Family Literacy Programs Research Paper Starter

Family Literacy Programs

(Research Starters)

This paper focuses on developing a clear concept of "family literacy" and examines the most relevant aspects of family literacy. It begins by looking at how widespread is the problem of illiteracy, who is affected by illiteracy, and what are the consequences. Also, the relationship between illiteracy and poverty is clarified. The legislative history that brought family literacy into contemporary educational policy and theory is explored, as well as what researchers believe are the most effective methods for developing effective family literacy programs. This paper also describes some of the most widespread programs that have evolved from government policy, and examines their strengths and weaknesses. Finally, the potentially central role that community colleges could play by being the focal point and liaison between various stakeholders and agencies that can contribute to a broad and effective family literacy program is presented.

Keywords: Adult Basic Education (ABE); Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA); English as a Second Language (ESL); Even Start Family Literacy Programs; General Educational Development (GED); Head Start; Intergenerational Literacy Project (ILP); National Center for Children in Poverty; No Child Left Behind (NCLB); Title I; Two-Generation Program



To understand the context and need for family literacy programs, we should first consider the educational and social fabric of the United States today, and particularly examine how widespread illiteracy is in America, who is affected, and what are the consequences. One correlation that is by no means surprising, but nevertheless quite important to take into account, is the relationship between illiteracy and poverty. As Darling (2004) observes, one of the fundamental underlying causes of poverty is a low level of literacy. Darling quotes statistics from the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) which clearly demonstrate a significant difference in income between people with a high literacy level and people with a low literacy level. According to that study, the difference between earnings of high- and low-level literacy is $23,400 annually. Additionally, the study showed a very clear correlation between illiteracy and poverty since about 44 million adults in the US have literacy skills at the lowest level, and about half of these illiterate adults live in poverty (Darling, 2004, p. 18).

Darling also uses statistics from another report, Poverty in the United States: 2002. That report offers an estimate on the total number of Americans who "wake to a world that brings them too little to eat and too little to wear, housing that is inadequate and unsafe, and minimal health and child care" (2004, p. 18). The report estimates that 34 million Americans lack these basic necessities and live in an abject condition of poverty. The report also demonstrates that this number is increasing rather than decreasing, and that there was an "increase of 7.1 million since 2001." Additionally, Darling uses a report from The National Center for Children in Poverty to give us a picture of the growth of poverty among children: the report found that "5 million American children were living in extreme poverty" (Darling, 2004, p. 18). Illiteracy goes hand in hand with poverty, and increasing literacy is a way to decrease poverty.

Darling argues that parents who are struggling to take care of their families' most basic needs have trouble making their children's language and literacy development a top priority. Additionally, children growing up in poverty experience a lack of language development in the home. One study found an important developmental deficiency and linguistic disadvantage for poor children compared to children being raised by parents who are professionals. According to that study, children in professional families hear around 20 million more words by the time they are three years old compared to children from welfare families. That study also found that "the differences in language interactions between parent and child in the early years were directly reflected in a child's vocabulary growth and use of vocabulary, two measures of an individual's ability to succeed both in school and in the workplace" (Darling, 2004, p. 19). Thus, the earliest years of children in poor families create an inherent disadvantage for the rest of their lives, and this may create a circle of poverty and illiteracy that is intergenerational.


Another important factor when examining illiteracy is the cultural differences that minority families, particularly those of Hispanic origin, experience in the mainstream English environment in which they find themselves struggling to succeed. Sink Parkhill, Marshall and Norwood (2005) point this out while discussing how to effectively create programs for decreasing literacy among the Hispanic population in America. The authors make an important point that there is a "cultural and ethnic shift … occurring in our country today in part because of the influx of Hispanics, who are rapidly becoming the nation's largest minority group" (p. 584). They observe that, while southern states such as Texas, Florida, Arizona, and New Mexico have seen immense growth in their Hispanic speaking populations, educators and legislators may not realize that many other states are also seeing immense growth in their Hispanic populations. In fact, North Carolina has actually seen more population growth than the above-mentioned states. In the decade from 1990 to 2000 the Hispanic population grew about 50% annually, and this enormous growth caused a 394% increase of Hispanic speaking people in North Carolina. Thus, the rapid growth of the Hispanic minority is one more important reason that illiteracy in English must be dealt with. Sink et al. argue that,

Latino culture is very family-oriented, and when local work is found families soon arrive. Higher concentrations of Hispanics create an immediate need for education, so that new residents can acquire the social capital to be able to fully contribute to the economic prosperity. The development of such social capital requires meaningful interaction between Hispanic and nonHispanic residents in local communities (2005, p. 584).

