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Family Literacy

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).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage TraditionsFamily Literacy - Family Literacy Programs, Family-school Relationships, Focus On Storybook Reading, Early Childhood Focus - Issues