ERIC Identifier: ED334467
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education
Family and Intergenerational Literacy. ERIC Digest
"Teach the parent, reach the child." Family and intergenerational literacy
programs are intended to improve the literacy of educationally disadvantaged
parents and children, based on the assumption that improving the literacy
skills of parents results in better educational experiences for their children.
Although theoretical justification for the concept exists, research evidence
of its effectiveness is emerging more slowly. The research base spans a
number of different fields, among them adult literacy education, emergent
literacy, cognitive science, early childhood development, family systems
theory, and multicultural education (Nickse 1990). Because practitioners
and researchers come from diverse backgrounds, there is debate about definition,
program philosophy, and instructional methods. This ERIC DIGEST looks at
types and characteristics of family literacy programs and considers some
of the issues in this approach.
TYPES OF PROGRAMS
Family literacy programs focus on parent and child; programs that are
"intergenerational" involve other family members, neighbors, guardians,
and adult volunteers as well. Nickse (1990) offers a typology for classifying
family/intergenerational literacy programs that has two dimensions: type
of program intervention (direct or indirect) and type of participation
(adults alone, children alone, adults and children together). The four
basic program types are as follows:
1. Direct Adults-Direct Children. This highly structured model offers
the most intensive formal literacy instruction for both adults and children
and has a high degree of parent-child interaction.
2. Indirect Adults-Indirect Children. Voluntary attendance, short-term
commitment, and less formal learning through literacy enrichment events
such as storytelling characterize this form. Generally, reading skills
are not directly taught, although adults may receive literacy tutoring.
3. Direct Adults-Indirect Children. Adults are given literacy instruction,
often in seminars or workshops, and they may receive coaching on reading
with their children and other activities that influence children's literacy.
4. Indirect Adults-Direct Children. In-school, preschool, or after-school
programs develop children's reading skills. Parents may be involved in
workshops, reading rallies, or other events.
Nickse (1990) provides details of the examples given here as well as
other programs. Kentucky's Parent and Child Education (PACE) and the Kenan
Trust Family Literacy Program based on PACE are examples of Type 1. Located
in elementary schools, these programs offer intensive instruction 3 days
per week, 6 hours per day for 9 months to parents lacking high school diplomas
and their 3- and 4-year-old children.
An example of Type 2 is the Carnegie Library's Read Together Program
in Pittsburgh, which promotes reading in everyday life through storybook
reading sessions, library membership for families, and tutoring for parents.
The Family English Literacy Project in San Antonio, Texas (Intercultural
Development Research Association 1988), an example of Type 3, includes
the broadcasting of Spanish and English literacy lessons as well as parenting
instruction via local television. Type 4 is represented by Running Start,
offered in nine cities with Chrysler plants. First graders participate
in book reading contests and receive free books. Reading rallies give parents
practical tips on helping children with reading at home.
As these examples illustrate, family literacy programs may be offered
in adult basic education (ABE) programs, libraries, preschools and elementary
schools, workplaces, voluntary literacy agencies, and other community agencies.
They typically provide adult literacy instruction, reading instruction
for children, information on parenting and child development, and opportunities
for parent-child interaction. Program staff are often an interdisciplinary
team that includes ABE instructors, early childhood experts, English as
a second language specialists, social workers, volunteers, and community
liaisons. Other components may be survival skills for immigrants, linkage
to community services, and computer literacy.
NEEDED: PROGRAM EFFECTIVENESS RESEARCH
As programs proliferate, evidence about the effectiveness of the family
literacy approach has yet to be systematically collected. Some researchers
contend that longitudinal evidence is lacking, although modest data from
informal and formative evaluations suggest that programs are having some
impact ("Myth #5" 1988).
The concept of family literacy is rooted in research from a number of
fields. Nickse's (1990) review highlights some findings that support theories
of the intergenerational transmission of literacy. Adult literacy research
relates the educational attainment of children to that of their parents.
Studies of emergent literacy, as well as cognitive science research, stress
the impact of the family and social environment on cognitive development
and literacy acquisition. In family systems theory, children shape family
life and parent behavior as much as the family influences children. Studies
of low-income families by Clark ("Myth #5" 1988) and Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines
(Auerbach 1989) assert that children's achievement and motivation are influenced
most strongly by such family characteristics as values, standards, educational
attitudes, and use of everyday activities as opportunities to explain and
teach. The findings of these diverse fields lend support to teaching literacy
holistically rather than as a set of skills, treating the family as a unit,
involving as many family members as possible, and acknowledging the community
Among the few evaluations of existing programs, Hibpshman's (1989) assessment
of PACE found that neither its theoretical basis nor the efficacy of its
model has yet been proven. Questions needing further study are (1) the
relationship between family background and children's educational outcomes,
(2) the effect of changes in family attitudes and behavior on children,
(3) whether replication of a program model in different environments produces
the same effects, and (4) the differences in the outcomes of various program
ISSUES IN FAMILY LITERACY
Three issues have implications for program design: definitions of literacy,
the type of literacy that should be taught, and the locus for change. Definitions
of literacy that underlie program practice are one of the most controversial
issues in family/intergenerational literacy. To some, literacy is a set
of measurable skills; a tool for self-improvement, productivity, and economic
development; or the replication of school-like activity in the family setting.
