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The effects of parental involvement in homework on student achievement in Portugal and Luxembourg.

An ongoing debate about the importance of homework and its relevance to students' achievement raises questions about the type of homework that is most conducive to students' learning, and the role parents should play in their children's homework activities. The author conducted research in Portugal and Luxembourg to investigate whether well-designed homework activities can positively affect students' second-language acquisition and literacy skills, and whether parental involvement in these homework activities enhances students' learning. The research findings strongly suggest that this is so.

The Homework Debate

Students do not all learn at the same rate or in quite the same way. Traditionally, time has been considered a crucial factor in learning because different learners need different amounts of time to master materials and skills. Rosenshine (1976) studied time on-task, and its effect on reading and mathematics achievement for primary grade students from low socio-economic backgrounds. His findings indicated that although total time in school is an important variable related to achievement, the actual time a student spends engaged in particular academic activities, such as reading and arithmetic, is more strongly associated with achievement gains in these particular subjects. Time exposure also has been considered an important factor in language acquisition (Krashen & Terrel, 1983).

If it is the case, then, that theories on learning, in general, and theories on language acquisition, in particular, consider time to be a critical factor for learning, then measures should be taken to explore time on-task. Learning does not take place only in classrooms. Many students also need an after-school period of independent work. Homework may help address students' individual and varied amount of time needed for comprehension, allowing students to learn at their own pace.

The fact that homework can expand the time spent on a learning activity, and that it always has been an integral part of school life, is not enough to make it useful. Studies have shown, however, that in specific situations involving activities such as feedback, individualized enrichment assignments, the use of human and physical resources not available at school, and parental involvement, homework does indeed make a difference for student learning.

Many studies have found that homework, combined with parental involvement, positively affects student achievement (e.g., Maertens & Johnston, 1972). In fact, Epstein's (1995) framework of the six types of parental involvement includes "learning at home" (Type 4) as an important component of school-family-community partnerships. Epstein suggests that schools should provide information and ideas to families "about how to help students at home with homework and other curriculum-related activities, decisions, and planning" (p. 704). Although the practice of parental support of their children's homework is "probably the most widespread and acceptable form of cooperation between school and home" (OECD, 1997), questions have been raised about who benefits from it.

A socio-cultural point of view assumes that students from families with higher levels of education (likely from higher socioeconomic backgrounds) are more likely to benefit from homework than students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Research suggests, however, that all students, regardless of background, can benefit from well-designed homework. Studies of migrant children's education and cultural development emphasize that homework is beneficial when it is supervised either by teachers or parents (Cetinsoy, 1983; Olmos, 1983). Some homework can provide appropriate support for children and improve parents' own education. Indeed, even high-achieving students are more academically successful when they do homework (OECD, 1997). The literature concludes that homework should not be abandoned, but rather that present practices should be evaluated and improved.

Opinion surveys show that students want less conventional types of homework exercises, and appreciate challenging and engaging activities. Furthermore, drill-and-practice, or reinforcement, activities are not necessarily related to an improvement in pupils' skills (OECD, 1997). In many classrooms, the "read-summarize-review" type assignment has been replaced by the independent study project. Teachers more frequently request that children produce something creative, and students may be learning a great deal more in the process. Some educators are developing interactive homework activities that not only are engaging, but also can involve the entire family in children's learning.

The Role of Homework in Second Language Acquisition: A Portuguese Project

Krashen and Terrel (1983) point out that learners can speak a second language fluently if their comprehensible input is one stage ahead of their developing grammar. They emphasize the importance of receptive skills, and the direct relationship between the amount of time a student spends on listening and reading activities, and the student's fluency. Although comprehensible input is a necessary condition for second language acquisition, affective prerequisites may also influence the intake. Parental attitudes not only help to promote a positive attitude to the target language, but also help develop students' self-confidence.

The first project described in this article involved 77 6th-graders from an urban preparatory school located in metropolitan Lisbon, who were learning English as a foreign language. Study participants included boys and girls age 11 to 12, from lower- and middle-class homes. The education level of the parents also varied. The students were assigned randomly to two experimental classes (Classes A and B) that received the homework treatment, and one control class (Class C) that did not. The homework treatment was designed to enrich and expand upon classroom learning, and to develop vocabulary, listening, reading and writing skills in English. In addition to the homework treatment, parents of students in Class A received information and instruction on how to be come involved in their children's learning at home. Thus, Class A enjoyed enriching homework and guidance for parent involvement, Class B received the homework treatment only, and Class C received only "regular" homework assignments.

The following are examples of activities assigned for homework in the experimental English classes three times a week:

Watching English-speaking series on television

* Watch the television series "The Love Boat" on Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Then, make a list of 20 English words that you recognize. Ask your family to join you.

