when parents can’t read

On Monday one of my students came in halfway through the morning.  “I thought it was spring break starting today,” explained his always-harried mother.

“Oh, no,” I said.  “That doesn’t start until next week.  It was in the newsletter I sent home on Friday, and it’s in my monthly calendar.”

And then it dawned on me that this was the third time I had reminded her that all the school dates she needs to know are in my weekly newsletter.  Maybe she isn’t disorganized, I thought….maybe she can’t read.

The week previous, a mom had come to school with some formal papers for her to sign so that her son can get speech therapy at school.  The speech therapist and I had been waiting all week for those papers to come back to school.  When she came in last Friday, she was holding the papers.

“I’m just kind of confused,” she said.  “Could you explain this to me?”

I ended up going page by page, summarizing each one and explaining the process to her.  It occurred to me that perhaps she couldn’t read them.  She is very young — had her first child (the one in my class) at 15, and has had two more since then.

I’ve talked to the social worker, and she will call both moms and ask how things are going, and are they happy with the way they get information from the school?  I’m not sure what else to do, except call those mothers personally when there are things they really need to know.

As a book lover, though, I think it is indescribably sad.

Update — April 3.

I’m rethinking my position on the first mother.  I’m maybe back to thinking she’s just really disorganized.  Yesterday she told me that her son has been using our special words, and that he had said “disappointed” at least five times over the weekend.  (She was grinning with exasperation.)  I don’t remember talking to her about the words, which means she read the letter with the list of the three words.  Maybe.

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8 thoughts on “when parents can’t read

  1. this breaks my heart. we expect that a lot of our parents can’t read in english so we do all that we can for them to get things translated in their own language. then later we’ll realize they can’t read in their own language either, especially parents from el salvador who were kept from going to school because of the civil war. it’s heart breaking.

  2. I agree, it’s so sad. This is not unusual in the urban area where I work, I’ve had way too many parents who can’t read in any language over the years. Every year the number seems to increase too, which makes it even sadder. That is why I put a lot of pictures/graphics in my newsletter so hopefully they can “read” it without having to read. I also “read” the newsletter with the children before sending it home. Like “See this picture of the clock? This box says remember to set your clocks back this weekend.”

  3. I have parents like that–not able to read English or Spanish. That’s why I try to read out loud to my kids as much as possible. I can tell the ones who don’t get it at home–it’s like they’re starving for it.

  4. Organizedchaos — we have the same situation at our school. I do try to get important things translated into Spanish, but then I know that some of the Spanish-speaking parents don’t read Spanish, either.
    Vanna– I think I had better take a page from your book and start simplifying my newsletter, putting in graphics and visual cues, and reading it to the kids first. Those are all really good ideas. I’m just used to very thorough newsletters about what we’re learning. It will be hard for me to change my style, but probably necessary.
    Ninja — the boy whose mom didn’t understand the paperwork probably never gets read to at home. Miss Slinger asked him, “does your mom read you stories?” and he answered angrily, “no, I’m not a baby!”

  5. I appreciate Vanna’s thoughts here. I include pictures in my newsletter, but they are of the kids. I want to keep including them because I think it is nice for the parents to see their children learning at school. However, I think I need to do more to make my newsletter ‘readable’ for families. Going over it with the kids is a great idea.

  6. We have a huge population that can’t read. I am not just talking about another language. I know of several white parents who can’t read. They have their neighbors read to them. Why aren’t schools offering adult literacy? It is so sad that they can’t read. Reading is my life.

  7. I use a lot of graphics and visual clues in my newsletter. I have immigrant parents (educated) who hold good jobs who don’t read the newsletter and calendar. They don’t even look in the child’s backpack. It frustrates me. I’ve handed them important papers only to see them sitting on the front seat the next week. **sigh** We now stop the parent(s) explain the note/papers and have them sign right then and there. Otherwise, it won’t be returned. I feel it is more a cultural thing, than a language thing, but I don’t know for sure. Face to face seems to be working the best, for now.

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