Family Literacy Strategies To Support Children's
Learning. ERIC Digest.
by Schwartz, Wendy
Parents' literacy skills, along with their attitudes about learning
and formal education, have an immense impact on their children's academic
achievement. Poor parents, despite few opportunities for education or bad
school experiences, are still often able to foster their children's development
through innate, nontraditional literacy activities. However, they may be
unable to help them in ways that support and enhance the school's education
program (Taylor, 1993).
To provide parents with skills that increase their verbal and math literacy,
and to assist them in promoting their children's educational development,
local family literacy programs operate throughout the country. Many are
supported by the Federal Even Start Family Literacy Program, authorized
in 1988 to fund local partnerships that provide instruction to low-income
parents. Even Start now supports more than 637 projects reaching 34,400
families (Tao, Gamse, & Tarr, 1998). Some are independent single-site
centers that were created by local educators and activists in direct response
to community needs. Others, established by national organizations that
receive additional funding from private foundations, largely adhere to
a pre-established curriculum and structure (Come & Fredericks, 1995;
National Center for Family Literacy, NCFL, 1994).
Most evaluations of family literacy programs have found them to be effective
in developing the skills of both parents and children (NCFL, 1994; Tao
et al., 1998). Therefore, to help guide family literacy program developers
in shaping their curriculum, and educators and community leaders in creating
independent parenting programs, this digest describes the parenting education
component of successful urban programs.
GENERAL PROGRAM PRINCIPLES
Family literacy programs have three basic components: adult education,
which comprises instruction in reading, writing, computing, and problem-solving,
and may also include English as a Second Language and GED classes and jobs
skills training; parenting education, which helps families actively participate
in their children's education at home and at school; and early childhood
education for preschoolers.
Participants in family literacy programs are ethnically and culturally
diverse, speak a variety of native languages, and, increasingly, are teenage
parents and very poor. In many urban areas, they are refugees whose native
countries had little traditional literacy, and whose past includes physically
or emotionally debilitating experiences. Despite such personal challenges,
families have a wide range of experienced-based knowledge that can inform
program development. Thus, developers have found it useful to draw on the
strengths, interests, concerns, and goals of diverse families by involving
them in the design, implementation, and evaluation of their own and their
children's learning programs. They respect and incorporate into the program
families' naturally-occurring literacy activities and traditions, including,
as appropriate, their intergenerational orientation. Such collaboration
with parents facilitates learning by maximizing participants' familiarity
with curriculum topics and increasing their self-confidence and feelings
of empowerment. It also produces a group identity and a safe and supportive
atmosphere for sharing concerns, and promotes attendance and retention.
Finally, collaboration helps disenfranchised families believe that personal
literacy development will improve their family's lives and overcome their
feelings of powerless (Dwyer, 1995; Gadsden, 1996; NCFL, 1994).
PARENTING SKILLS COMPONENT
The parenting skills component of family literacy programs generally
comprises: (1) training parents to be their children's primary teacher
and full partners in the children's education, and (2) interactive literacy
activities involving parents and their children (Benjamin & Lord, 1996).
PLACE OF SERVICE
Most programs provide services both at their centers and in the families'
home. Families learn through field trips and informal activities off site.
Literacy learning at all locations is connected to the instruction at centers,
with much of it provided in the context of early childhood development,
parenting, use of community resources, and employment.
During home visits staff members build trust; learn about a family's
naturally-occurring literacy activities, such as story-telling; demonstrate
how literacy education can occur in any place and at any time; and help
parents develop new literacy strategies to encourage their children's development.
For example, staff can help families make television viewing a learning
and interactive experience that develops critical thinking skills (Parker
& Wuelser, 1995).
Center spaces that house parenting classes and family literacy activities
promote comfort, sharing of insights and information, and creativity, through
furnishings such as couches and work tables for group projects. Many have
kitchens and dining areas because meal preparation and communal meals are
venues for learning a variety of skills. Available resources include adult
learning materials on parenting and other topics, and children's books
and toys (Dwyer, 1995; Thomas, 1995).
