Winter 2020

Experiences and Recommendations from Parents who do not Speak the School Language

Non-Francophone Parents with Children in French Minority-Language Schools

Context

International research from a variety of educational contexts has shown that parent involvement (PI) in children’s education is a strong indicator of academic and social achievement (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003; Epstein, 2001; Jeynes, 2007, 2010; Weiss, Buffard, Bridgall & Gordon, 2009). The importance of PI is demonstrated by a recent edition of Education Canada Magazine (February, 2018) that was a bilingual French and English publication dedicated to PI and how educators and parents can collaborate better in the Canadian context. Literature from the minority-language context confirms the importance of PI for student achievement and that the role of family is especially critical for valuing and supporting use of the minority or heritage language and identity construction for children (Archer, Francis & Mau, 2010; Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, 2003 [CMEC]; Fishman, 1990, 1991; Landry, 2010). The literature indicates a gap between what is recommended in the PI research and what is practiced in schools to enhance PI (Hornby, 2011). Parents, as well as educators, play a key role in the success of students and schools. This research project explored the experience of non-Francophone (NF) parents, most of whom were not proficient in French, who had children in French minority-language schools (MacPhee, 2018). I discuss the barriers parents encountered to PI and the recommendations they made to improve their involvement in the children’s education. Many of their experiences can be applied to other contexts where parents do not speak the school language.

The Study

This research was based on a mixed methods research design with 9 focus groups involving 34 people, 4 individual interviews, and online survey data from 86 participants. The participants represented NF parents in a couple with a francophone, immigrant parents, assimilated NF parents with French heritage, and parents without French heritage. They were principally Anglo-dominant but 18% had French proficiency from being French immersion students themselves or from using French in the work place.

Findings

Parents experienced challenges as a NF parent to a child being educated in a French school. They reported that at home they struggle to understand written communication from the school and to understand homework content and assignments. Participants agreed that being involved with French education takes much more time, energy, and effort than if it were in the parent’s mother tongue. In addition, many felt that they cannot be involved at home or in school or the community to the degree they would like, and they felt unsure how to help with academic or language development because of a language barrier. Where supporting a minority language includes participating in community involvement (Cormier, 2005; Landry, 2010), some NF parents commented that they did not participate and others reported not feeling a sense of belonging to the French school or community because, without French, it was difficult to participate.

Parents made suggestions about how educators can help NF parents to be involved or to reduce barriers to involvement. Recommendations included using different strategies to help parents understand communications from the school, which includes providing a way to translate the language of the memos on the school web page, having communication from school shared in a bilingual or translatable format (i.e., emailing memos rather than sending home paper copies), and pairing parents with other school parent-partners to help NF parents answer questions and access information or activities. Parents believed that educators sharing tips and computer applications or programs with parents at the beginning of the year to demonstrate how to translate notes from French to English or ensure proper French pronunciation and sounds would be beneficial. Several parents recommended reorganizing school newsletters for parents to easily find information on youngest students earlier in the newsletter and older students later in the text, and general information relevant to all students prior to grade specific information. Parents explained that older children or children with several years education in the school language can read and help decipher messages in the later grades but parents with children in the early years mentioned needing more communication support. Other parent proposals included offering a translated or translatable version of notes for parents to refer to during meet-the-teacher night or open house sessions.

Participants also indicated they would benefit if school professionals could offer sessions or workshops to parents that focus on how parents can help students with literacy and numeracy development and programs to help with pronunciation and reading at home. The overall desire of participants was for school staff to welcome linguistically and culturally diverse parents explicitly and encourage a sense of belonging, make connections with other parents, as well as to provide an opportunity for parents to volunteer in diverse ways, even when their mother tongue is not French.

Conclusion

The data revealed that parents have a strong desire to be involved in the education of their children. Parents had increasingly positive experiences over time after the initial difficulty of translating school memos and navigating other communication issues. Repeated exposure to the school by being invited to attend events and the opportunity to meet other parents helped these participants develop greater confidence, connections, and increased the likelihood they would be involved at school or community events. Parents noted that once their children had developed good reading skills around grade three, the children could help with interpreting school notes at home, which continued as the years progressed. Parents who had received strong support from early year’s educators in French childcare in school centers and from teachers in primary school grades reported the most positive experiences and involvement. Finally, parents agreed that French education for their children is a much greater challenge for them as parents than an education in the home language would be. However, these parents explained that the difficulties they faced were well worth it for the future opportunities and advantages that French or bilingual development would allow their children.

To conclude, educators can help parents who do not speak the school language to surmount PI barriers in the French minority-school context as well as other contexts to enhance PI at home and at school. As communities and classrooms become more multicultural in Canada (Iannacci, 2006), the principles of welcoming, informing, and accompanying parents in diverse ways and encouraging involvement in different ways, increases in importance. The findings from this research help school professionals to understand the needs of linguistically and culturally diverse parents and some of the PI barriers they face. When educators implement the recommendations proposed here to reach out to parents to improve communication, share strategies or resources, and develop a sense of belonging, it will empower parents to know how to help their children succeed in school regardless of the home and school language.

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AUTHOR BIO:
Mary M. MacPhee, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mary M. MacPhee, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, 550 University Avenue, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, C1A 4P3. Email: mmmacphee@upei.ca