Western grad students break down communication barriers, empower parents with language class

Contact: Erin Flynn
Kim Huls and Karina Nazario pose next to each other in front of a projector screen.

Kim Huls and Karina Nazario, who are both pursuing master's degrees in teaching English to speakers of other languages, created Language Exchange.

HOLLAND, Mich.—Helping with homework can be difficult for parents; middle school math might as well be a foreign language for many. But add in an actual language barrier, and it can be nearly impossible. Two graduate students in Western Michigan University's Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program are working to break down that barrier for families in their elementary classrooms.

Kim Huls and Karina Nazario teach in the West Ottawa Public Schools district in Holland, Michigan. Nazario's students are predominantly native English speakers who are learning Spanish through a language immersion program at Lakeshore Elementary. By contrast, many of the students in Huls' class at Woodside Elementary are bilingual, with families who are predominantly native Spanish speakers and speak the language at home.

"We were trying to think of a way to get these families together so they can practice those skills and learn from each other," Huls says.

They came up with Language Exchange, an evening class where native Spanish-speaking parents and native English-speaking parents could come and learn with and from each other. 

"We saw parents wanting to be engaged and involved with their students, teachers and their homework," says Nazario. "But with the language barrier, it's hard to do that. So this gave them an opportunity to learn a new language ... and have practice and be more confident."

Over 12 weeks, Huls and Nazario would put together theme nights focusing on things like food, directions and traditions. Each class would be split in half, with 45 minutes immersed in Spanish and 45 minutes where only English was allowed.

"One of my favorite parts was seeing the community and relationships grow despite the language barrier," Huls says. "Seeing people use their translation apps or different resources like drawing things out to make sure that they were still communicating with other families and getting to know them."

Parents work on worksheets at a table.

Parents help each other on a language assignment.

Supported by Project TEAMS, a federal grant awarded to Drs. Selena Protacio, professor of TESOL and interim chair of literacy studies, and Virginia David, coordinator of TESOL programs, as well as funding through their school district, the Language Exchange teaching team put together homework binders and a bilingual library so parents could take home books to read to their kids. They were also able to hire another teacher from the Spanish immersion program to provide child care during the classes.

"We wanted to make the class as accessible as possible," says Huls.

The results, says Nazario, far exceeded both of their expectations. Parents bonded and began meeting outside of class, and their kids started forming relationships as well. It reaffirmed what she had been learning at Western.

"One of my (TESOL) classes was about family engagement and how important it is to get families involved with a student's learning, whether it's getting them to come to the classroom and do a presentation or sharing their culture," adds Nazario. "I just wanted to be more impactful with the community engagement part.”

The program also created new learning opportunities for their students.

A group of people poses together holding sheets of paper.

Parents who completed the Language Exchange program received certificates.

"I had one student share with me that her mom was trying to do the homework and she was able to say, 'Mom, let me be the teacher. I'm going to sit down and show you how to do this.' And it was a student who tended to really struggle in grade-level content in my class. For her, it was so empowering to say, 'Okay, now I get to be the teacher, and I'm really good at this. I know what to do.' And it was cool for the mom, too, because they were really bonding over that time."

Huls and Nazario are already starting to plan more Language Exchange sessions for the upcoming school year. They're hoping to build on the success of the inaugural program and expand its reach even further.

"It was something we had talked about and dreamed about, and the fact that it actually came to life still kind of feels unreal," Nazario says. "Having a grandpa that only spoke Spanish and who didn't really come to my school events because he felt so out of place … and just having a language barrier, it hits really deep in my heart. And I know how those parents feel. I'm just glad that we were able to find an opportunity to get them to feel a little safer and more involved with their child and the school."

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