Research - Mind the gap

Peer reviewed article

Research article on the critical role of school leaders in promoting parents and teachers as partners in learning by Dr Marie Murphy and Dr Kathy Rushton.


‘To educate the whole child in a culturally and linguistically diverse context it is necessary to nurture intellect and identity equally in ways that, of necessity, challenge coercive relations of power’ (Cummins, 2000, p.6.). As educators we are charged by the community to prepare children to become critical readers and competent writers so that they can both learn from others and express themselves (ACARA, Australian Curriculum). It is also assumed that in modern Australian society, this learning and expression will be undertaken in the English language. In contemporary Australia, around 30% of Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics) speak a language other than English at home, a trend reflected internationally (Freebody, Freebody & Maney, 2011; Turney & Kao, 2009). Being bilingual can be a support to learning (Collier & Thomas, 2017; Gibbons, 2006; Skutnabb-Kangas, 2013) but for some young learners the gap between success in an educational setting and their own previous learning experiences widens. The vast majority of children enter the schooling system having mastered at least one language and for many, two or more languages or dialects. It is therefore very important for educators to recognise that learning a language also means learning a culture and a way of being, habitus (Maton, 2013). For some children this will be a seamless transition from learning in the home to the learning experienced in an educational setting but for others it will require a big adjustment (Bernstein,1990; Cummins, 1981; Painter, 1996; Williams, 2000).

The contexts, in which educators work, are shaped by social, ethical and policy guidelines and educators need to respond to these guidelines within the dictates of their specific school contexts. This context is strongly influenced by the background and culture of the students in a community. Drawing on our experiences, especially from one large multicultural primary school in south western Sydney, we will explore the impact of the school context and possible ways for schools and parents to work together to enhance school-based student learning and prepare children to function effectively in contemporary society.

The context

The context in which we worked, as a principal and a teacher of EAL/D students (English as an additional language/dialect), was a large multicultural school where 96% of the student population had a language background other than English, with 43 languages being spoken at the school. While the majority of students were born in Australia, the majority of their parents were born overseas. The student mobility rate at the school was high, for instance in one period mobility ranged from 18 to 32 per cent annually. In schools like this, due to this high rate of change, relationships between teachers and parents can be hard to develop. Therefore, as well as exploring the reciprocal nature of language learning and the value of facilitating a reciprocal relationship between schools and parents, attention is also given to responsive classroom strategies. Finally some recommendations are made for ways to develop and imbed practices sensitive to a school’s context to engage parents and support learning.

The lead learner: the critical role of school leaders

For principals to invite and support a reciprocal relationship between schools and parents the school needs to develop a range of culturally sensitive strategies responsive to the needs of the specific community.

The challenge in developing effective school practices that will lead to best outcomes for students and create the opportunity for parents to be involved in their children's learning is that principals may need to stop their teachers from doing good things and support them to do better things (Wiliam, 2014).

Context specific practices have the potential to close the gap between parents and teachers and the role parents and teachers play in supporting young learners.

A teacher’s main responsibility is clearly in the classroom while a parent’s responsibility lies with the learning that occurs in the home. As the lead learner, the task of the principal is to work with both these key groups in the school community to ensure the best outcomes for students. Effective school leadership is critical to enhanced student outcomes (Robinson, 2007). Implementing appropriate pedagogy and developing reciprocal relationships with parents is critical to student learning and the implementation of these elements cannot be left to chance. Leadership is required to ensure the implementation and maintenance of both these school-based practices, therefore principals need to display an understanding that learning occurs across multiple settings and have the skill to motivate their staff and invite the community to work together across learning environments.

In order to lead the development of reciprocal relationships between teachers and parents solutions were sought directly from the community. This was done by conducting two focus groups, one with parents, teachers and community members and a second with students, to identify ways the school could develop this significant relationship between teachers and parents. A number of common themes arose from the discussion with parents, teachers and community members that the group considered supported or limited parent-teacher relationships. The main areas identified by the group included the need for frequent informal discussion between parents and teachers; the importance of being proficient in the English language or having easy access to interpreters and also having access to information about the school, the curriculum and community resources. Students also spoke of these matters, in particular they mentioned the need for a connection between parents and teachers. In response to these findings a different group of parents and teachers were invited to be part of an Action Team (Epstein, 2010). This group, the Parent Teacher Action Team, considered the feedback from the focus group and made suggestions of how these matters could be addressed in the school.