This is partly why the concept of family literacy has become increasingly important and, as Holloway (2004) observes, the reason that many of the most recent family literacy programs have put an emphasis on considering the cultural background of the family. New programs also try to "encompass all literacy activities that occur in the home, and involve the family's adults as well as the children" (Holloway, 2004, p. 88).

Another reason family literacy is an increasingly important idea is the intergenerational cycle of poverty; illiteracy or very low literacy skills tend to pass from parent to child, keeping generations of families in illiteracy and consequent poverty. Darling asks the question "How can we help families — not just adults, not just children, but families — to break this cycle?" (Darling, 2004, p. 19). Since parents are the earliest influence on a child's intellect and linguistic skills, and since many of the parents living in poverty have not developed their own literacy skills, a good way of dealing with their illiteracy is to approach it as a family unit, so that children and parents learn together. That idea basically defines the concept of family literacy.

The Family Literacy Concept

Paratore (2006) notes that, in 1983, Taylor first used the term family literacy, and the term has been used differently over the years, depending on what educators have emphasized as most important within that concept. As Paratore observes, family literacy has been "a way to describe how parents and children read and write together and alone during everyday activities" and it has also been a "construct for teaching parents how to prepare their children for success in school" (Paratore, 2006, p. 394). There have also been other features of family literacy that legislation or government programs have outlined as important components to the concept.

Holloway (2004) observes that family literacy programs vary in their design, but all programs share the central objective of strengthening intergenerational literacy so as to "help parents or caregivers learn that they are their children's first teachers and that they can be successful in this role" (Holloway, 2004, p. 89). While giving advice to those educators who may be interested in getting involved in family literacy programs, Paratore reveals a fundamental principle behind family literacy programs, a principle that complements Holloway's pedagogical point of view. She writes, "as you consider how to shape your own efforts, be aware that programs intended to influence the practice of family literacy are, at their core, parent-teacher partnerships" (p. 396). Holloway and Paratore emphasize the child's education; at the center of family literacy is the child who needs educational development. Paratore then tells educators that two directives flow from that fundamental principle. First, that an "open, dependable [and] non-intrusive" channel of communication must be opened between the teacher and the parent; second, the methods and curriculum must be effective in helping the parent to competently help the child (Paratore, 2006, p. 396).

However, this approach does not clarify, or at least does not seem to focus on, the parents' needs for enhancing their own literacy — unless it is a byproduct of instructing the child. While heeding Paratore's advice, other educators working within family literacy programs aim to work with parents as individuals who have their own particular educational or training needs, and that idea has become a more central part of today's family literacy programs. It is more specifically referred to as a "two-generation program," and government legislation and policy has actively supported this type of approach. Duch (2005) observes that two-generation programs differ in their "duration and intensity of services, as well as programmatic focus" but asserts that all two-generation programs have some characteristics that remain constant:

  • A developmentally appropriate early-childhood program.
  • A parenting education component.
  • An adult education, literacy or job skills and training component (Duch, 2005, p. 26).

Although Holloway emphasizes the child-centered approach to family literacy, he is well aware of the adult literacy component, as we can see from his description of what comprises a "comprehensive family literacy program":

  • Basic skills education for adult family members to help them learn skills for the workplace.
  • Early childhood education for the children to bolster the skills they will need to succeed in school
  • Parent education that enables adult family members to discuss parenting practices, nutrition, and the importance of literacy learning for their children.
  • Time for the adults and children to participate together in literacy activities that they can also do at home (Holloway, 2004, p. 89).

Thus, when we speak of family literacy programs we are generally referring to the same thing as a "two-generation program", wherein children's educational needs are at the center, while adults'...

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