FPG researchers committed to community-led research are helping build foundational literacy skills for bilingual/bicultural students
In line with their commitment to community-led research, researchers from the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) are working with Durham’s El Centro Hispano on a kindergarten readiness project the nonprofit wished to expand. The FPG team designed a series of parent workshops to build foundational literacy skills for children aged six months to five years. FPG Research Scientist Heather Aiken, PhD, is the principal investigator of this one-year project, “Kindergarten Readiness for Bilingual/Bicultural Students,” which began in December 2022.
Research shows that when young children develop phonological awareness, that awareness of sound within the spoken language in one language will transfer over to another tongue. Aiken and her colleagues added research-backed content to Leyendo con El Centro (Reading with El Centro), an already-established program offered by El Centro Hispano, designed for preschoolers and younger children. The FPG project focuses on activities that parents can do in Spanish that build skills that transfer to English as children start school and start learning their second language. Joining Aiken in this work are: Account Manager Amy Crume; Social Research Assistant Linda Soto, BA, and Intervention Specialist Teresa Taylor, MEd.
Using a train-the-trainer model, Aiken and her team presented a series of workshops, beginning in March, to nine El Centro community health workers, who have developed trusting relationships with families. During these workshops, the workers gained knowledge about new content they could share with parents. In addition, the FPG team purchased 15 different books, written in Spanish by Latino authors, to give to each family to read with their children at home. Aiken says that her group was intentional in choosing books originally written in Spanish that would ideally become favorites for a wide age range of children.
“I hope that we are empowering parents to feel that they can make a difference in their children's education, even if the parents don’t speak English,” says Aiken. “We are trying to build on the cultural capital and strengths that these parents and the community already have.”
“I hope that we are empowering parents to feel that they can make a difference in their children's education, even if the parents don’t speak English,” says Aiken. “We are trying to build on the cultural capital and strengths that these parents and the community already have.” She notes that while there is extensive research about building English literacy skills with non-English speaking children, there is not much research about strengthening those literacy skills while working in the home language of children.
The workshops offer activities that the trainers can use with parents, such as talking about what is pictured in photos and clapping out the syllables in words depicted to build phonological awareness. Since the researchers chose words based on English phonological awareness, El Centro is helping the researchers update the word lists to better reflect common Spanish vocabulary and/or the learning goals. Aiken says that the feedback from the community health workers also helped researchers revise other activities and the presentation of information to better meet the needs of the participating families.
The community health workers, after using their new skills with families and children, returned to follow-up workshops pleased with what they were able to accomplish. The workers shared stories of these interactions, which enabled the researchers to further tweak content to fit families’ needs. Aiken says that these conversations were helpful since she and her colleagues approach the work through a more traditional academic lens. This iterative process, and input from the community health workers, continues to strengthen the workshop contents. Parents have expressed a desire for additional sessions, a sign, says Aiken, of the workshops’ success.
She believes that this project is a perfect fit for FPG as the Institute continues to embrace addressing needs identified by communities. Before writing the grant application—funded by the Morgan Creek Foundation—Aiken and her colleagues asked the leadership of El Centro Hispano about their needs, which were different from what the FPG team envisioned. “Doing what the community wants, since they know the true needs, is a really powerful way to approach our work,” she says.
Lisbeth Hickey, education manager of El Centro Hispano, says that her agency’s community health workers feel much more confident after the training. And that assurance is being transmitted to the parents. “We want our Latino parents to have the confidence to develop reading habits at home with their children and to understand that reading to them in Spanish is great,” she says. “Parents are learning that they don't need to be able to read or write in English to help their children because their brains will form the neural connections that will let them make the switch to English easily. It is tremendous that our parents are feeling empowered to be the first teacher for their children.”