Literacy program expands in West Aurora
By Kalyn Belsha email@example.com October 22, 2013 2:00PM
Brenda Mendoza teaches her second grade bilingual students at Greenman Elementary in West Aurora School District on Thursday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 24, 2013 6:24AM
AURORA — Brenda Mendoza stood at the head of her second grade class last week miming a precariously balanced small object in her palm.
Her students gingerly moved around the classroom, imaginary trays and teacups in their hands.
“Delicado!” the students said, Spanish for “delicate.”
Mendoza uses repetition and body movements to help her bilingual education students at West Aurora’s Greenman Elementary learn new vocabulary words.
But Mendoza believes she’s not the only one who can use engaging literacy activities to get children interested in reading. She wants parents to use teachers’ strategies in the home to improve their children’s ability to read, spell and write.
That’s why in 2010 she started a program at Greenman called Parents Advocating Literacy, or PAL. The program consists of five, one-hour evening sessions over a period of several months.
An information session about this year’s program was held at Greenman on Tuesday night.
“Parents seemed very interested in doing activities with their children and they were very focused on reading,” Mendoza said. She thought: “Why don’t we, in essence, train them to be teachers in the home for reading and writing?”
After seeing program participation growth at Greenman, Mendoza is in the process of training teachers at four other West Aurora elementary schools — Hill, McCleery, Nicholson and Schneider — to spread the program.
The idea for the family literacy program began about three years ago when Greenman sent parents a survey asking them about what they wanted at the school.
“The response was pretty overwhelming,” said Nicholas Baughman, Greenman’s principal. “The parents wanted to be involved, we just needed to find an avenue which was appropriate for them.”
Around the same time, Mendoza was doing research on parent involvement for her master’s in curriculum and instruction at Aurora University. She had heard time and time again at parent-teacher conferences that parents were interested in helping elementary-age children with reading, but they didn’t know how.
Mendoza started to research existing family literacy programs, but couldn’t find a program to purchase. She learned about a few school-based programs scattered throughout New Mexico, California and Texas but those focused on reading comprehension.
She wanted to teach parents about all parts of reading, from phonics to vocabulary to fluency, so she decided to create her own program.
In its early days, PAL attracted only seven parents at a time, Mendoza said. But as word spread of the program — Mendoza also sends home fliers and does phone blasts — more parents started to show up.
The largest attendance on one night was 36, Mendoza said, and in total she has trained more than 100 parents. Mendoza also trained another elementary bilingual teacher, Jenniffer Hernandez, to help teach parents.
Baughman and Mendoza said they quickly realized that as the program grew they needed Greenman staff to be present to care for children who accompanied their parents. Now every PAL session offers child care.
Baughman said he uses federal Title I funds to help pay for books for students to take home — the money can be used for parent involvement — and West Aurora’s nonprofit A+ Foundation also has given the program small grants to buy supplies, such as organizers and sand timers, for parents.
At each session, Hernandez teaches parents for 30 minutes about reading strategies, then parents work on those skills for 30 minutes with their children.
The strategies often involve literacy games that are free or low-cost to replicate at home. One game she teaches parents, Hernandez said, involves vocabulary cards that help students work on pronunciation and spelling.
Another strategy involves teaching parents how to read expressively to keep children engaged with a story, sometimes by mismatching their voice and the book’s subject. For example, Hernandez said, one exercise might be reading “The Cafeteria Lady from the Black Lagoon” as Santa Claus.
The strategies can work in English or the parent’s native language, Mendoza said, and some are designed to help a Spanish speaker work with an English text. For example, Mendoza said, she teaches parents visual literacy, or how to tell a story through pictures.
Part of PAL’s goal is to help parents who themselves are English-language learners to become more comfortable reading to their children and to make them feel less like outsiders at their children’s school, Mendoza said.
Luz Taveres, 33, a mother of two Greenman students, ages 9 and 10, completed the PAL program during its first year. She said the strategies immediately helped her picture the stories she was reading to her children in Spanish and prompted her to ask them questions about their books.
“I knew how to read to my children, but I wasn’t transporting myself to the place where the reading was happening,” Taveres said. “I learned what we were reading about and how to explain to my children what was happening there, where, when, why.”
She said PAL also helped lengthen how long she could read from 30 minutes to an hour and the program changed how she felt about reading. Before, it felt like homework, she said, and now it’s something she does for pleasure.
Mendoza, who is a mother of four, ages 8 months to 13, said the strategies she teaches to parents are designed for moms and dads like her who are on the go and short on time.
They also mirror some of the strategies her mother used with Mendoza when she was growing up as a bilingual education student in Cicero.
Her mother, an immigrant from Mexico, only had a fifth-grade education, Mendoza said, but she instinctively knew how to get her daughter interested in reading by incorporating song and dance.
Mendoza said it helps that she can empathize with her students and their parents.
“I’m them and my parents are Greenman parents,” she said.