This Nonprofit Helps Parents and Teachers Overcome Language Barriers to Make Distance Learning Doable

Words by Abha Malpani
Mar 1, 2021 8:00 AM ET
Article

The U.S. education system has a persistent achievement gap along racial and ethnic lines — and the coronavirus pandemic is making matters even worse. As schools and universities shuttered, forcing a shift to distance learning, lack of reliable internet access among certain demographics and barriers in the English-as-a-second-language community left millions of students struggling to catch up. 

Overall, researchers predict a 30 to 50 percent learning loss as a result of COVID-19, often referred to as the “COVID slide.” But students of color could be up to four months further behind in learning, compared to white students, by the end of this school year. Research shows that getting parents more engaged in their children’s education can help to narrow achievement gaps, but everything from busy schedules to language barriers can make this easier said than done — particularly during a global pandemic. Multilingual language exchange platform TalkingPoints is addressing this challenge head on.

TalkingPoints allows educators to communicate directly with parents in their language of choice. It supports two-way messaging in more than 100 languages and provides tips for parents to better communicate with teachers, along with information about their children’s education. 

“Growing up as a non-English-speaking Korean immigrant student, I experienced the impact my mother had on my education because she had the ‘voice’ to do so,” said Heejae Lim, founder of TalkingPoints. “Subsequently, we created TalkingPoints to help remove barriers such as language, time constraints, and mindsets so teachers and parents of all backgrounds could stay connected in support of student success.”

Family engagement is critical. Amid distance learning, it’s harder now than ever before

According to a recent report from TalkingPoints, family engagement is two times more effective in predicting a student’s success than socio-economic status. Yet family engagement is found to be 50 percent lower in low-income communities, as harried parents working multiple jobs are left with less time to spend on their children’s education.

Based on available data, the gap is only growing in the wake of the pandemic, with parents and students being forced to use technology they may not have or know how to operate, sometimes in a language they don’t understand. “Family engagement plays a critical role in student success all of the time, but particularly now with distance learning, it’s even more important,” Lim told us.

The TalkingPoints platform helps teachers, students and parents navigate the new learn-from-home environment by making communication seamless and offering ways to integrate TalkingPoints translation into existing distance learning tools.

“The platform uses both human translators and AI translation engines to ensure the translation is as accurate as possible,” Lim explained. “Educators and families can request human translator review of any translated communication for any messages that may not be immediately understandable.” Third-party resources can also help users understand the context of a conversation: For example, if an upcoming parent-teacher conference is mentioned and a mother is unfamiliar with this tradition, the system can deliver links to information that can help her prepare for what to expect.

Further, “Many families, particularly those in under-resourced or economically vulnerable areas, rely on school for more than learning,” Lim said. “Schools are a lifeline for many families, providing meals, childcare, healthcare, counseling and linkages to other critical community resources.” Facilitating connections between schools and families helps to ensure consistent access to these services, even when in-person school is not in session.

Room to grow

TalkingPoints has expanded its reach sixfold since March of last year, as it raced to meet the needs brought on by distance learning and opened up free access to its platform to help high-need schools and districts cope with the pandemic. “We now have more than 3 million teachers and families connecting using TalkingPoints, and we have facilitated more than 100 million conversations in over 100 languages,” Lim said. 

Still, TalkingPoints is not yet cash-positive. There are millions of other nonprofits just like it that are working on innovative solutions to do good in the world, but they need capital to sustain them — and for-profit businesses have the resources to help them grow. 

TalkingPoints in particular receives funding from Cisco — which saw potential in the platform’s ability to narrow the communication gap between teachers and parents in under-resourced, multilingual communities.

“One of our nonprofit investment criteria is that least 65 percent of a nonprofits’ beneficiaries originate from underserved communities,” explained Kyle Thornton, manager of the education investment portfolio for Cisco and the Cisco Foundation. “Nationally, TalkingPoints serves some of the nation’s most vulnerable students, with 89 percent of their districts and schools being Title 1 eligible with 70 percent of the students attending these schools having access to free reduced lunch and are non-white, so we knew our investment could make a big impact.”

Cisco’s social impact investment model uses a venture capital-like approach to replicate and scale nonprofits to markets around the world — a positive sign for TalkingPoints, which aspires to expand globally in the future, Lim said. “Support from the Cisco Foundation has accelerated the growth of TalkingPoints, including our COVID-19 response, ultimately supporting our mission to strengthen school-home partnerships and ensure every child has the support needed to learn, grow and succeed,” she told us. 

TalkingPoints plans to roll out new features this year, including video caption translating, in pursuit of its ultimate goal to reach 5 million students and their families by 2022. 

This article series is sponsored by Cisco and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Images courtesy of TalkingPoints