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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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International students help their children make the grade

As parents, many New Mexico State University international students not only hit the college books but also spend considerable time working on language skills and academic subjects with their children.

The commitment of this group of parents impressed two NMSU researchers, Robert Weissberg, a college assistant professor of communications studies, and Robert Ortiz, an assistant professor of special education, who collaborated on a recent pilot study. The faculty members said the study may have implications for other bilingual parents who want their children to maintain and develop skills in their native language.

Weissberg and Ortiz set out to determine to what extent international students helped their children maintain their first language, make the grade in the local schools and prepare to re-enter their home-country schools. They developed a questionnaire with a grant from the NMSU Center for International Programs.

Most of the parents who responded said they deliberately set aside time for first-language instruction. Seventy-four percent of the parents who returned questionnaires reported spending one to two hours a day, about four times a week, working with their children on language skills and other subjects.

Most of the study time was devoted to reading. "I'm excited that they are reading with their kids," said Ortiz, who also has conducted research on the impact of fathers reading to their children. "Schools can't do it all. Parents have to pick up the slack."

The international students also reported working with their children on math and counting, and writing and spelling. To a lesser extent, parents used computers, map study and graphs, and other activities in tutoring sessions. The children also drew pictures, played games, listened to music and sang songs with their parents in their native languages.

The parents supervised their youngsters' English-language homework and supplemented it with work in their native languages. They also made sure their children interacted with children of the same language background.

"These parents are taking an active role in their children's education," Weissberg said. "They are not just policing homework. They're highly motivated students themselves, and they pass that along to their children."

The researchers said the parents apparently were motivated by concerns that without help at home, their children could fall behind their home-country peers. Seventy-one percent of the parents surveyed said they worried their children would lose reading and writing skills in their native language as a result of attending school in English in the United States.

However, 56 percent of the parents believed their children would be ready to re-enter school in their home country at the appropriate grade level. These somewhat contradictory findings merit further study, the researchers said.

The children in the survey ranged from kindergarten through high school students. While a majority of the families were from Mexico, they also represented a variety of other national backgrounds, predominantly Latin America, East Asia and the Middle East.

The survey was mailed to 162 NMSU international students and had a response rate of 17 percent.

Rita A. Popp