As educators, we are experts in curriculum and instruction. We understand, broadly, students’ needs and how to help students grow academically. Families and caregivers, on the other hand, are experts on their children. Families understand their children’s personalities, strengths, and needs. Together, when we combine our respective areas of expertise, we can make huge strides in the academic and social-emotional development of our students.
As a school-based curriculum leader, it was my responsibility to lead our family engagement work regarding literacy. From communicating with families, we knew that many of them wanted an answer to the question, How can I help my child succeed at school? To provide an answer, our school identified three priorities:
- Families needed to know enough about the curriculum to provide support outside school.
- Families needed information in their home language.
- Families needed concrete strategies to implement at home to help them feel successful with literacy work.
Based on these priorities, we took the following approach to family engagement.
Inform families about the school’s curriculum.
Families benefit from understanding the purpose of the curriculum. Wit & Wisdom® is unlike many curricula, which means that families and caregivers may be unfamiliar with what they see coming home. Instead of leveled texts, all students receive grade-level complex texts and fluency homework. Instead of updating reading logs, students answer reflection questions on the Volume of Reading books they read. Our families deserve to know the reasoning behind these practices as well as what they can do to support students at home.
Wit & Wisdom is designed to build knowledge. When students learn a lot of information about one topic, they build their vocabulary at a faster rate, can access more challenging and complex texts, and have deeper productive discussions and produce well–written pieces. It is crucial for families to understand this part of our English language arts instruction—that learning about important topics, for example, how artists and scientists explore the sea or how people showed resilience in the Great Depression, helps students coherently build knowledge and become stronger readers, writers, listeners, and speakers.
Great Minds® has provided three new resources to help you communicate the importance of knowledge building to families: 1) Building Knowledge and Skills in the English Language Arts Classroom, a printable handout, 2) the family welcome letter, and 3) the Wit & Wisdom Overview for Families video, which are all available on the Great Minds website in both English and Spanish. These resources are excellent additions to a Family Literacy Night, a school newsletter, and family–teacher conferences.
Affirm families’ home languages through your engagement practices.
Many families may not be comfortable communicating in English, and that’s okay. At the school level, it is our responsibility to ensure that all families have access to clear and correct communications. We should provide families with materials in their home languages and access to translators whenever possible. Consider contacting local community members as well as multilingual families who may be willing to volunteer as translators if none of your school’s staff speak the home language of your students’ families.
Ensure that families know that discussing module topics, texts, and tasks in their home language is a valuable way for their children to build knowledge and vocabulary in two languages. Even though the language of instruction in Wit & Wisdom is English, the knowledge and concepts are taught cross the boundaries of language!
Great Minds is committed to increasing the language accessibility of our family resources. Currently, Family Tip Sheets are available in English, Spanish, traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, Thai, and Korean. Resources in additional languages are forthcoming. If your school population needs family resources translated into additional languages, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Develop families’ ability to support academic activities.
Many families are ready, willing, and eager to support their children’s academic growth, and appreciate information or coaching in ways to provide this support. Interactive tasks that teach families how to support learning at home can be a highly rewarding part of family engagement. Consider starting with some of these strategies:
- Teach families how to use the fluency homework. In Grades 1–8, families will see fluency homework regularly. Providing guided opportunities to practice listening to their children read and learning how to give feedback about pacing, phrasing, expression, and clarity can pay off in increased oral fluency for students.
- Engage families with the Family Tip Sheets for each module—and suggest where they might get books, access media, and seek local community resources connected to the module content. Have families share ideas with one another and help them sign up for a public library card, if needed.
- Teach families how to ask open-ended questions about what their children are learning in Wit & Wisdom. For example, asking “What did you notice or wonder today?” is applicable to almost any Wit & Wisdom lesson. Additionally, encourage families to use terminology from the curriculum and to ask “What is the essential meaning of the book?” Families can also use the Questions to Ask at Home questions in the Family Tip Sheets. Provide guided opportunities for families to practice together and role-play asking their child open-ended questions that will lead to stronger discussion about the module’s content. Make and provide bookmarks with question stems to encourage families to read and discuss texts together.
- Provide opportunities for families to engage in the texts themselves. This may involve inviting families to enjoy a “book tasting” for an upcoming module where they are able to engage with the texts and read excerpts before the start of the module. Ensure that families know where they can borrow copies of the core texts to read alongside their children.
- Schools using Geodes® for their Kindergarten through Grade 2 students may want to provide an opportunity for families to read some of the texts together. Learning how to listen and support their child with Geodes at home can empower families to read together more often and learn from their child’s growing knowledge of foundational skills!
Ultimately, families are children’s first and best teachers. We designed our school’s Family Literacy Night with this understanding in mind. In addition to the priorities listed above, we worked to make a welcoming environment, especially since the materials the children were bringing home looked new and different. Here are some welcoming ideas to share:
- Provide translators. We enlisted the help of our school’s community liaison and translators who were well known and respected by families. They not only provided translation support the evening of the event but also spread the word for two weeks before the event!
- Provide childcare. Fortunately, we were in a large room, so children could stay with older siblings during our presentation. We borrowed toys and games that were easy to clean up from the Prekindergarten teachers and physical education specialist.
- Provide snacks. Many families who came right from work had no time to eat so we made individually wrapped snacks and fruit available.
Our Family Literacy Night was a huge success! Families told us that they had a better understanding of what their children were learning at school and how to support them at home. They also appreciated the intentional strategies we used to ensure that all families were welcomed and able to engage in meaningful ways. We know that families play a critical role in students’ success. Building a strong knowledge of the curriculum, providing information in accessible language, and developing skills to support learning outside school underpin successful family engagement in literacy and other academic pursuits.
Heidi Foley is a Great Minds Implementation Leader for Humanities, supporting the western region of the United States. Heidi began working with Wit & Wisdom as a literacy coach in Baltimore City Public Schools as they implemented their new curriculum, which included Wit & Wisdom and Geodes. Prior to that, she served as a program specialist for Reading First across the state of New Mexico, an evaluator and coach for Washington DC Public schools, and as faculty for alternative teacher certification programs in California and Maryland. Heidi began her career in education in southern California, where she worked with a diverse student population of multi-language learners in grades K-6 for nearly 20 years.