Christa Jackson works with a kindergarten student on math skills. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

ISU researchers want to break down language barriers with math and text messages

Getting parents engaged in their child’s classroom isn’t easy when mom and dad don’t speak English. That’s why two researchers in Iowa State University’s School of Education are working to overcome language barriers with text messages that kindergarten teachers can send home to parents.

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Messages sent to parents enrolled in the program. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

These are not your typical text messages with reminders or updates for parents. Mollie Appelgate and Christa Jackson, both assistant professors of math education, focus each message on a simple math activity that parents can do with their child at home. The goal is two-fold: Promote building math skills outside of school, similar to reading programs, and develop a connection between teachers and parents, especially those who don’t speak English.

Appelgate and Jackson are testing their text-message initiative this fall in kindergarten classrooms at Moulton Elementary School in Des Moines, with a grant from the Center for Education Transformation at the University of Northern Iowa. The idea evolved from their work and conversations with Moulton teachers. Jackson says they consistently heard about the desire to foster better relationships with parents who are English-language learners.

“We believe the parents want this communication just as much as the teachers,” Jackson said. “We found some teachers were relaying messages to parents through older siblings and some of the older siblings may only be in the first grade.”

Teachers often have no other option but to communicate through siblings. Appelgate and Jackson say the sheer volume of different languages – there are 11 just in Moulton’s kindergarten classrooms – make it a challenge for schools to find and hire the appropriate translators. Limited budgets and a limited number of translators are also a factor for many schools.  

The ISU researchers are encouraged by the response from English-speaking parents who have signed up to receive the text messages, and have completed surveys stating that they’re doing the at-home math activities. However, Appelgate says they’re experiencing firsthand the struggles teachers face simply trying to meet with and register parents for the program. Unfortunately, some parents are unable to attend teacher conferences or other school meetings because of a lack of time and others may not be attending because of language barriers.  

Still, Jackson and Appelgate are optimistic the texting curriculum will be an effective way to ease some of the language barriers. They work closely with Moulton teachers to design math activities that match what students are learning in the classroom. Appelgate says they also want the messages to be relevant to what’s happening at home.

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Mollie Appelgate works in the classroom to make sure the activities sent in text messages fit with what students are learning.

“As an example, we might have the parent ask their child to point out three circles inside or outside their home, and then the parent points out three circles. One of the kindergarten teachers suggested having families pair up socks while folding laundry and then have the child count by twos. I love that activity, because it’s something we all do, but may not think about mathematically,” Appelgate said.

Teachers see opportunity

In her nearly three decades of teaching at Moulton, Tracey Boothe has found that student performance improves once she breaks through the language barrier with parents. Boothe says the school’s math curriculum includes vocabulary – greater than, number pairs and counting order – that is difficult for many students and families who are learning English to understand. Boothe has relied on interpreters and older siblings to communicate with parents, and she is excited to have another way to bridge that gap. 

“I am thankful to have help communicating with parents in other languages and even English. Education today, at times, requires more time than hours in the day,” Boothe said. “We are pulled in many directions and manage multiple tasks at the same time. This is the kind of help that I hope has an impact on the students and the families.”

Expanding the program

To gauge the effectiveness of the text messages, and keep activities consistent with what’s happening in the classroom, Appelgate and Jackson are at Moulton observing student-teacher interactions in math one day each week. They’re already thinking about how they can utilize the program in other ways and expand it to other grade levels. Ideally, it could become a model for other schools.

The ISU researchers are also collecting data through weekly parent surveys as well as parent and teacher focus groups. They know that parents are receiving the messages, but the question is whether parents will engage in the activities with their children.   

“These are designed to be two-to-five-minute activities,” Jackson said. “It’s not supposed to be burdensome, but more focused on creating a connection and something parents can easily do with their child at home.”

Appelgate added, “Having that knowledge of what is going on in mathematics and that connection to the classroom will hopefully make parents more comfortable talking about mathematical ideas with their child.”