Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #7: Bilingual Parents Stand Up for Spanish-Speaking Children

By Luz Murillo and Janine M. Schall

This is the seventh post in a series that shares results from a year-long research project exploring family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. This research was funded by the UTPA C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship.

Together with our students we have been documenting the literacies of bilingual children in the Rio Grande Valley. Lately we’ve been spending less time in classrooms and more time exploring what children are reading and writing in their bilingual homes and communities. Why is this? Well, after reading and studying about the importance of family involvement in children’s literacy development, we realized that while many books and articles tell bilingual parents how to support their children’s reading and writing, there aren’t as many books or other resources where teachers can find out more about what bilingual parents know and think about literacy and education.

To find out what is happening with the literacies of bilingual students, we decided to interview bilingual parents. Here’s a story shared by “Nancy”, whose seven-year old daughter started in an English monolingual classroom while she was still developing literacy in Spanish, the family’s home language:

Se le hice saber a su maestra al inicio de clases y me dijo, “Señora, no se preocupe. Usted nada más en la casa póngale televisión en inglés, libros en inglés, caricaturas en inglés, todo en inglés. Va a batallar al principio, pero ella va a aprender. Va a ver que va a aprender.” [I told the teacher at the beginning of the year and she told me, “Señora, don’t worry. At home, just make sure the television is in English, books are in English, comics in English, everything in English. She’ll struggle at first, but she’ll learn. You’ll see that she’ll definitely learn.”]

Despite the teacher’s encouragement, Nancy worried that the abrupt switch to English would mean that her daughter would learn less and fall behind her classmates. She told us “Temía que repitiera el grado y que se frustrara y le perdería interés en la escuela. [I was worried that she would have to repeat the year and that she’d get frustrated and lose interest in school.]”

As it turns out, Nancy was right to be concerned. Her daughter, who had been an A/B Honor Roll student in first grade, began getting D’s and F’s. When Nancy tried to help with her schoolwork, she noticed that her daughter was not only having dificulty learning read and write in English, she was also forgetting the Spanish literacy she had been developing. Nancy consulted with the teacher about her daughter’s failing grades many times but near the end of the school year the teacher told her “Señora, yo le recomiendo que repita el año.” [Señora, I recommend that your daughter repeat the year]. Nancy was devastated by this news. She told us, “Me sentí culpable, me siento culpable. Pero le dije “maestra, ok, mi hija no va a repetir año, yo la voy a sacar adelante.” [I felt guilty, I still feel guilty, but I told the teacher, “okay, my daughter is not going to repeat the year. I am going to work with her until she’s ready”].

By listening to bilingual parents, we’ve learned that stories like Nancy’s are common. All of the parents we’ve talked with care deeply about their children’s education. All want their children to be literate in English but we were surprised to find how many parents recognized that English-only instruction is harming their children’s literacy development and causing them to forget Spanish at the same time. Although not all parents are so brave and vocal about confronting teachers as Nancy, they stick up for their Spanish-speaking children in other ways, including keeping them out of special education and off medication for hyperactivity, as well as keeping Spanish as the primary home language for communicating with grandparents and older relatives.

We think that literacy educators working in the Rio Grande Valley should know about stories like Nancy’s. Maybe it is time for teachers to start listening more carefully to bilingual parents!



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