Educators need to know what happens in the world of the children with whom they work. They need to know the universe of their dreams, the language with which they skillfully defend themselves from the aggressiveness of their world, what they know independently of the school, and how they know it.
— Paulo Freire (p. 72-73)
The Benefits of Home Visits
A home visit program can show that teachers, principals, and school staff are willing to "go more than halfway" to involve all parents in their children's education. These visits help teachers demonstrate their interest in students' families and they provide opportunities for teachers to understand their students better by seeing students in their home environments.
Home visits are not meant to replace parent-teacher conferences or to discuss children's progress. When done early, before any school problems might arise, home visits signal that teachers are eager to work with all families and avoid putting parents on the defensive. Teachers who have made home visits say they build stronger relationships with parents and their children and improve attendance and achievement. In this regard, Mary, a 1st and 2nd grade teacher who has been visiting the home of her students before the first day of school, writes:
…[H]ow I address my fear about the first day of school is to face it, as you suggest, I spend the week before the first day of school visiting my students' homes, meeting the students and their families. I can't wait for the first day of school, and so I go out and read the students in their neighborhoods, their homes, with their families. That way I know where my students are coming from, literally I know who their people are. I know the names their families call them. I know what they are proud of and what worries them, I begin to trust these families. My students and their families begin to trust me. (Nieto, 2009, p. 12)
Home visits are not a new concept. Head Start teachers have been using them for many years and in the last few years an increasing number of schools and districts have established successful home visit programs that have yielded many positive returns. Regardless of whether their schools have established a home visit program, many teachers of English language learners have been using home visits as a way to learn about their students and their home environments and to establish a much-needed connection with families and communities.
Several key components combine to create successful home visits: planning, arrival, departure, and post visit. These important aspects are explained below.
Prior to visiting students' homes, it is important to consider a few items. Remember that this might be an opportunity to help a parent such as Ms. Astorga feel more comfortable when visiting the school her children attend.
Este es mi cuarto año en los EE.UU. y sólo he ido a la escuela para matricular a mis hijos. No me siento a gusto en la escuela…tengo un poco de miedo de no hacer las cosas bien y de no entender lo que me dicen. Y mis hijos me dicen que mejor no vaya pues a lo mejor meto la pata.
This is my fourth year in the U.S. and I have only been to the school to register my kids. I don't feel at ease in the school—I am afraid of not doing the right thing or misunderstanding what they say. My kids tell me not to go because if I do I might make a mistake.
— Ms. Astorga, parent from Chile
Tips for success
- Determine the purpose(s) of the visit such as learning more about students and exploring ways that the school and teachers can better serve families.
- Schedule a home visit 7 to 10 days in advance.
- Communicate the purpose of your visit and approximately how long the visit will last (30 to 45 minutes).
- Follow up with a brief written note indicating the exact date and time of the meeting, preferably written in the family's home language.
- If possible, learn the names of family members.
- Learn a few words of the family's first language, even if they're only "hello" and "thank you." This shows you care enough to make an effort and may help break the ice.
- Ask another adult to accompany you to your first home visits, preferably someone who speaks the home language of the families.
- Consider that some parents may be familiar and comfortable with home visits, having experienced them in their countries of origin. Others may not be familiar or comfortable with the idea.
- If parents have difficulty scheduling a time to meet with you, it may be because some parents work 2 or more jobs.
- Begin making home visits prior to the start date of school. This may help lower the anxiety level of your students and will help you become aware of your students' English language proficiency levels.
- Know where you are going (that is, have a map or GPS device).
- Leave a schedule of home visits with the school staff.
- If possible, bring a small gift, such as a little bag of cookies, a children's book, or a notebook as a token of appreciation.
- If you will need the services of a translator/interpreter, consider asking fewer questions. Since questions and answers have to pass through the translator/interpreter, they will probably require twice the amount of time.
Instantly when we rang the doorbell we were greeted by four bright smiling faces—dad, mom and Rocio and Laura (ages 8 and 10). Both parents came up to us and shook our hands, and the girls curtseyed and giggled in their beautiful fancy dresses. Though I was still a bit shy and awkward at first, my fears were dismissed as soon as I realized how kind and inviting the family truly was.
— Roxana, 3rd grade teacher
Tips for success
- Be on time.
- Dress appropriately — err on the side of formal attire.
- Be aware of and look for cultural expectations in the home. For example, in some cultures it is expected that people entering the home will remove their shoes and walk about the home in socks or in special footwear provided by the host.
- Introduce yourself and the adult accompanying you.
- Begin by establishing rapport through small talk.
- Conversation starters: "Tell me about your child." "What does your child like best about school?""What are schools like in _______ (country of origin)?" "Tell me about _______ (siblings or other family members)."
- While you are encouraged to do more listening than talking, you could also talk about your school's routines, classroom curricula, or teacher expectations among other topics.
- If you're nervous, remember, the family you are visiting is also probably nervous.
- Bear in mind that in many cultures, teachers are more highly respected than in the U.S. It is a significant event to host a teacher in families' homes.
- Don't be afraid to look foolish while trying to bridge the language gap. If necessary, try drawing pictures or acting out what you mean.
- During the conversation, maintain eye contact with the family even if you are speaking through a translator/interpreter.
- Avoid taking notes or recording the conversation when visiting the family. This can be perceived as rude or threatening.
- Avoid talking about negative things.
- While in a family's home, put on your anthropologist's lens. This means trying to view the host home from the perspective of those living there.
- Show respect and empathy.
- Smile. Be aware, however, that some Eastern European families may perceive smiling as a sign of insincerity. Observe the family and adjust your behavior accordingly.
I invited the family to come to the literacy night next week at the school and asked the dad if he would read a picture book in Spanish for the kids. He agreed. Wow, was I wrong in thinking that this family was not interested in the education of their kids!
— Geoffrey, 2nd Grade teacher
Tips for success
- Lay the groundwork for future events, such as parent teacher conferences, upcoming fairs, or literacy nights.
- Invite families to participate.
- Provide families with information on how to contact you, including your telephone number, email address, and classroom or office hours.
- Share information about community and school resources.
I learned tons from this visit. My "Russian" student is actually Ukrainian. The family moved from a part of the Ukraine where half the people speak Russian and half speak Ukrainian. Both parents grew up there, and both were educated in schools where a few classes were taught in Ukrainian.
— Katia, 6th Grade teacher
Tips for success
- Take a few moments away from students' homes to write down a quick summary of the visit.
Educators who work with ELLs and immigrant families talk about the power of home visits in these videos.
Edutopia: This 6-minute video showcases how a struggling school in Sacramento improved student achievement and developed lasting partnerships with parents by establishing a home visit program.
About the Authors
Dr. Gisela Ernst-Slavit
Dr. Gisela Ernst-Slavit is a professor and associate dean in the College of Education at Washington State University Vancouver. She investigates second language development, academic language pedagogy, and language teacher education using ethnographic and sociolinguistic perspectives. In addition to being the author of many research and practitioner articles, she is coauthor or coeditor of nine books. Her most recent work includes a 7-book series, Academic Language in Diverse Classrooms, co-edited with Margo Gottlieb and published by Corwin. Dr. Ernst-Slavit is a native of Peru who grew up speaking Spanish and German at home and English in school.
Michele R. Mason
Michele R. Mason obtained her Ph.D. Degree in Language, Literacy, and Technology with an emphasis on English language learners from Washington State University Vancouver. Her research interests were ESL pedagogy and the role of classroom discourse in L2 development. Sadly, Dr. Mason passed away in 2012.