* Watch the television series "Little House on the Prairie" on Saturday, at 2:00 p.m. Then, please answer the following questions:

Q1: What are the names of the three main characters?

Q2: What nationality are they?

Q3: Use as many adjectives as you can to explain what the characters are like (for example: old, young, fat, slim).

Q4: What do they do?

Listing English words students are able to recognize

* List English words that the Portuguese use, like "football." Ask your parents to help you.

Labeling objects in the house and using those words

* Label in English as many objects as you can in your house. Then, ask everybody in the house to use only the English words for those objects for 48 hours.

Drawing a plan of your house

* Ask a parent to help you draw a plan of your house.

* See where your family members are at the moment. Ask them what they are doing. Then describe it all in English.

Writing advertisements, recipes and interviews

* Select one of your possessions that you would like to sell. Discuss the issue with one of your parents.

* Then, read the classified advertisements under the title "Merchandise for Sale" and write, in English, a 4-line advertisement that will appear in the school newspaper.

* Think about a question you would like to ask the new English teacher. Ask your parents' opinions. Then, prepare the interview in English.

* Select your favorite cake. Ask your mother for the recipe. Then, write it down in English. (The best cake will be cooked in school.)

All of the students' parents attended a session that explained the experiment, and outlined the goals and procedures that would be followed during the school year. The parents of the children in Class A attended an additional 60-minute session that was led by the researcher. The purpose of this session was to explain how home factors affect children's learning in school, and ways to encourage and support children's work at home. Parents were instructed to become involved in their children's work at home in the following ways: 1) asking what the homework was about, 2) discussing the subject of the homework in the native tongue and 3) learning with their children. These parents were contacted by phone periodically to ensure that they were following the program.

Pre- and posttests were administered to the three groups to identify any achievement differences among the students before and after the treatment. Data were statistically analyzed, using T-test analysis and analysis of variance. The results of the study, summarized below, supported the study's hypotheses.

* Significant differences were found in the achievement scores of the students in the experimental groups (Classes A and B) following an intervention program of regularly assigned homework, compared to the students in the control group (Class C).

* Significant differences were found in the achievement scores of students who were guided to involve their parents (Class A), compared to other students.

The results indicate that well-designed homework, particularly homework combined with parental involvement, has a significant effect on the performance of students learning English as a second language. Although the control group (Class C) scored higher than one of the experimental groups (Class A) on the pretest, the posttest scores of both Class A and Class B were significantly higher than those of Class C (T = 3.66, p [less than] .001).

The data further indicate that the most significant gain by Class A was made on the listening test (T = 2.432, p [less than] .01). The homework activities designed to develop listening skills consisted of television viewing. Television, when used properly, can be a powerful supplement to classroom instruction on listening proficiency. Moreover, we expect that because parents and children enjoy television, they are more likely to continue the activity by themselves.

The Role of Homework in Literacy Development: Projects in Luxembourg and Portugal

The study described above suggests that homework activities designed to foster literacy skills should help children to acquire vocabulary in meaningful situations. Vocabulary expansion plays an important role not only in the language acquisition process, but also in topic expansion. Only a limited range of topics can be covered during classroom time. Homework may be especially important for migrant children, who, at one time or another, may have experienced school difficulties because of language barriers.

As the family acquires language, literacy also improves. Therefore, the language spoken in the home, the cultural background, availability of books, print awareness, adult reading habits, knowledge of the world and metalinguistic skills (Menyuk, 1988) all influence the child's literate environment, the development of literacy and the child's reading skills. Parental involvement can encourage vocabulary enrichment and increase exposure to sight words and to a wide variety of children's literature, all of which is necessary for developing comprehension.

Two additional projects were conducted to help immigrant parents foster their children's literacy acquisition - by helping them become involved in homework activities, and by increasing their contacts with the school. Both were three-year projects that included a homework intervention program, which was followed for approximately two years. Both projects involved primary school immigrant students: Portuguese immigrants in Luxembourg, and African immigrants in Lisbon.

Luxembourg. The Luxembourg sample consisted of 160 students, selected from nine public schools. Economically disadvantaged and socially segregated, the Portuguese community in Luxembourg now constitutes about 10 percent of the population. While these families are eager for their children to be educated, the failure rate among Portuguese students in Luxembourg is high (38.4 percent) and many children simply give up going to school by age 14. Part of the problem is a lack of literacy skills. In their multilingual environment, most children switch from one language to another without attaining the level of linguistic competence in either language that is commonly associated with reading readiness.

As part of a project to encourage students' literacy acquisition, parents were requested to come to school for regular meetings with their children's Portuguese teacher. (In addition to following the regular curriculum, Portuguese students also were learning to read and write in their mother tongue with the help of a Portuguese teacher.) They also attended a special session in Portuguese led by the researcher, who discussed suggestions parents could use to improve students' learning. Parents also received a report calendar on which to document their involvement activities. A continuous, qualitative evaluation followed every intervention activity. Parents' and teachers' opinions were recorded, and the researchers analyzed the feedback in order to introduce new ideas or correct the intervention program.

