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A Cycle of Undereducation?

Posted September 2004: Julia Menard-Warwick questions a common assumption about immigrant parents. See Tammy Gregersen's Out of the Box article, "Adversity to Diversity in the Mainstream," Essential Teacher, Autumn 2004 (pp. 54-56). 

Last year at a holiday party, I was talking to a friend who was finishing up an elementary teaching credential. I suggested that she apply to teach in the nearby school district where I was doing research at an ESL family literacy program. Her instant reaction was, "The lowest test scores in the state!" As we continued talking, she said she thought the test scores were low because the students didn't have parental support: "I know they love their kids, but ...."

Indeed, many studies in immigrant communities have found that parents "value education but can't translate idealized support into effective support" (Smith-Hefner, 1999, p. 193). Family literacy programs have been promoted as a way to break "the cycle of undereducation and poverty," on the assumption that "the messages communicated in these undereducated families often reflect the parents' own low self-esteem and limited expectations for themselves and their children" (National Center for Family Literacy, 2003, n.p.). Although such programs can be valuable, this assumption negatively stereotypes bilingual families and can blind educators to the contributions families are already making.

A Tradition of Support

My findings encourage a more positive view of family educational support. I interviewed and observed Latina immigrant mothers of children attending schools in the district mentioned above, which was famous for low test scores (Menard-Warwick, 2002, 2004). Granted, the women were all attending family literacy classes and working to improve their own English. They believed the classes would enable them to better support their children's education. However, I found no evidence that the classes had broken any kind of cycle involving low self-esteem and limited expectations. The women had been finding ways to support their children's education and communicate high expectations for years before they entered ESL family literacy classes.

For example, a young mother from rural Mexico with a sixth-grade education explained in an interview (translated here from Spanish) what the neighborhood library meant to her and her daughter:

I began to go to the library and give her books to read, but I read them in Spanish. And then I was seeing books that were kind of easy to read in English, [so] I began to take out books to read in both languages so I could read to her in English....The little bit [of English] that I know is because I read her lots of books.

Three years after this young woman started her visits to the library, she began attending family literacy classes.

What should such findings mean for teachers like my friend? I interviewed only 10 immigrant women in depth, so I can't claim that my findings generalize across the school district in question. Moreover, my research does not specifically answer the question of why standardized test scores in the area are so low. However, the trends I found should encourage teachers to suspend their assumptions about immigrant parents with low levels of education.

Rather than assuming that parents can't or don't want to support their children academically, teachers can make an effort to cross the language barriers and establish communication.

Breaking the Cycle of Assumptions

Recruit Parent Volunteers

At schools that lack bilingual aides and translators, you may be able to recruit bilingual parent volunteers.

Suggest Ways for Parents to Help

Once communication has been established, you can find out what parents are already doing to support their children and make additional suggestions (ideally in the home language) for ways that parents can assist their children academically. Even parents who cannot read well themselves can listen to their children read aloud every day (Auerbach, 1989).

Keep Parents Informed

You can also give parents information about community resources, such as libraries and ESL programs.

A Worthwhile Dialogue

As one Nicaraguan immigrant mother wrote in an ESL composition on the topic of education, "I think everything to do with my daughter is important." Teachers who make an effort to start a dialogue with the parents of the children they teach are likely to find this sentiment widespread.


Auerbach, E. (1989). Toward a social-contextual approach to family literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 59, 165-181.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2002). "Even I would like to be bilingual": Parents learning English in their children's school. In E. Auerbach (Ed.), Community partnerships (pp. 13-25). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2004). Identity and learning in the narratives of Latina/o immigrants: Contextualizing classroom literacy practices in adult ESL. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

National Center for Family Literacy. (2003). The National Center for Family Literacy press fact sheet. Retrieved April 23, 2003, from

Smith-Hefner, N. J. (1999). Khmer American: Identity & moral education in a diasporic community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Formerly a community college ESL teacher, Julia Menard-Warwick ( is an assistant professor of second language acquisition and development in the Linguistics Department at the University of California, Davis, in the United States.