Working with Parents Who Don’t Speak English: A Useful Tool for Overcoming the Language Barrier

(c) TalkingPoints |

I will never forget it. In my first year of teaching English as a Second Language, my students inspired me in more ways than I ever dreamt possible.  My students challenged and upended my understandings, mindsets, beliefs and preconceived notions about language barriers, poverty, education, and the achievement gap.

The first class I ever taught was 7th grade newcomers – a class full of boys who had just arrived to the United States. My heart raced as we stared at each other those first few moments of class, figuring out how we would learn from each other as none of shared a common language.  I was motivated and eager to meet the needs of my students.

But there was another component that would dictate my student’s success – parent engagement – and suddenly I was paralyzed with fear. How could I accurately share the triumphs and tribulations of my classroom with parents who do not speak English? I felt stumped.

TalkingPoints has been a lifesaver. It is a free platform that connects teachers and families through text messages, regardless of spoken language. Over 700 schools and thousands of teachers – including me – have used TalkingPoints. I had the great opportunity to talk with the founder of Talking Points, Heejae Lim, who shared with me her thoughts on parent involvement and how she developed Talking Points. (Interview has been edited for clarity.)

Why did you create Talking Points?

The main motivation is education as a big equalizer, and it is not a level playing field for a lot of students. Parent engagement is a huge driver for leveling this playing field. Every parent wants what is best for their kid, and the way for each family to do that is different. The impact and potential impact we are making is the reason I wake up every day.

What does Parent Engagement mean to you?

The commonly perceived concept of parent engagement is misconceived. Often times, people think about parent engagement as a highly resourced activity, like parent volunteering, a parent leading the PTA, or a parent going to events. This is the traditional notion of parent engagement. I believe that the most impactful parent engagement is about creating relationships and partnerships with the school, teachers, and parents. Communication amongst all three leads to student success. It is important to think about what school means to parents, what education means to parents, and having high expectations. Communication should be transparent, frequent, and meaningful. Parent engagement is where every parent is a partner in their children’s education. This inclusiveness piece is often something that is not discussed with parent engagement, as it is not the parent engagement that people immediately think of.

What did Parent Engagement look like when you attended school?

My experience was varied. I grew up in both Korea and the United Kingdom. In Korea there was not a lot of parent engagement, but my parents had high expectations of what they expected of me. In the UK, it was very different. It was different due to language and cultural barriers. My mom was the only English-speaking parent who was also Korean. She ended up being the translator for all of the Korean parents. In that way, I had the communication channel open, but I saw it as a barrier for other families.

I would love to hear about some background about what lead you to think of the idea of TalkingPoints. What were your first steps in creating this start up?

I felt in my schooling that I could benefit so much more because my mom was involved. When my family moved back to Korea ten years ago, I saw that mobile technology was very advanced. When my sister would do something negative at school, my parents would get a text message. A combination of those experiences led to the idea.

My experience was very unintentional and random. I didn’t initially have this idea. All I had were these experiences in the back of my head. I ended up going to a Start-Up Weekend where you go and pitch your ideas to a room full of strangers. I went because a friend was organizing the event, and I ended up pitching this idea.

What has surprised you the most in creating TalkingPoints?

The level of resourcefulness that we have seen in teachers and the level of creativity to get around the problem of communicating with parents and the way teachers solve it. Working with TalkingPoints, I talk with teachers and always ask them, “What did you do before?” I have heard so many different ways and WOW do teachers work hard, but they can’t do it forever.

Can you tell us your best success story with TalkingPoints? What made it great?

One of the success stories is about a teacher in the southern Bay Area in California. This teacher would send flyers and all sorts of communication home. Her parents are primarily Hispanic, and she doesn’t speak any Spanish, and she felt disconnected. Using TalkingPoints helped her feel like she is becoming best friends with the parents of her students. She shares how her relationships are amazing. This is not something that this teacher had experienced before, and it made her feel like a better teacher. She sees a difference in the classroom with student engagement, and she is able to have relationships she would never have heard from before.

How do you think policymakers can help bridge the gap for parent engagement?   

There is a role for policy. A couple of things could change – for example, more funding. In California, there is funding, but a lot of it is for parent engagement in governance – helping with school budget and school boards and the way school operate. Not so much on this new notion of parent academic socialization – How do we help parents feel empowered? As far as I know, there is a real area of development around new teacher training and parent engagement. I wonder if there is room for policy makers to suggest parent engagement to make sure it is covered.

This website will hopefully be a tool to help teachers. What’s the best piece of advice you have ever gotten that you would like to pass on to them?

It’s important to do meaningful work because it is a lot of your time for a large portion of your life. Doing meaningful work will help you get energy and motivate you. The work I do now finally feels like I have meaning and meaning in the work.

(c) 2017 Monica Vaughn-Flam

A Connecticut native, Monica Vaughn-Flam resides in New Orleans and is an English as a Second Language Program Coordinator where she teaches, develops, and implements instructional and administrative policies that benefit English Language Learners. You can find her on Instagram at TimeForESL or at her Teachers Pay Teachers store  for tips and products to work with ELLs.


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