Linking Schools, Families, and Communities: A Family Literacy Project
Falling test scores for children in grades K-12 coupled with rising literacy requirements in the workplace have prompted educators to search for the best methods to impact literacy development. In the quest to improve literacy achievement, school districts have considered intervention plans, instructional programs, and materials for teaching reading and writing in grades K-12. Yet, literacy is not the sole responsibility of the school but rather a shared responsibility of the school, community, and the family (Fredericks & Rasinski, 1990; Rasinski, 1995). A study by Marjoribanks in 1972 attributed more than half the variance in children’s IQ scores to the learning environment in the home. Indeed, the positive impact of family involvement in a child’s literacy development has been well documented with gains in the following areas:
· Overall school achievement including reading achievement, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, math and science (Anderson, 1994; Benjamin, 1993; Ostlund, Gennaro, Dobbert, 1985).
· Regular school attendance (Mansback, 1993; Nurss, Mosenthal, Hinchman, 1992).
· School completion rates (Mansback, 1993).
· Oral language development (Chall & Snow, 1982).
· Decoding ability (Greer & Mason, 1988; Mundre & McCormick, 1989).
· Children’s self esteem and health (Nurss, Mosenthal, Hinchman, 1992).
According to Postlethwaite and
A Family Literacy Project
Four university professors
contacted a local district, the Dallas Public Schools, to explore possibilities
for investigating questions about how can schools and teachers assist parents
in fostering their children’s literacy development, and about what types of
family literacy efforts might prove most useful. In recent years,
in August 1998, the university professors met with the Director of the Dallas
Reading Plan to discuss opportunities for a collaborative effort highlighting family
literacy. The dialogue centered around a consideration of district needs and
ways those needs might be met. A draft proposal emerged from this initial
brainstorming session with the university professors agreeing to act as
coaches, developing and piloting a model for using study groups to encourage
the exploration of best practices for establishing community-based programs and
activities promoting family literacy. These study groups, established on local
campuses, would help to facilitate informed decision making regarding
implementation of campus-based family literacy activities supporting the
district’s reading initiative (i.e., having all
The next step was to select partner schools for the collaborative effort. Campuses invited to participate in this pilot program were elementary schools serving kindergarten through 3rd grade students. Each campus was chosen by the Dallas Reading Department and the superintendents of the nine administrative subdivisions of the Dallas Public Schools. One campus from each of the nine subdivisions was selected to participate over the next year.
Further review of project goals and additional feedback to shape our collaborative effort emerged from a preliminary meeting with principals from the selected schools and other key staff from support services within the district (Dallas Reading Plan, Early Childhood Education, Community Relations, Multilingual Education, Adult Basic Education, and Even Start). Incorporating all the input from district personnel, the final proposal for the Family Literacy Project had as its goal to focus attention on family literacy through a family, school, and community effort. To accomplish this goal, the members of the family literacy project participated in the following activities during the 1998-1999 school year (See Appendix for an outline of the year’s activities):
· A series of sharing and training study group sessions to investigate and discuss research-based “best practices” for promoting family literacy.
· Development of an instrument to determine current levels of parent involvement in literacy in the home and to identify literacy efforts of local schools and community support organizations.
· Development of customized pilot models for parent involvement to be implemented at the home campus during the spring of 1999.
With an overview of the project in hand, principals returned to their home campuses to select participants for this year-long venture. Each participating campus sent a minimum of three representatives who volunteered: one K-3 teacher, one parent from the local Parent Teacher Association (PTA), and one parent currently serving on the School-Community Council (SCC). Campus principals were encouraged to attend as well. All meetings were scheduled on Thursday evenings after school from to By this point, the planning and feedback phase had taken three months, an important consideration for those interested in entering into collaborative partnerships.
Building Background on Family Literacy
Beginning in November, study groups made up of administrators, teachers, and parent leaders from nine elementary schools began meeting with university coaches and selected lead reading teachers to investigate and discuss research-based “best practices” for promoting family literacy. A typical schedule for each meeting looked like this:
· “Warm up” activities for getting acquainted and setting the tone.
· Poetry sharing with examples linked to school and family experiences.
· Small group “circuit” presentations of family literacy research/information.
· Discussion of school based family literacy projects.