For instance, one strategy that was undertaken was to introduce English language classes for parents at the school. These classes provided an opportunity for parents to develop language proficiency, spend more time at the school and also form relationships with other members of the school community. This matter is of particular importance for parents from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds as they may not feel confident about being at school and be unsure of the expectations schools may have of them. Further, parents from CALD backgrounds may consider that school learning is the responsibility of the school and consequently not visit the school frequently, they may make limited attempts to communicate with teachers, or fail to ensure their visits are noted (Pena, 2000; Wong & Hughes, 2006). English language classes gave parents both the opportunity to develop their language and a further reason to be at the school. Beyond providing English classes for parents it remains important that teachers are cognisant of parent motivation and be aware of the range of ways parents may show their interest beyond developing their English language skills.

Teachers and the power of the dominant language in the classroom

While expectations for teachers and principals are now set out in national standards there are still many challenges that need to be met. For instance teachers have a significant role in developing and maintaining a relationship with parents yet this role is frequently overlooked in schools (Cairney & Munsie, 1995; Hindin, 2010; Wong & Hughes, 2006). The complex task of relating to parents, especially those whose language, culture or social class differ from that of the teacher, may be difficult for teachers as their main focus and area of skill and training is in teaching and curriculum (Kim, 2009; Lawson, 2003).

As there is traditionally no or limited pre-service training for teachers in working with parents there are few opportunities for teachers to develop awareness of the potential benefits of parent-teacher relationships.

In our context these issues were significant as none of the classroom teachers had pre-service training in working with parents or more specifically parents of students from a CALD background. This situation would be similar to many schools as although teachers are required to ‘know their students and how they learn’ (NESA, 2018) it is difficult to meet the requirement with the depth of knowledge that might be required.

This challenge is particularly so in the case of language development as many students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds might find that their linguistic repertoires are not valued in the school context. For students whose first language (L1) is developed with educated parents who can help their children to reflect on their language use, developing a second or third language or dialect can only support their learning (Williams, 2000).  In other cases the concept of ‘subtractive bilingualism’ might best describe the child’s lack of mastery in the first language which may impact on the development of additional languages or dialects (Collier & Thomas, 2017). The child’s identity and culture is confirmed through the use of language and for some children the pervasive popular culture which privileges English only may curb any enthusiasm to further develop their first language. Alternatively students who are literate in their first language will find the development of an additional language much easier especially if they are supported to develop the metalanguage to compare and contrast what they know and understand about the linguistic resources they have or are developing (Adoniou, 2016; Cummins, 2000; Gibbons, 2006).

For teachers, a first step in identifying student needs is to recognise the difference between spoken and written language and its significance in developing English as an additional language. The structure and grammatical features of texts vary across genres but also particularly across the continuum from the spoken to the written mode. In summary, spoken language is usually more grammatically intricate than written language and depends on the context of the interaction which is especially important for the development of an appropriate tenor to reflect the social distance between those participating in the interaction (Martin & White, 2005). For instance, in English, an adult teacher might say to a child: ‘Would you mind re-writing that paragraph, it isn’t as clear as it could be’. Unless they wanted to appear disrespectful the response for a native speaker would never be ‘No, I don’t want to do that’. This is because it is understood that the use of modality is to soften a command and to make the interaction polite, it is not a genuine offer of choice for the other participant.

Understanding how to make the most appropriate language choices is best developed through guided opportunities to use language in oral interactions as well as in writing.

Therefore classroom routines need to reflect the range of language uses on the mode continuum and help students to both move from spoken to written language and to reflect on the choices they will need to make to develop specific texts (Derewianka, 2011; Droga, Humphrey & Feez, 2012; Rossbridge & Rushton, 2010, 2011 & 2015). In science for instance, allowing students to interact orally around an experiment will help them to learn about the field, the subject matter central to the experiment, but to develop the written mode rather than oral mode there will also need to be a change of tenor. For instance, if students are building a balloon powered car and explaining the process, they would need to move from comments like: ‘Look, the car’s moving’ to ‘When the balloon is deflated the car moves forward’. This move can only be made if students are able to read/understand explanations modelled by the teacher.

They will also need the support to develop vocabulary like ‘deflate’ and the use of grammatical features like the dependent clause of time in the first position: ‘When the balloon...’ and the use of the passive voice ‘is deflated’. This move is from the more spoken: actor ‘the car’; action process ‘is moving’ to the use of the structure and features common to written explanations.

For teachers, realising that this shift on the mode continuum is necessary for both English speaking and EAL/D students, can inform the development of a pedagogy that meets the needs of all students. Vocabulary development is of course key for EAL/D students, but as seen from the previous example, vocabulary development is only useful if the new lexical items can be incorporated in appropriately constructed texts that focus on the audience and purpose of a text as well as its subject matter. Similarly, with spoken language it is the interaction that is key rather than the learning of sounds. English has many more sounds than letters of the alphabet and the vowel sounds in English are completely dependent on the context in which they are found for example sew and so; bough and bow (a curtsey) but dew and do and cough and bow (a hair ribbon). What is important is to realise the relationship between speaking and writing and how phonology and orthography are related. Learning sounds is useless without knowledge of the history of spelling and how word families were developed (Adoniou, 2016). For teachers these complex issues are best met through daily guided and modelled reading linked to guided writing. These provide pedagogical opportunities for students to develop metalanguage to discuss the use of language as they draw on their own oral language resources to interact meaningfully about the texts they are reading and writing.

