I can’t recall any of my undergraduate professors mentioning the potential lack of literacy among parents. This was one of those issues I had to discover and confront on my own. My experience working in human services prepared me for the possibility of parental illiteracy. Working in urban schools made it a reality.
Most of the parents I worked with were high school graduates who held some kind of blue collar or service industry jobs. A few had Bachelor’s degrees or were working towards one. Fewer than five (out of several hundred) held advanced degrees. Among those with high school diplomas or above, the vast majority could read and interpret what they read. While IEPs and ERs don’t make for riveting documents and too often rely on jargon, I could count on most parents to be able to get the gist of what the documents stated.
The minority was of more concern. Many parents were functionally illiterate. Please note: I’m not talking about being unable to read English due to language barriers. That could be addressed through translation and interpretation services (though I came to find nearly half of the non-English speaking parents I worked with weren’t able to read in their native languages). Instead, I’m talking about parents who lacked the skills to be able to read or write in any language. Across my career, I’d say a solid ten percent had no ability to read special education documents. Another ten percent had great difficulty doing so.
The illiteracy was due to several factors. I worked with some parents whom I greatly suspected had mild intellectual disabilities. Several admitted to having received special education services when they had been in school. Parents with this level of functioning were often limited to primary grade reading levels. Some couldn’t read even that well. Others seemed to have competing mental illnesses or drug addictions that inhibited their reasoning abilities. They could read the words on the page, but they couldn’t discern meaning. This was true for other parents who didn’t have mental illnesses, but had below-average cognitive functioning or some form of learning disability. Still others had intact reasoning, but had dropped out of school at too young of an age to benefit from a full course of literacy instruction. Many of the grandparents who served as stand-in parents had middle school educations at best. Even some of the high school graduates had trouble reading. Remember, students often graduate from high school with scant reading ability.
While nothing about this should be surprising, the reality of it made me refine my practice and expectations early in my career. The first clues came from seeing the writing of certain parents. As I attempted to make sense of it, I wondered if they had been able to read any of what I had sent home. One parent told me quite directly that she couldn’t read at all. I realized that anything other than phone or in-person contact might be meaningless. I couldn’t assume parents understood the documents we reviewed together. I had a narrow line to tread between insulting parents who didn’t need extra help and losing others who needed support. In true special education spirit, I erred on the side of offering too much support. I called every parent about every document. I read directly from documents and offered paraphrased explanations of each section. I explained everything to everyone.
Schools face a few issues with parents who can’t read. Teams must write IEPs to be legally defendable. This means IEPs must be sufficiently dense—most likely too dense for struggling readers to navigate. To compensate with parents who don’t understand the documents, school members of teams must not just answer questions as they come, but must preemptively explain the purpose of documents and the content of each. This should happen for all parents, but teams must take care to ensure parents struggling with literacy leave meetings fully understanding what is in print. Streamlined and simplified stand-alone documents can help parents get to the core elements of a document, but these aren’t legally binding. Relying on them could be treacherous.
Tact is crucial. Parents might not fess up to their illiteracy. Assuming parents have difficulty reading could lead to embarrassing scenarios. This makes having strong personal relationships all the more important. Teams need to establish individualized protocols for working with parents. They need to know which parents understand, which parents don’t, and how to interact with both.
The trouble is, such individualization is difficult in large schools with threadbare staff. My policy of over-explaining every document to every parent might be the safest course. It would be time consuming during meetings, but less time consuming than attempting to gauge the relative literacy of each parent. In districts with high family mobility and frequent staff turnover, the ideal of having strong relationships with parents can be out of reach. A policy of always explaining everything would help. This might be insulting to some parents, but the consequences of not explaining are twofold. First, some parents might not indicate they don’t understand and might sign off on programming with which they don’t completely agree. Second, such instances are an area of litigation waiting to be exploited. Precedent eventually might show that a parent’s agreement via signature isn’t enough to show that the parent agreed. This might be provable in cases involving parental illiteracy.
Special educators need to keep in mind the complicated needs of parents. Illiteracy is quite real and alarmingly common. With so much riding on documentation in special education, school officials must find creative and tactful ways to ensure parental understanding of documents. This isn’t just a suggestion of a best practice; it’s a necessity.