The agenda for the first meeting included an orientation to the goals of the project and a presentation of the configuration of the Family Literacy Project. The first three meetings, during the fall and winter, were devoted to building a background on family literacy initiatives. To accomplish this goal in a hands-on format allowing for discussion and avoiding a lecture format, the four university coaches adopted a circuit presentation technique to share information. The 40 participants were divided into four smaller groups for the information sharing, and each university coach summarized information for a 15-minute participatory question/answer session with one of the small groups. Then, the coaches rotated to another group until all four groups had been addressed. Realizing that after a long day at work teachers and parent volunteers would not be interested in a barrage of educational jargon and statistics, the emphasis of all presentations was on actively involving the participants, not lecturing to them. Feedback and ideas from participants were encouraged resulting in a rich conversation and idea sharing with personal examples from all present.
The information shared in
the circuit presentations varied with input drawn from brochures and books on
family literacy as well as research articles reflecting issues surrounding implementation
of family literacy efforts. For instance, one evening one of the researchers
chose to discuss a chapter in
Throughout the background building process, the university coaches compiled a notebook of the research and information shared as well as other helpful ideas addressing family literacy including: abstracts of journal articles; journal and informational articles highlighting family literacy in the home, school, and community; and bibliographies of research sources, professional resources (videos, volunteer tutor handbooks, etc.) and children’s literature and poetry addressing families and family literacy. To spur information sharing and dissemination, copies of this notebook were given to each of the participating campuses as a resource handbook for their future efforts.
With a focus on involvement, warm up activities were conducted at each meeting as a means of involving participants and modeling techniques for family literacy at home and in the classroom. A rich variety of activities motivated the participants to reflect and discuss and contributed to the relaxed tone of each meeting. A brief summary of these techniques follows.
In the spring, we put our background building study group sessions to work as each campus began to build a customized project for family literacy. As an incentive to more actively involve parents in literacy efforts at home and at the school, all schools were provided $1,000 in seed money to fund a family literacy project at their school. With this initial start, schools were encouraged to develop their projects into ongoing initiatives that would develop further or become annual events. The university coaches and Reading Department supported the process through follow-up meetings in the spring to provide technical assistance and on-going support for the campus-based family literacy projects. At the end of each meeting, time for discussion, clarification, and feedback was provided as each school moved to submit a proposal of their project for review by the university coaches.
· Promotes a spirit of shared responsibility.
· Active involvement of parents in decision making and follow through on decisions.
· Establishment of open lines of communication.
· Long-term commitment to continuous and sustained involvement.
Guiding questions followed each criterion to assist each campus in assessing their proposal.
step after background building, project brainstorming, and discussion was
submission of a project proposal to the university coaches. After approval by
the university coaches, the proposal was submitted to the Dallas Reading Plan
Office for funding. Schools implemented their projects prior to the last
Family Literacy Project Examples
Reflecting the diversity of our family literacy partnership, the campus-based projects mirrored the variety of our group and the many campus-based needs. Strategies such as book giveaways were included in many school projects as a means of fostering a print rich environment at home. Additionally, projects incorporated many topics discussed in our background building sessions such as drama and games as literacy building opportunities. The range of family literacy options included the following school projects.
In addition to the follow up meetings on campus-based family literacy projects, the study groups worked to collaboratively develop an assessment of the current levels of family literacy activities taking place in children’s homes. Stemming from initial discussions prior to the beginning of the project, discussions at early sessions, and the research addressing family literacy efforts, various areas surfaced that might be possible ones to highlight on the survey of family literacy. From these initial areas, the university coaches drafted a straw document and took this initial effort to the whole group for feedback. The group reacted to the draft, providing feedback that was incorporated into the final version of the survey. The final version was presented to the group and the method for collecting the data was demonstrated to the participating members.
To facilitate the process of K-3 grade teachers administering the survey to their classes, the university coaches suggested using overhead transparencies and having the teachers walk through the survey with their classes and then record the data on the overhead. After the university coaches demonstrated this technique at an early spring meeting, each school was provided a master of the survey and a box of transparencies. Group members took the survey and a box of overheads back to their campuses. Each school used the box of overheads to make transparencies of the survey and distribute these to each K-3 grade teacher. Campus teams coordinated the administration of the assessment instrument during the early spring semester 1999. Teachers orally conducted the survey with their classes and wrote student responses on the overheads. Schools were given a deadline by which all data was to be collected and submitted for tabulation to the university coaches. Once data was tabulated, this information was organized and presented to the Family Literacy Project members at our final meeting.
