Family Literacy

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Family Literacy

In 1983, Denny Taylor coined the term family literacy to describe the ways in which reading and writing were embedded in the daily lives of the middle-class families with whom she worked. Taylor's ethnographic study documented young children's early attempts at reading and writing for a variety of purposes, including writing lists and notes, and reading product labels, notices, and traffic signs. Taylor concluded that these parents did not deliberately set out to teach their children literacy skills. Rather, by encouraging children to participate in different literacy activities, parents and other family members supported early literacy development.

Family Literacy Programs

The recognition that children begin to learn literacy prior to formal schooling, and that family contexts shape literacy development, had profound implications for the field of early literacy. Since 1983, family literacy has emerged as a new and distinct field of inquiry. Although it originated as a concept describing the rich and varied ways that families use literacy in home and community settings, family literacy has increasingly become associated with formal programs aimed at improving the literacy of parents and their young children.

Some of the most common programs in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are short-term, weekly sessions involving parents and young children in storybook reading and school readiness. One such program in Canada is Parent-Child Mother Goose, which aims to help parents support their children's oral language development. A slightly more structured program in Canada is the Home Spun model, which consists of a series of workshops on topics such as storybook reading, school readiness, oral language development, and parenting. The aims of such programs vary from teaching parents how to get their children ready for school, to drawing parents into discussions about family life, concerns about their own learning needs, and ways to make relationships between families and schools more democratic.

In the United States, family literacy legislation has allowed for more intensive programming known as the comprehensive or the four component family literacy model (NIFL 2001). The four components entail academic upgrading for parents, an early childhood development program, parenting and early literacy development, and a parent-child together (PACT) time, in which parents spend quality time with their children and try out new literacy ideas with them. The Even Start program in the United States is an example of such a program.

The programs described above vary in design and philosophy. Elsa Auerbach (1995) offers a conceptual framework that divides family literacy programs into three broad philosophical approaches: intervention/prevention, multiple literacies, and social change. In practice, these approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Family literacy programs reflecting an intervention/prevention approach aim to compensate for perceived inadequacies in parenting behaviors and home literacy activities, believed to negatively affect children's readiness for school (Darling 1993). The theoretical roots for this approach are in behavioral psychology, which conceptualizes reading and writing as sets of observable and measurable behaviors that can be regulated through appropriate interventions (Teale 1995). Such programs commonly target minority children and those from families with low socioeconomic status (SES) and families most at risk for school failure. Curricula include teaching English literacy and parenting skills and literacy behaviors believed to promote success in school literacy, such as storybook reading.

A second broad approach to family literacy programming is known as multiple literacies, which is informed by anthropological, sociolinguistic, and sociocultural studies. Here, literacy is seen not as a single skill, but rather as a set of practices grounded in social contexts and social roles (Barton 1994). This research shows how people are proficient in many or multiple literacies (such as media literacy, mathematical literacy, and technological literacy), including, but not limited to, the forms of literacy most strongly associated with schools. Programs reflecting a multiple-literacies perspective affirm cultural and linguistic diversity by conceptualizing home and school literacies as culturally specific ways of knowing. Curricula include investigating home and school literacy practices, integrating culturally familiar content and pedagogical practices into instruction and teaching, and maintaining home languages.

A third broad approach is associated with critical literacy and social change theories, informed by the work of Paulo Freire (1987) and Henri Giroux (1988). These programs present family literacy within a broader context of social inequities that shape power relationships among families, schools, and the broader society. The aim of social change approaches in family literacy programs is to transform social conditions that negatively affect family life through participant control of the programs, dialogue, and solution-oriented learning and teaching processes (Auerbach 1995).


Several debates have emerged in family literacy research and practice that stem from the varied philosophical approaches described above. With the growing popularity of family literacy, these debates have taken on new importance. These are described below.

Family-School Relationships

A key issue in family literacy is the relationship between home and school, and, more specifically, between literacy as valued and practiced in homes and literacy as valued and practiced in schools. For example, Shirley Brice Heath (1983) studied the literacy practices of three communities in the Carolina Piedmonts and found that the ways that white, middle-class families used literacy at home were most strongly associated with the forms of literacy taught in school. Consequently, these children tended to succeed in school. However, the literacy practices of African-American middle-class and working-class communities at home differed from the forms of literacy valued and taught in school. These children were less successful in school. Heath intended to demonstrate the need for more diverse and inclusive literacy teaching strategies in schools. However, the mismatch between home and school literacy has remained a topic of ongoing concern and debate. That is, many children from low-income homes, and for whom English is a second language, continue to score below their more privileged peers on standardized tests and in overall academic performance (Gunderson and Clarke 1998).