Others define literacy as social practices used in daily life, a means
of empowerment, or the construction of meaning from experience. The definition
affects the nature of the curriculum, instructional methods, and criteria
used to evaluate success.
The meaning, uses, and value of literacy are not the same for all members
of society. Fingeret (1991) asserts that the construction of meaning, rooted
in experience, culture, and language, is at the heart of literacy, and
she questions whether family literacy programs should teach the school's
meanings, pressuring learners to accept the interpretations of the dominant
Auerbach (1989) finds that research evidence about literacy acquisition
and the practice of program design diverge. She cites studies showing that
"children whose home literacy practices most closely resemble those of
the school are more successful in school" (p. 167). Auerbach notes that
this is often interpreted to mean that low-income or language-minority
parents have inadequate parental skills, practices, and materials. However,
a number of studies (ibid.) show that families sometimes considered "illiterate"
or "low literate" in mainstream society use literacy for a variety of social
and technical purposes and that a form of literacy is practiced in everyday
This "deficit" perspective underlies some programs that seek to transmit
school literacy through the family. This model assumes that (1) homes of
low-income and immigrant families are "literacy impoverished"; (2) transmission
of literacy is from parent to child, ignoring the dynamics of many immigrant
families; (3) literacy acquisition in school is either less important than
in the home or already adequate; and (4) cultural differences in attitudes
toward school or child-rearing practices are obstacles to be overcome in
order to meet school-determined expectations (Auerbach 1989).
Nickse (1990) asks: Do we change the behavior of children learned in
their cultural context to fit the requirements of the schools or do we
change the practices of the schools to match culturally learned behaviors?
Auerbach (1989) suggests that, rather than transferring school practices
into the home, programs draw on parents' knowledge and experiences to shape
instruction. Ethnographic research can be used to gather information about
the family and social context, community culture, family dynamics, social
networks, and values and attitudes. This information can be used to design
programs linked to particular settings and learners within a meaningful
context (Isserlis 1990).
IMPLICATIONS FOR PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT
The following list summarizes recommendations of Auerbach (1989), Fingeret
(1991), Isserlis (1990), and Nickse (1990):
1. Program design should recognize the existence of multiple literacies
and literacy behaviors in the home and community and attempt to integrate
home and school literacies.
2. Programs should build on the strengths of parents and their culture
(such as oral language traditions, native language literacy) and set literacy
education in a meaningful cultural context.
3. Instruction in parenting skills should be sensitive to cultural differences
in child rearing and family dynamics. Parents should be assisted in being
advocates for their children's education.
4. Family literacy programs need a holistic approach achieved through
collaboration of several agencies and multidisciplinary staff. Parents
must also be partners in the collaboration.
5. Program evaluation should use the broad definition of literacy that
guides program design, and informal and ethnographic techniques may be
most appropriate. Fingeret (1991) suggests asking students to read, write,
or talk about what they have learned rather than trying to measure a set
of abstract skills.
Auerbach, E. R. "Toward a Social-Contextual Approach to Family Literacy."
Harvard Educational Review 59, no. 2 (May 1989): 165-181.
Fingeret, H. A. "Meaning, Experience and Literacy." Adult Basic Education
1, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 4-11.
Hibpshman, T. L. "An Explanatory Model for Family Literacy Programs."
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research
Association, November 1989. (ED 313 531).
Intercultural Development Research Association. IRDA Family English
Literacy Initiative. San Antonio, TX: IRDA, 1988. (ED 318 304).
Isserlis, J. "ESL Literacy: What's Working, Why and How--Family Literacy."
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of Teachers of English to Speakers
of Other Languages, March 1990. (ED 318 302).
"Myth #5: Illiteracy Can Be 'Cured' in One Generation." Literacy Beat
2, no. 4 (June 1988). (ED 317 859).
Nickse, R. S. Family and Intergenerational Literacy Programs. Information
Series No. 342. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational
Education, 1990. (ED 327 736).