English learners. The languages they speak at home are diverse—Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese and Hmong are among the most common home languages of English learners.

In my elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, one-third of our students’ parents don’t speak English. I teach in an inner-city school, and my students speak Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Ga, Tigrinya and Marath. Often times, I am the only fluent English language speaker they hear.

To communicate with parents who do not speak English or who are not comfortable with their level of English mastery, I felt like I needed my own personal translator to help me build those important relationships. I found my solution in the form of technology. Our school uses an app called ClassDojo to help parents get better information about what is happening in the classroom, and build a stronger parent-school connection. I was absolutely elated when I realized that I could use the app to translate messages home into a number of languages, and help parents connect with me!

When I began using the translate feature it became clear that some of my parents were eager to engage, they just didn’t know how. Before using translations, I sent multiple messages to one family, without receiving any response. Once I reached out in the parents’ native language, however, they responded that evening, opening up a dialogue I hadn’t been able to have before.

Similarly, I’m able to securely share photos and video from class with parents and caring adults right from my phone. I now have the opportunity to share pictures of students working in math centers, reading workshops, science experiment videos, and computer centers. These visuals tell parents a story without any words at all, creating another opportunity for non-English-speaking parents to feel connected to their child’s education.

We know that parent involvement and engagement are crucial to the success of any student. And we shouldn’t let communication barriers hinder any opportunities to help parents stay connected. Technology allows us to show parents what is going on in the classroom and to convey what help their children may need — bridging a sometimes-wide gap from school to home and creating the all-important connection between parent and teacher.

Even more importantly, I’ve seen the difference it makes for my students, as their eyes light up knowing their parents can be part of their day in ways not possible before. When students know their parents can connect to the classroom by communicating in their native language, they nod their heads in excitement and grin from ear to ear!

As Jane D. Hull once put it: “At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of parents.” With the help of technology, we can now make this a reality.

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