In addition to these types, children reported reading many forms of “everyday” or “environmental” print, including the mail, letters, cookbooks, instructions, the computer, the dictionary, textbooks, homework, signs and billboards, comics, poetry, diaries, catalogs, the TV guide, the phone book, greeting cards, Mapsco, work “stuff,” puzzles, coupon books, and bills. And where do families get their reading material? From the library, twice as often as from any other source. But also from grocery stores, bookstores, friends and neighbors, bookclubs, bookfairs, through the mail, at the barber’s, at garage sales, at work, at discount and other stores, at church, from school, at the gas station, at the daycare center, and at the hospital.
We asked children about the presence of writing experiences in the home. “What kinds of writing have you seen your family do at home?” Their most frequent response was “letters,” “checks,” and “grocery lists.” Again, many examples of “everyday” or authentic writing activities were also volunteered, including writing on the computer, notes, homework, applications, menus, songs, addresses, resumes, phone numbers, orders, invitations, poems, journals, cards, money orders, and directions.
We wondered about oral literacies, too, such as storytelling. Did families still share stories orally? What kind? This is what the children told us. Parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and aunts/uncles tell stories at home. What kind of stories? The most popular were ghost stories! But children were also listening to family stories, original stories, bedtime stories, and “once upon a time” stories. Singing and songs interested us, too. Here was yet another oral venue for developing literacy. Again, in nearly all the classrooms, children reported singing in the home. Parents, siblings, aunts/uncles, grandparents, and friends sang songs from the radio and religious songs, more than any other. Other kinds of singing at home included holiday songs, songs from TV, bedtime songs, songs from tapes and CDs, and family songs.
What about non-print media? National statistics tell us children watch plenty of television. Our survey revealed that children prefer cartoons and videos to other forms of media entertainment, in general. They also mentioned, but with much less frequency, school programs, movies, holiday programs, and television sitcoms.
Homework is a literacy activity which actively links home and school. We wondered whether families were involved in this particular literacy activity, too. The results were somewhat mixed. Parents and siblings helped with homework three times as often as any other source of support. Aunts/uncles, grandparents, daycare providers, friends, and cousins were also noted as helping with homework. Interestingly, “no one” [helps me with my homework] was cited as often as these latter sources.
Finally, our collaborative group was very curious about what activities might bring family members to the school campus. We were actively seeking meaningful ways to host families on campus. Thus we asked, “What brings your family to school?” Parent-teacher conferences were named twice as often as any other occasion. Next were PTA meetings, special programs, honor assemblies, volunteering, field day, and pick up/drop off.
Although we knew many of the families we worked with would not necessarily own home computers, we wanted to recognize this source of literacy activity in our survey. Thus we also asked the children, “Do you have a computer at home?” and “What kinds of things does your family use the computer for?” Although we do not have exact data on the number of computers in the homes involved, we know the chief use of the computer for this population was games. This application was mentioned twice as often as the next most popular activity: writing. Other uses included reading, work, typing, math, and homework.
To summarize the
results, according to the children in our survey, parents read aloud “
Collecting this data was a powerful exercise in many ways. First of all, the extensive collaboration in the development of the survey instrument and in planning its administration was unique. Many perspectives were represented in the endeavor. Second, the very process of gathering the data was enlightening for all the participants. In many cases, we broadened the definition of literacy which many held, teachers and children included. In this urban setting, it was encouraging to see that many parents were active participants in their children’s literacy development, particularly in the area of reading aloud, telling stories, sharing songs, helping with homework, and coming to school for conferences. Environmental print and authentic, everyday writing were also vehicles for promoting literacy which many parents made use of. Interestingly, religious songs and the Bible were still frequent sources of literacy activity in many of the homes of these students.
There was also a “meta-value” to conducting the survey in that simply asking these questions led us all to consider what kinds of literacy connections might be possible between home and school. For example, teachers may now be prompted to place greater value on the storytelling and singing familiar to their students in the home. Children may be spurred to urge their parents to help with homework or come visit the school, knowing that the teacher has clearly placed a value on these practices at school.
