Teach For America Latino Teachers Share Tips With Families

New York, USA-By age two, the language skills of children of Mexican descent in the United States lag three to four months behind their white peers, especially those living in low-income communities, according to a recent study published in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. There are many simple things families can do at home to help children build language skills critical for future academic success.

AnnaMaria Smeraldi, a Teach For America preschool teacher with Concerned Parents of Jamaica Early Learning Center, offered tips on things families can do with their young children to help develop critical reading and vocabulary skills.

“My students, though young, have plenty to say,” said Smeraldi, a native of Queens, New York. “When parents and/or peers talk to them, they encourage dialogue. More oral language development translates to other skills such as writing. For example, on a Monday morning, I may have a student who tells me Mommy took her to the museum over the weekend. They are more than happy to draw me a picture of what they did and saw as well as eager to answer any further questions I may have about their experience.”

Teach For America, a national education organization that recruits and trains new teachers, has grown to become one of the largest providers of new Latino teachers in the nation, recruiting more than 4,300 Latinos to teach in low-income communities since its launch in 1990. According to a recent study released by Mathematica, the students of Teach For America teachers in preschool through second grade outperformed their peers in reading by the equivalent of an additional 1.3 months of learning.

Smeraldi believes that the first five years of a child’s life is the best time to create a lifelong love of learning. To get a strong early start, children need an environment where their expressive language and literacy skills can grow and thrive. She also believes families are essential for supporting the work she does in the classroom because activities parents do at home can build or reinforce the language skills of their young children.

Below are three activities any parent can do with their child at home in English or Spanish. These activities create opportunities for kids to use new vocabulary, learn to answer questions, and encourage them to be proactive in their learning and ask questions.

  • SING: Smeraldi’s students love “Follow the Leader” by The Soca Boys. It’s very high energy and has a great beat. They love to follow the moves and make up their own. They sing the words and love taking turns being the leader so they can make up their own lyrics and dance. Smeraldi says it gives them an opportunity to express themselves and have a little bit of fun!

  • TALK: Encourage your child to talk by having them respond to at least 5 open-ended questions every day and encourage them to adopt a rich vocabulary. For example, if a student is talking to about something big they saw, you might say back to them, “It was really big so it must've been humongous or gigantic.”

  • READ: Read the same book to your child on three different days during the week. When you are done, ask your child a question that starts with “why?” or “how?” On the first day, focus your question on what is happening in the story; the second day, focus on how the characters are feeling; and the third time, have the child read the story to you (even if they only use the pictures).

    Smeraldi, who identifies as Italian and Colombian, recalls growing up in a culturally rich household in Queens where her parents were able to provide her with an excellent education she knew many of her peers were not getting.

    “Now as an early childhood educator, I am honored to work with Latino students and their families,” she said. “I’m happy my students’ parents have a teacher who can communicate with them in their native language and that the first teacher my students meet shares their background.”

    Smeraldi is among a network of more than 50,000 Teach For America corps members and alumni, including more than 4,300 Latinos