Interview and observation data suggest that the great majority of parents came to the meetings and participated with enthusiasm. Teachers said that some parents were excited about working with their children at home. About 50 percent of the parents regularly completed the report calendars and returned them to the teachers. Teachers reported that parental support was a decisive factor influencing children's reading development and fluency.

Lisbon. The Lisbon sample included 47 children (20 boys and 27 girls, 6 to 7 years old) from a primary school located in the suburbs of the metropolitan area. A majority of students in this area come from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa. Some of these students were learning Portuguese as a second language. The failure rate among these students is very high (about 60 percent in the 4th grade), mainly due to difficulties in reading and writing. All the students come from working-class families who live near the school - many in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The parents' formal education levels and income are generally low.

Analysis of the data from interviews conducted with parents reveal a number of factors affecting students' literacy development. These include: 1) limited time for parent-child interactions; 2) relatively low degrees of structure and routine in the home; 3) low academic aspirations, although the parents are concerned about their children's future and appear open to receiving help; 4) the unavailability of books, newspapers or magazines in the home; 5) home communication in Criolo, a variation of the Portuguese language; and 6) limited home-school relationships.

The students in the experimental group were assigned interactive homework activities that were designed to improve their literacy development and involve parents in learning situations at home. The three types of homework activities aimed at: 1) developing children's linguistic awareness, 2) enriching their vocabulary and 3) fostering reading and writing. Children were asked, for example, to complete rhymes or identify morphological or syntactic errors, do matching games or drawings that involved the knowledge of the alphabet, and use comics from the newspaper to complete a variety of writing activities.

As part of the project, parents attended seven sessions led by the researcher and the teachers in the school. The first session emphasized the importance of family involvement in children's learning, while the following sessions disseminated information about each type of homework activity. These activities were assigned on Fridays so that families might have time to work with their children over the weekend. Information on the results of the project was gathered from three sources: 1) parental participation in the sessions, 2) homework completion and 3) children's test scores.

Parents' attendance rates at the sessions varied from 50 percent to 73 percent. Teachers were surprised by the levels of attendance and family involvement. Teachers were also surprised by the number of students completing their homework assignments, which increased over time from 60.8 percent to 65.1 percent. A strong correlation existed between parents' attendance at orientation sessions and children's homework completion. In addition, literacy development was assessed at the start and at the end of the study for the experimental and the control groups. The Test of Early Reading Ability (Reid, Hresko & Hammill, 1981), designed to measure a child's ability to construct meaning from print, was adapted to Portuguese culture and administered individually to all students. The pre- and posttest analyses indicated that the experimental group improved on the literacy test significantly more than the control group.

Discussion and Implications

Each project described in this article involved some families with very few years of formal education and/or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Consequently, homework interventions were designed precisely to involve those families who most needed encouragement and support. Each of the projects successfully involved many of these families in their children's learning at home, and also promoted student achievement.

Some parents feel reticent about contacting schools because they have limited formal knowledge about the learning process. They are not used to being contacted by the school for positive reasons and, consequently, they may have some difficulty in understanding their role in encouraging their children's school work. They may lack confidence in their capacity to help their children. It takes time for schools to enlist parents' cooperation, to give them confidence and even to help them supplement and strengthen teachers' classroom efforts. Nevertheless, it is well worth the try.

The results of these projects in Portugal and Luxembourg suggest that it is important for teachers to take the initiative to contact parents - who, after all, share the responsibility for students' learning. The projects indicate that parents can help produce significant results that benefit their children.

References

Cetinsoy, M. (1983). Case study on Hajit-koum, migrant cultural action group. CDCC Project #7: The education and cultural development of migrants. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe.

Epstein, J. (1995). School/family/community partnerships. Phi Delta Kappan, May, 701-712.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrel, T.D. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. San Francisco: The Alemany Press.

Maertens, N., & Johnston, Y. (1972). Effects of arithmetic homework upon the attitudes and achievement of fourth, fifth and sixth grade pupils. School, Science and Mathematics, 72, 117-126.

Menyuk, P. (1988). Language development: Knowledge and use. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (1997). Parents as partners in schooling. Paris: OECD Publications.

Olmos, A. (1983). Case study of Swiss migrant joint associations. CDCC Project #7: The education and cultural development of migrants. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe.

Reid, D. K., Hresko, W.P., & Hammill, D.D. (1981). The test of early reading ability. Austin, TX: PRO-ED (Services for Professional Educators.

Adelina Villas-Boas is Instructor, Psychology and Science of Education, University of Lisbon, Portugal.
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Author:Villas-Boas, Adelina
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 15, 1998
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