It is here that family literacy programs and research are best understood within a broader social and economic policy context. Scholars have linked the growth in family literacy programs with a concern over what is termed the literacy crisis, high dropout rates, and low academic achievement (Auerbach 1989). National studies and policies in North America and the United Kingdom (e.g., the International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD, 1996, and the United States' Equipped for the Future initiative, 2000) increasingly look beyond schools to families as the source of both the problem of and the solution to the low school achievement of minority and low-income children.

The understanding of family in these policies seems to be limited to mothers and primary care-givers and their young children. This phenomenon prompted Jane Mace to comment:

The evidence of the literacy problem in industrialized countries with mass schooling systems has revealed that schools cannot alone meet this need. Families must therefore be recruited to do their bit, too. This is where the spotlight falls on the mother. She it is who must ensure that the young child arrives at school ready for school literacy, and preferably already literate. (1998, p. 5)

Another concern related to family literacy policies is the lack of longitudinal studies documenting their impact over time. Adele Thomas describes much of the research in family literacy as "testimonials" (1998, p. 20), suggesting that little attention has been paid to broad measures of program effectiveness.

Focus on Storybook Reading

Although ethnographic research with families reveals myriad forms and functions of reading and writing in daily life, many family literacy programs focus on reading story books to children as the way (Pellegrini 1991) to support children's literacy development. This emphasis on storybook reading apparently emanates from early research with precocious readers (Clarke 1976). This research, conducted mainly with white, middle-class families, indicates that reading to children was a common factor.

Several criticisms, however, have been raised about the emphasis on storybook reading. First, clear evidence shows that young children's literacy development is supported in many different ways in addition to storybook reading (Taylor 1983). Second, storybook reading is not common across all cultures and social classes; by emphasizing it, the literacy practices of minority and other groups are devalued. Third, not all children enjoy being read to, and the implication that it is necessary in order for children to learn to read causes some parents to insist on their children's participation. Hollis Scarborough and Wanda Dobrich (1994) cautioned that some children consequently develop negative attitudes toward reading. Finally, despite the importance placed on storybook reading, the empirical evidence suggests that it plays a less significant role in learning to read than is commonly believed (Scarborough and Dobrich 1994).

Early Childhood Focus

Another area of debate in the family literacy field is the wisdom of designing family literacy programs mainly for children from birth to five years old and their primary caregiver—usually the mother or grandmother. This has raised concerns about ignoring the literacy and learning needs of alternative families, as well as of older children, youth, and adults. Allan Luke and Carmen Luke (2001) make the case that the needs of adolescents experiencing literacy difficulties and their families are largely ignored, and resources are directed almost exclusively to young children.


In spite of the focus on early childhood, educators are beginning to develop family literacy programs for older children and their families. One such program is Effective Partners in Secondary Literacy Learning (EPISLL) developed by Trevor Cairney (1995). He reported success in helping parents, who themselves had not completed secondary school, to support their adolescent children's literacy learning.

Such initiatives point to positive aspects of family literacy programs and research, particularly those that aim to empower families to take an active and equitable role in their children's learning, as well as addressing broader social issues that shape literacy. For example, in Canada, PALS (Parents as Literacy Supporters) is a program where parents of kindergarten children in British Columbia identify that which they want to learn and help design sessions. Sessions vary from one community to the next, depending on parents' interests. The most powerful aspect of this program is that it lowers barriers between schools and parents because parents spend time working with their children in classrooms.

Increasingly, community partnerships are seen as a central part of family literacy provisions with the potential to address broader social issues that affect families. For example, rural and northern communities in Canada have formed a network of partnerships among community health organizations, schools, childcare centers, community colleges, universities, and family support programs to offer families seamless services that meet needs for learning opportunities, social support, and health care. Parents also have opportunities to spend time in their older children's schools, and to meet with health care professionals in informal settings. This promotes the formation of social support networks among families, contributes to community building, and builds the capacity of community partners to address the broader issues related to literacy, such as unemployment, parents' fear of schools, and social isolation.

Inner-city writing projects, such as the Journal of Ordinary Thought's writing workshops in Chicago, Illinois, similarly provide a context for families to address important social issues, personal goals, and connections to their communities.

Family literacy programs are not a magic bullet for the complex issues facing families and schools in the twenty-first century. However, ideas associated with family literacy, such as holistic approaches to family support, the recognition of the importance of informal learning, and the vital role of families in shaping social change, can contribute to a vision of education that values diversity. The family literacy field continues to evolve, and the direction in which it goes will depend on the extent to which policies promote all, regardless of gender, culture, race, and class.

See also:Academic Achievement; Computers and Families; Homeschooling; Parenting Education; Poverty; School


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jim anderson suzanne smythe jacqueline lynch

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Family Literacy

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