Our classroom-based surveys attempted to take a “snapshot” of a variety of home literacy activities. As this surveying process evolved, it also became another means of promoting a broader and more inclusive understanding of literacy, even multiple literacies, among the different participants. One final outcome was a bit of a surprise. As we worked to plan literacy development projects in these various urban settings, it also helped us see the many literacy activities which were already occurring in these homes. Instead of taking a “deficit” view of family literacy, we looked to see what kinds of literacy activities were already in place. So often we tend to view the “glass” of urban literacy as “half empty.” Our collaborative participation in this investigation helped us all to see this same “glass” as “half full.”
Next, was a visit by storytellers who performed on a Saturday morning at Old City Park in Dallas, an open air museum featuring old homes and buildings. Sitting on the front porch or in front of the general store, the storytellers shared this rich, oral tradition with teachers, families, and children from our collaborative partnership schools.
At the last meeting of the Family Literacy Project, two forms of feedback were utilized to evaluate the project. First, the group responded to a modified chart modeled after Ogle’s (1986) KWL technique. The idea was to draw the school’s attention back to the criteria for effective outreach and to have them reflect on this year long effort. Using three columns (what we know, what we did, what we learned) each campus team noted what they knew from the research on urban outreach programs, what each individual campus did at their school in response to the research presented over the course of the project, and what the schools learned in their participation in the group and their efforts back at their campuses. One of the biggest learnings for schools from the year long project was the need to work more closely with families and to listen to their input and feedback rather than putting together programs based on the school’s perceptions of what was needed.
Finally, a summative evaluation was administered focusing on increases in family literacy resulting from the school’s participation in the Family Literacy Project, increases in teacher/administrator awareness, the effectiveness of the group study model, and useful aspects of the project. Participants gave the project high marks noting that the study group model had proved very beneficial as a beginning point for awareness of issues and possibilities.
Given increased literacy demands in today’s society, student
literacy is a critical area. Family literacy holds great promise in its ability
to foster language and literacy development. The collaborative project between
The family literacy partners from the Dallas Public Schools were not the only ones involved in the learning process. We learned a great deal from this year long effort as well. A few of our most important findings include the following.
For us, the Family Literacy Project was a meaningful connection with teachers, administrators, parents, and children. Families can contribute in powerful ways to a child’s literacy development, but sometimes they need a better sense of direction. We must make sure that every resource is tapped to foster our children’s language abilities.
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(1989). Breaking the cycle of illiteracy:
The Kenan family literacy model program.
Greer, E., & Mason, J.
(1988). Effects of home literacy on
children’s recall (Tech. Rep. No. 420).
Mansbach, S. (1993). A series of solutions and strategies: Family
literacy’s approach to dropout prevention.
Marjoribanks, K. (1972). Environment, social class, and mental abilities. Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 103-109.
Mora, P. (1997). Tomas and
the library lady.
Mundre, L., &
Nurss, J., Mosenthal, P., &
Hinchman, K. (1992).
Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L:
A teaching model that develops an active reading of expository text. The
Ostlund, K., Gennaro, E., & Dobbert, M. (1985). A naturalistic study of children and their parents in family learning courses in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 22, 723-741.
Postlethwaite, T. N., &
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Rylant, C. (1982). When I was young in the Mountains.
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Credit: Portions of this piece were also published in the English Leadership Quarterly. Copyright 2000 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted with permission.
January 1999-February 1999
January 1999-March 1999
· Professors make initial contact with Director of the Dallas Reading Plan
· Meetings to discuss options for a family literacy project
· Draft proposal of possible project
· Selection of partner schools for collaborative effort
· Preliminary meeting with support services and principals from selected schools to gather input
· Final proposal drafted
· Participants from partner schools selected from pool of volunteers
· Study group meetings with professors and partner school participants
· Meetings to craft customized family literacy projects for each partner school
· Technical assistance from university coaches and ongoing support from partner schools
· Collaboratively develop an assessment of current levels of family literacy activities
· Implement family literacy survey
· Intensive feedback session to fine tune projects
· Submission of final projects for approval of university coaches
· Implementation of projects
· Final session to share results of family literacy projects
· Results of family literacy survey shared
· Evaluation of collaborative partnership