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Families & the Community

English Fluency Among Parents: Why It Matters for Student Success

By Sterling C. Lloyd & Corey Mitchell — January 21, 2020 4 min read
QC Language Getty

Research shows that children whose parents are involved in supporting their learning do better in school, but that’s often a barrier for children whose parents aren’t fluent speakers of English.

English-language-learner families are less likely than English-only families to attend parent-teacher conferences and other school-related events, U.S. Department of Education surveys have shown.

These families, most of whom are Latino, are also far less likely to volunteer or serve on school committees and attend school or class events—all important opportunities to communicate about students’ academic progress.

Linguistic integration—the percent of dependent children whose parents are fluent speakers of English—is one of 13 indicators that make up the EdWeek Research Center’s Chance-for-Success Index. The index examines the role education plays in providing opportunities throughout an individual’s lifetime.

Across the United States, the percentage of children whose parents are fluent English speakers ranges from 67 percent in California to nearly 100 percent in Montana.

Roughly half of states have levels of linguistic integration that are higher than 90 percent. In 17 states and the District of Columbia, the percent of children whose parents are fluent English speakers is between 80 and 90 percent.

Levels of linguistic integration are below 80 percent in seven states—Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.

While language barriers affect student achievement, linguistic integration is just one factor that can influence academic outcomes. As the index reveals, boosting academic achievement is a complex process.

Some states that rate near the top of the index have relatively low levels of linguistic integration. The three states that rank highest on the overall index, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut, have had at least a 4 percentage point decrease in the number of English-speaking families since 2008, the year the EdWeek Research Center Chance-for-Success Index began its current scoring system.

Massachusetts ranks first on the overall index, with an A-minus grade, but 42nd for linguistic integration. New Jersey and Connecticut rank second and third respectively on the overall index, but in the bottom quarter of states for linguistic integration.

Conversely, some states struggled on the index despite high linguistic integration rankings.

Students in Montana and West Virginia face fewer language barriers than their peers in other states, but that does not necessarily translate to stronger academic achievement and adult outcomes.

Montana ranks first in the nation for linguistic integration, but only 28th overall, with a C-plus grade.

West Virginia has the second-highest level of linguistic integration, but ranks 49th overall on Chance for Success with a C- minus grade.

Louisiana and Mississippi also rank in the top 10 for linguistic integration, but fare much worse on the overall index, earning a C-minus and C grade respectively.

Developing Connections

Linguistic integration is part of the early foundation category of the Chance-for-Success Index, which also includes parental educational levels, family income, and other factors that can influence whether children start school ready to learn.

Under the index guidelines, all parents in the home must be fluent in English for a family to be considered linguistically integrated.

Having at least one English-speaking adult in the home increased the likelihood of a parent or guardian attending a school or class event, parent-teacher conference, or meeting with a guidance counselor, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Studies out of Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development have shown that parent involvement is a significant predictor of children’s literacy skills, and that bonds formed with other parents at the school may help increase school involvement among Latino families.

A 2015 report from the Center for American Progress, “The Case for a Two-Generation Approach for Educating English Language Learners,” makes the case that communities looking to improve education for school-aged English-language learners should also offer services to their parents.

The study found that limited English skills for parents and students “can create a poverty trap for families” and argues that engaging them simultaneously improves the academic and educational well-being of both generations.

Similarly, a 2015 report from the Education Commission on the States recommended that states do more to connect with English-learner families, including offering adult ELL community education classes to help bridge the language gap.

English-learners who do not reach proficiency can often end up illiterate in two languages, effectively unable to read or write in either.

Research from the Center for Early Education Development at the University of Minnesota indicates that parents whose primary language is Spanish—by far the most common language of English-learner families—or another language besides English, should encourage and support their child’s development and literacy in the home language, which can benefit their English-learning.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as English-Fluency in the Home: Why Does It Matter?

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