Building on Existing Strengths To Increase Family
Literacy. ERIC Digest.
by Schwartz, Wendy
Parents with good literacy, parenting, and job skills can help boost
their children's academic achievement, as well as improve their own lives.
Unfortunately, many families living in poverty lack literacy skills, as
defined by American mainstream culture. While most "have developed complex
problem solving skills that enable them to survive" in very difficult circumstances,
their deficiency in traditional skills exacerbates the problems they face
(Taylor, 1993, p. 551).
Family literacy programs around the country have been successful in
breaking the cycle of intergenerational literacy deficiency, however. Early
findings of the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL, 1994) suggest
that the programs are more effective than typical adult education programs
with adult family members, and more effective than child-focused programs
with disadvantaged children. Moreover, parents' success in a literacy program
gives them new access to mainstream American culture and promotes a richer
relationship with their children and involvement in the children's school
(Come & Fredericks, 1995; Gadsden, 1996; NCFL, 1994).
Much information is available about program components effective in
teaching literacy skills. Less attention has been paid to the value of
building on families' existing skills, diverse cultures and languages,
and life experiences, although doing so has been shown to increase program
efficacy. This digest, therefore, focuses on strategies for reaching families
that reflect the strengths they already have.
GENERAL PROGRAM PRINCIPLES
The Federal Even Start Family Literacy Program, authorized in 1988,
is the catalyst for much of the family literacy activity nationally. It
provides funds for local partnership programs to deliver literacy services
to low-income families with at least one adult eligible for Adult Basic
Education. Program participants are ethnically diverse, frequently urban
and limited in English proficiency, and, increasingly, teenage parents
and the very poor. In 1996-97 Even Start supported 637 projects serving
34,400 parents and their children (Tao, Gamse, & Tarr, 1998).
Funded programs must adhere to Even Start's core organizational, curricular,
and evaluation requirements and goals. They must provide parents with instruction
in a variety of literacy skills and assist them in promoting their children's
educational development; they also must provide the children with an early
childhood education. Many programs, in addition, specifically help adults
get a GED and develop marketable job skills, and most work with community
agencies to provide a full range of social services.
Despite Even Start's mandates, program models vary widely. Some are
designed for replication nationally, use a fully refined and evaluated
curriculum, and receive additional major support from private foundations.
There are, for example, hundreds of NCFL sites. Others are single centers
that are developed, managed, and supported by a collaboration of local
educational institutions and groups, in direct response to community needs
(Come & Fredericks, 1995; Griswold & Ullman, 1997; NCFL, 1994).
CUSTOMIZATION FOR DIVERSE FAMILIES
The degree to which programs reflect and involve the families they serve
varies, although multi-site programs tend to be more generic in organization
and curriculum. Another difference among programs is the extent of their
acceptance of a "deficit" model for disadvantaged parents, which considers
poverty and literacy deficiencies a personal, rather than a social, problem.
This philosophy results in a curriculum that directs parents in the program's
understanding of the correct way to learn and raise children, instead of
appreciating and using parents' innate and experienced-based knowledge
as a building block for additional skills development (Taylor, 1993).
An approach to literacy development that conforms to Even Start's education
principles, but also validates the participants' capabilities, increases
a program's potential for success. When staffed by individuals who respect
diversity and different kinds of knowledge, a program can address issues
of race, class, and gender, and can help parents overcome feelings of powerlessness
that may diminish their belief that personal literacy development will
improve their family's lives (Gadsden, 1996; Strickland, 1996).
FAMILY RECRUITMENT AND INVOLVEMENT
Recruitment strategies that reflect cultural diversity and local norms,
stress personal contact, and use former program participants are most effective.
Distribution of informational materials and publicity in local businesses
and centers increases awareness of the program. Active support from community
and religious leaders is an important recommendation for wary families
(Dwyer, 1995). Special outreach efforts can attract fathers who may think
they are too busy to participate or may be ashamed about their lack of
Because parents have different reasons for wanting the services of a
family literacy program, and may not even be aware that their needs can
be met through literacy development, a varied curriculum increases a program's
attractiveness. Parents may want specific instruction in how to help their
children learn, or strategies for disciplining them. They may want to learn
English, increase their own skills to get a better job, function more competently
in society, or simply be more personally fulfilled. Parents who feel like
successful learners, no matter what the curriculum, can convey the sense
of accomplishment to their children (Griswold & Ullman, 1997; Shanahan,
Mulhern, & Rodriguez-Brown, 1995).
Considering themselves partners in the learning process both engages
and empowers parents (Strickland, 1996). Curriculum developers can involve
parents by asking them about the circumstances in which they would use
English or other literacy skills (Wrigley, 1994). For example, staff at
Project FLAME, in Chicago, IL, helped limited English proficient parents
add an academic component to a crafts course they wanted to design. Staff
also compromised on its own ideas about language learning to incorporate
into English classes use of grammar books and workbooks because learners
believed those resources "are synonymous with good teaching" (Shanahan
et al., 1995, p. 589). Involving parents in setting standards ensures the
standards will be supported (Wrigley, 1994).
Certain curriculum components have been shown to increase family literacy
program effectiveness with diverse learners. Curriculum can facilitate
learning by helping participants, through interactions with the staff and
each other, do the following (Butkus & Willoughby, 1995; Gadsden, 1996;
Griswold, & Ullman, 1997; Shanahan et al., 1995):
*Understand and develop a range of child- and literacy-development perspectives;
get mutual support and help; develop respect for cultural differences;
and build self-help, communication, and interpersonal skills.
*Use their own knowledge and beliefs as a foundation for additional
*Identify and meet personal goals, and become an advocate for themselves
and their children.
*Build communities and networks for support and political and social
By encouraging talking, reading (of multicultural materials), and writing,
programs can create opportunities for behavior that develop traditional
literacy skills, while showing participants that their native way of communicating
with their children (such as oral story-telling) is also a valid type of
literacy activity (Heath, 1982).
The Family Literacy Involvement Through Education (FLITE) program in
the Bronx, NY, for example, uses health, stress, discipline, and cooking
as curriculum topics to provide parents with useful information while also
increasing their literacy skills. Parents who had never used written recipes
learn to understand cookbook formats, try new recipes, and document their
own. As part of its preschool program, FLITE staff members conduct home
visits. In class, to support children's language development, English-
and Spanish-speaking teachers work with the children and their parents,
who may be learning English as a Second Language in the adult program,
in a dual-language classroom (Griswold & Ullman, 1997).
Several California programs work with refugees who have little experience
with formal schooling or even a written language. Participants are given
tours of cultural sites as a way of introducing them to different kinds
of literacy and helping them understand that they already are literate
in certain ways. Refugees are also encouraged to share their experiences,
many of which are painful, as a way of both documenting them and helping
the story-teller process them. Promoting the creativity of all parents
through poetry writing, production of newsletters, and playwriting and
production (in English and participants' native languages) not only develops
a range of skills but also helps transmit culture across generations (Wrigley,
Developing the skills of parents to enable them to be more personally
successful and fulfilled, and to more effectively promote their children's
learning at home and achievement in school, is the goal of all family literacy
programs. Programs which consciously draw on the existing abilities of
families in program design and curriculum, and which use social and cultural
issues as a context for learning, have an additional goal: they want to
build the participants' self-esteem through an appreciation of their own
knowledge and instincts, help them understand that they are not to blame
for their circumstances, and "empower [them] to direct their own learning
and use it for their own purposes" (Auerbach, 1995, cited in Griswold &
Ullman, 1997, p. 25)
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