The most engaging curriculum, activities, and learning materials provide
valuable and useful information about parenting, respond to participants'
needs and interests, and are culturally and linguistically relevant. While
learning in groups is most effective, staff can also offer one-to-one sessions
to deal with sensitive issues or provide additional instruction.
TOPICS. Parents' own view of their children's abilities, including
literacy, is a useful departure point for discussion (Perkins & Strutchens,
1994). Curriculum topics that provide good opportunities for learning and
applying a variety of skills include the following (Dwyer, 1995; NCFL,
*Attitudes about child-rearing, including behavior management.
*Strategies for problem-solving, with particular attention to parent-child
*Strategies for transferring learning to various situations at home
and at work.
*Household management, including integrating employment into parents'
*Family relationships, including abuse.
*Ways to learn about one's own child.
ACTIVITIES. All parent-child activities have a literacy component,
and parents are encouraged to see routine family interactions as opportunities
for literacy experiences. They are also instructed in specific ways to
reinforce their children's learning in the early childhood component (Come
& Frederick, 1995).
A key activity is parent-child reading. Preferably, books are selected
by parents; reflect different cultures, including those of the participants;
and provide readers with the opportunity to learn about a variety of topics,
as well as learn to read (Perkins & Strutchens, 1994). A Savannah,
GA, program, for example, uses guest speakers, including former program
participants, to provide parents with tips on how to read and discuss books
with their children, despite their own perceived shortcomings. It also
provides families with books for home use and a calendar on which to chart
family progress (Come & Fredericks, 1995). Writing, designing, and
producing publications in class promotes development of many skills and
also allows families to share information. Subjects can include story books,
recipe collections, autobiographies and family histories, and the program's
"news of the week" (Wrigley, 1994).
Oral skills are promoted through role playing and skits. Different ways
to solve a problem is a useful theme. For example, in New York City, participants
in the El Barrio Popular Education Program produced a foto-novela illustrating
the families' concerns about local schools (Wrigley, 1994).
To give families the opportunity to interact with people from a range
of backgrounds, and to learn from experts in a specific area, people working
in the community can be invited to make a presentation and lead a discussion.
Guests can include public health and social services professionals and
police officers, especially those involved in gang prevention (Wrigley,
Visits to cultural centers give families the opportunity to learn about
a particular topic, and to consider their own community's contribution
to culture, the contributions of other communities, and the general societal
value of culture. Looking at sculptures, for example, promotes art appreciation
and provides an opportunity to learn about human anatomy. To promote science
learning, families walk around the neighborhood to look for nature items
and to see how everyday life is based on scientific principles. Using public
transportation helps parents, immigrants especially, become familiar with
their city and aware of how to travel safely with their children (Parker
& Wuelser, 1995; Wrigley, 1994).
In addition to a wide overall knowledge of family literacy and early
childhood education, teacher characteristics shown to be effective with
disadvantaged families include the ability to convey respect for the life
experiences of participants, and to communicate in a way that builds parents'
self-confidence and self-respect. In addition, "flexibility in trying alternative
learner-centered teaching strategies" and in responding to changing circumstances
is a an important staff quality (Thomas, 1995, p. 24).
Through relationships with social service agencies, programs help meet
a range of necessary, but non-educational, needs to induce program participation,
ensure access to health services, and reduce family stress. Many also provide
transportation, day care, and meals. To promote learning outside the program,
staff helps familiarize families with community literacy resources, such
as the public library and museums (Dwyer, 1995).
FEEDBACK AND EVALUATION
An ongoing evaluation that includes participants' perspectives helps
ensure a program's efficacy. Learning goals established collaboratively
at the outset can guide the evaluation. Parents' perceptions can be obtained
through individual interviews, recorded group sessions, and personal journals.
Routine staff evaluations can include regular recording of observations
during family literacy sessions (Thomas, 1995). A review of participants'
portfolios can offer tangible evidence of learning and improvement (Perkins
& Strutchens, 1994). Parent and child test scores, a requirement for
Even Start-funded programs, can provide a basis for more formal periodic
evaluations in all programs (Tao et al., 1998).
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