Larry Ferlazzo

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(reprinted with permission of Library Media Connection, where it originally appeared in Aug/Sept. 2009 edition)

Family Literacy, English Language Learners, and Parent Engagement

                                                                                  by Larry Ferlazzo


            There are at least 5.1 million U.S. students in kindergarten through twelfth grade who are English Language Learners today  -- 10.5 percent of the entire student population.   That amount is expected to grow to 25% by the year 2025. (

            Numbers on the educational levels of these students’ parents varies, though it appears that at least one-third of the heads-of-households lack a high school education and that number may be as large as fifty percent.   And according to the 2000 Census, over twenty-one million adults report that they do not speak English well or at all.  ( and

            These numbers, and the challenges they represent, are not “problems.”  Rather, they can be opportunities for schools to assist students, engage their parents, and strengthen communities.  Luther Burbank High School, Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school, chose that perspective and developed a strategy which resulted in higher student achievement and increased family literacy, and their efforts were named the Grand Prize Winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award For Reading and Technology


            Four years ago, over 2,000 Hmong refugees came to Sacramento after the last refugee camp was closed in Thailand.  The Hmong had been part of a CIA-created army during the Vietnamese War, and had fled Laos after United States pull-out.  Most of these pre-literate immigrants had never attended a school before.  A majority of the high school age youth came to Luther Burbank High School.

            One of the school’s main literacy strategies with all students is to encourage the reading of  high-interest books of their own choosing.  Since it did not have the ability to provide one-on-one tutoring, the question was how to incorporate this type of instructional effort with students who had no experience with the printed word prior to their arrival at the school.

             The school’s first response was to create a website with links to hundreds of thousands of free online “talking stories” and other audio/visual language-development activities ( School computer labs were made available to these ESL students both before-and-after-school (as well as during selected times during the regular school day). 

            Students’ parents were intrigued by the computer experience, and, in the course of home visits made by school staff, shared that they, too, wanted to develop English skills.  However, since they did not have a drivers license (knowing English was required to pass the test) and Sacramento’s public transit system was less-than-stellar, it was difficult for them to attend adult school.  “Was there any way the school could help them get computers and Internet access at their homes?” they asked.

Parents and staff worked to obtain School District funds and forty-five computers were loaned to immigrant families. Internet access was also provided (content was filtered through the school).  In addition, parents and staff worked together to develop the program’s procedures – at least eighty percent of each household had to commit to spending at least one-hour each day on the school’s website (they could use the computer together as a family and all complete their one-hour at the same time), a written log was turned-in each Friday and also families needed to log-in on certain sites where their progress could be monitored.  Just as research has shown that people are more likely to exercise their body if they make commitments to “exercise buddies” (, the school thought the same concept might hold true with English-language study.  Over seventy Burbank students were in the program, along with over 140 other Sacramento City Unified School District students who lived in the households, plus over 100 parents and other adults.

Providing books to both the families who have home computers and to those in a “control group” was also part of the effort.  The Davis Friends Of  The Library has donated thousands of high-interest books for Burbank’s immigrant families to deal with the documented disparity between the numbers of books in low-income households contrasted with those in middle-class families.  Students and parents say that the “talking stories” they read on the computer get them interested in reading more about the different topics.  They then can obtain books for their home library, or from the school or public library, that build on that initial knowledge base.  The reverse is also true – family members find a book that looks interesting to them and then want to read a “talking story” about the same topic.  The school librarian also regularly orders large quantities of accessible books after talking with the students about their interests.

Assessments at six month intervals over the past three years have consistently shown that students with these home computers have two-to-three times the rate of improvement in English literacy than control groups of students without the home computers.  Parents also increase their English proficiency, but the school does not have a parent control group.  In addition, participants say that they like using the computer together, and that their listening and speaking skills have also increased.



            The success of this project illustrates how effective parent engagement strategies can be – as contrasted with what is often referred to as parent involvement.  Here are just a few elements (there are several more) of what could be called a parent engagement effort:

            Whose energy drives it?  Who initiates it?  In parent involvement, often the ideas (which may very well be great ones) and well-intentioned energy comes from the school.  In parent engagement, ideas are often elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships – for example, through home visits.  More parent energy drives the effort.

            The idea for Burbank’s Family Literacy Project originated from a parent with a language and transportation problem who was then encouraged by school staff to talk with other parents about the proposal.  These parents then worked with school staff to develop the guidelines and procedures that would guide the effort.

            This does not mean staff can’t suggest ideas.  However, they can be offered in the context of learning parent self-interests, and with a willingness to adapt and modify them so that parents can make these ideas their own.

            What is the invitation? In parent involvement, parents might often be irritated – pushed to do things that staff might perceive as important.  In parent engagement, parents are agitated – challenged to do something about what they believe is important to them.

            The first Burbank parent who suggested the idea of providing home computers was not told by school staff, “That’s a great idea.  We’ll start a program.”  Instead, he was told, “That’s a great idea.  We’d love to help if you can find other parents who are also interested in helping to start it.”

            What is the purpose?  In parent involvement, often the purpose might be to support students by strengthening and assisting school programs and priorities.  In parent engagement, the purpose is to support students by developing parent relationships, strengthening families, and helping families develop more English skills and self-confidence so they can feel more energized and capable of working to improve their local communities.

            The purpose of the Burbank project is not only to provide assistance to the Burbank students who live in the households that have computers, and to the scores of other younger siblings who will be Burbank students in the future.  The purpose is to also assist parents become more engaged in the academic life of their children, which is better for the long-term academic culture for everyone in that household.  In addition, the more the parents learn English, the more likely they get better paying jobs.  This better pay could allow parents to spend more on the kinds of resources – books, trips, enrichment classes – that are more prevalent in higher-income families.  And the fact that parents are more engaged with their children academically may very well make it more likely that using those increased funds for academic resources will be a higher priority for them.


            The purpose of this article is not to suggest that there is something bad with parent involvement.  In fact, studies have shown that any kind of parent action to participate in their child’s education is beneficial.

            What Burbank’s success suggests, however, is that parent engagement might be a superior opportunity to maximize the benefits of increased parent participation for families --  with lesser long-term strain on already overburdened school staff.  And that one of these superior opportunities might be specifically related to increasing student and parent English literacy.

Larry Ferlazzo was a community organizer for nineteen years before becoming a teacher at Luther Burbank High School five years ago.  He is the co-author, with Lorie Hammond, of Building Parent Engagement In Schools,  recently published by Linworth.  He can be reached at



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