Some of the most eager students at St John’s Anglican College are now its parents.
The education role reversal is all thanks to a simple, yet powerful parent engagement research project being undertaken by the Kindergarten to Year 12 College at Forest Lake, in Brisbane’s south-west.
Partnering with parents for the greatest impact on student learning
The impetus for the project was a noticeable decline in the oral language skills of new Kindergarten and Prep entrants commencing at the College.
According to Head of Primary Sandra Hawken, the College’s student demographic has changed over the past three years and now includes significantly more children from families for whom English is an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D). In 2019, almost half of the College’s Prep students live in a home where more than one language is spoken.
The College has implemented a range of strategies to support its multicultural community including: introducing a Talking Partners program in Prep which includes daily phonemic awareness activities; translating parent-specific information into different languages; employing an EAL/D coordinator who works with students in class and liaises with parents; as well as engaging interpreters when needed.
However, the College didn’t stop there. Primary staff recognised parents were an untapped educational resource who, with the right support, could reinforce classroom learning at home
Mrs Hawken says the College firmly sees the education of its students as a partnership between home and school.
“Schools only have children for six hours a day. In the time parents have with their children they can have a significant impact on their academic, social, emotional and physical development, through their conversations and participation in activities and experiences with their children,” she says.
“Gaining their genuine engagement improves outcomes for the children.”
Building early oral language skills
Mrs Hawken says there is a common misconception that simply being able to speak is evidence of strong oral language skills.
“However, oral language is much more than this. It is the foundation for all learning. It is central to supporting the development of a child’s early literacy skills and is fostered by language-rich environments that encourage discussion and questioning,” she says.
However, Mrs Hawken says in the busyness of life, sometimes the main form of communication that occurs between parents and their children is “directional talk”, such as “jump in the car, it’s time to go to swimming, have you done your homework?”.
“While many parents are doing their best, there’s a big difference between this type of instructional communication and deeper conversations about the storyline or characters in a book or talking about the birds and trees during a visit to the park,” she says.
However, the College also knew from parent surveys that many mums, dads and carers were unsure how to help their children or lacked confidence in their abilities.
“As educators we just assume that parents know how to read a story and engage children in discussion around the story because it comes naturally to us,” Mrs Hawken says.
“In reality the majority of our families don’t know how to do that.”
Introducing take-home “blossom bags” with fun family literacy activities
In 2019 the College embarked on an Independent Schools Queensland Research in Schools project, with added funding support from the Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network, to build parent knowledge and skills in oral language and early literacy development.
Central to the project are take-home “blossom bags”.
Mrs Hawken says the bags contain a storybook and a connected hands-on home activity that encourages parents to talk, play and have fun with their children, all of which have a positive impact on a student’s oracy development.
The bags were recently unveiled at a Saturday afternoon play date the College regularly holds for Kindergarten and Prep children and their families.
One of the College’s primary teachers explicitly modelled how to use the bag to students and parents.
Families were also given a magnetic Oral Language Tip Sheet to pop on their home refrigerator with simple reminders about how to “talk with children, rather than to them”.
Regular tips are also shared with parents to keep the literacy messages and strategies top of mind.
“Watch this space” for next steps
Mrs Hawken says parents have embraced the project.
“Parents are regularly borrowing the blossom bags from the library as well as other educational resources that have been purchased for a special parent section in the library. The blossom bag collection continues to grow with 35 already available and another 25 on the way,” she says.
“Parents will come up to staff when they’re doing pick up and say ‘thank you so much for showing us how to read books and for demonstrating the blossom bag. My son loves it. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but now I feel I can’.”
Energised by the parent response to the project, which is due to be completed mid 2020, the College is brimming with ideas about how to expand the program and its reach beyond its own community – so watch this space.
Find out more about what parent engagement is and what other schools are doing in our recent story.
There is a rich well of information and research about parent engagement, which we have compiled on our website. | LEARN MORE
There are also many wonderful websites with tips and advice for parents who want to connect school learning with life at home, which we have compiled for you here. | READ MORE
If you’d rather listen to a summary of the data, QIS Parents Network Executive Officer Sue Kloeden explains what parent engagement is in this webinar for Queensland independent schools | LEARN MORE
Download our one page guide to Parent Engagement here and share with your network. |DOWNLOAD
You can also download the St John’s case study in a PDF format. | DOWNLOAD