This complex task of developing language and literacy can be more effectively addressed if parents are aware of the complexity of learning formal language and the expectations of the school. The next section explores the challenges and some ways that schools can share this information with parents and engage them as partners in the process.

Parents as partners in learning

As a child’s first teacher, parents need the opportunity to be active in their children’s school based learning as this involvement has extensive benefits for students including enhanced academic performance, attendance, behaviour and social adjustment which can extend beyond the school years and across different racial and ethnic groups (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003; Fan & Chen, 2001; Jeynes, 2005; Mutch & Collins, 2012). While the benefits of parents’ engagement in their children’s learning are acknowledged, fewer parents from CALD backgrounds appear to be involved or be visible at the school (Kim, 2009; Turney & Kao, 2009). A lower level of involvement of parents from CALD backgrounds may be due to the limited or often formulaic practices that are frequently used as ways to engage parents in their children’s school (Crozier, 2001).

While parent involvement is supported by policy, it is poorly supported in practice and the complexity of implementing and maintaining parent-teacher relationships is not acknowledged (Blackmore & Hutchison, 2010; Cairney & Munsie, 1995).

Simple strategies such as the after school communication strategy, as recommended by the community, provided an opportunity for relationships between teachers and parents to be developed naturally.

When parents are from CALD backgrounds and have limited English they may be uncomfortable with the formal style of communication generally used in schools (Lopez, Scribner & Mahitivanichcha, 2001; Mills & Gale, 2009). Additionally, teachers’ professional place in the school puts them in a position of power which may create further distance between themselves and parents making the formation of relationships difficult (Kim, 2009). While the relationship between home and school is important and teachers’ role in creating this connection is critical there is research suggesting that home-based parenting can have a greater impact on student learning than any activities that parents may participate in at school (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003).

Drawing on recommendations from the school based focus groups one further strategy which was employed to close the gap between home and school was to strengthen the communication between parents and teachers. The Parent Teacher Action Team suggested that more teachers be available in the playground after school for ten minutes or so to talk informally with parents to support casual communication and answer parent queries. Following discussions during Stage team meetings a teacher from each stage volunteered to be present in the playground one afternoon a week. The Deputy Principal offered to be available one afternoon a week and together with the Stage volunteers this provided a member of staff available to support casual communication between parents and teachers each day of the week.

While parents need to be aware of the expectations schools may have of them this can be difficult to ascertain as these expectations are often implicit and may not be obvious to a parent new to a country or culture. The Parent Teacher Action Team also had a suggestion of ways the school could address this. The Action Team suggested that additional information that was of interest to parents be included on the school website, including information on curriculum, homework and assessment. Studies have demonstrated that CALD parents actively and visibly participate when schools are welcoming and take responsibility for involving their parent community and develop programs that meet the identified needs of the community (Jeynes, 2011; Hindin, 2010; Lopez et al., 2001). The simple actions that arose in response to the recommendations from the Parent Teacher Action Team were a visible demonstration of the school actively seeking and responding to the needs and suggestions of the parent community. Further the recommendations were developed by parents and teachers working together. The school was actively facilitating reciprocal relationships between themselves and their parent community when they acknowledged that parents and schools may have different expectations of how to display interest and endeavoured to develop strategies that limit the distance between home and school.

Based on the effectiveness of the strategies introduced at the school in response to the Parent Teacher Action Team it was possible for the school to plan further opportunities for parents to have greater involvement with the school. At this point it was timely to consider the effectiveness of the measures employed and adjust practices in response to the feedback. The practices of the Parent Teacher Action Team could provide a flexible platform for parents and teachers to build reciprocal relationships.

When asked of her reaction toward the strategies that had been used by the school one parent commented: ‘Well don’t stop now just keep doing it.’

Language and culture are the foundations for learning (Mansouri, 2013) the challenge for educators is to identify and embed inclusive practices in schools that acknowledge the language and cultures of the community, facilitate learning and invite parents to be partners in this process. Schools require practices responsive to their context that acknowledge multiple languages and cultures and promote learning between home and school together with reciprocal relationships between parents and teachers. Such practices promise to enhance school-based student learning and genuinely prepare children to function effectively in contemporary society.


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How to cite this article – Murphy, M & Rushton, K. (2018). Mind the gap: the critical role of school leaders in promoting parents and teachers as partners, Scan 37(10).

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