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Understanding the Parent-Child

Interactive Literacy Component of Family Literacy: 

A Re-Examination of Research


Elizabeth L. Grinder

Eunice N. Askov

Eugenio Longoria Saenz

Jale Aldemir

          Penn State University


Parent involvement is important to children’s language and literacy development, especially in light of the fact that “the parent is the child’s first teacher”.  Research has demonstrated that children’s development is stimulated through strong and positive interactions with their parents (Jacobs, 2004) and that parents play a central role in children’s language and literacy development (Dickinson & Tabor, 2001; Hart & Risley, 1995; 1999).  A unique approach that offers parents opportunities to interact with their children is called Family Literacy.  Family literacy programs differ from other educational programs in that they focus on educating both the child and his/her parents within the same program. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on previously published research about the parent-child interactive literacy component in family literacy programs, drawing out implications for elementary teachers and teacher educators.

What is Family Literacy?

Family literacy programs provide services to families who have an adult with an educational need and who also have a child ranging in age from birth to age 8.  They are based on the concept that families need to receive a combination of services to make lasting changes in their lives by improving their level of literacy.  Family literacy, as defined by the William F. Goodling Even Start Family Literacy programs, is unique in that it is composed of four instructional components:

1.      Interactive literacy activities between parents and their children.

2.      Parenting education so that parents become their child’s first teacher and full collaborators in the education of their child.

3.      Adult education so that parents may become economically self sufficient (adult basic and secondary-level education and/or instruction for English language learners).

4.      Age-appropriate early childhood education so that children can experience success in school and in life (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). 

Together, these four components aim to improve the literacy and basic education levels of the parents, help parents become full partners in the education of their children, and support children in reaching their full potential as learners.  Services provided by programs must be of “sufficient intensity in terms of hours, and of sufficient duration, to make sustainable changes in a family” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, p. 2). Although all four components of family literacy are considered to be interrelated, each component should offer a separate instructional program with the goal that the components will build on each other and use high quality instructional services to meet the goals of families and of family literacy (U.S. Department of Education, 2003).

In an effort to encourage high quality programs, federal legislation states that Even Start (or family literacy) programs must use “instructional programs based on scientifically based reading research and the prevention of reading difficulties for children and adults, to the extent research is available” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, p.2).  Using scientifically-based reading research (SBRR) as a foundation for instruction is important since it requires programs to rely on methods and practices proven to be effective.   States, districts and schools can be confident that all children entering school will be ready to learn to read and that their parents will be able to support their children’s learning as well as develop better literacy skills themselves (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). 

In the next section we look at the component that is unique to educational programming, namely, parent-child interactive literacy, in order to consider research related to the topic.

Parent-Child Interactive Literacy

The purpose of parent-child interactive literacy in family literacy programs is to enhance the language and literacy development of children.  As stated above, research has demonstrated that parents play a central role in children’s language and literacy development (Dickinson & Tabor, 2001; Hart & Risley, 1995; 1999).  Recent research shows that a strong correlation exists between children’s academic achievement and the amount of time they and their parents spend together doing shared activities (Eliot, 1999).  In addition to greater academic gains, children who spend time interacting with their parents also benefit from greater emotional and social growth that fosters attachment, resilience, and protective factors necessary for their development (Werner, 1996; Powell, 2004; Pianta, 2004). Children also benefit in terms of their language and literacy development from frequent parent-child book reading (e.g., Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pelligrini, 1995; Lonigan & Whitehurst, 1998; Senechal, LeFevre, Thomas, & Daley, 1998). Regardless of socio-economic status, Hart and Risley (1995, 1999) found that the way parents talk to their children influences children’s language use, vocabulary development, and learning.  Further, Darling and Westberg (2004) found through a meta-analysis of the impact of parent involvement on reading acquisition of children kindergarten to grade three, that training parents with specific strategies about how to teach children to read produced the best results.

The parent-child interactive literacy component in family literacy programs can boost both the parents’ and the children’s development and learning, increase parents’ knowledge about the way their children learn and the importance of play, and enhance parents’ understanding of the role of the parent as their child’s teacher (National Center for Family Literacy or NCFL, 2003).  It provides supervised time for parents to learn how to interact with their children to foster language and literacy development. 

Parent-child interactive literacy, therefore, is a unique intervention program in that parents and children are learning together rather than individually. It is a purposeful time to “increase and facilitate meaningful parent child interactions focused primarily on language and literacy development in a high-quality learning environment where they can learn and play together” (Jacobs, 2004, p. 197).  However, little research has been conducted that examines what programs are doing during parent-child interactive literacy to know what might constitute high quality programming.  In the next section we summarize a study that was conducted at the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at Penn State in order to reflect on the implications of the study for elementary teachers and teacher educators.

Study Summary

The purpose of the previously published study was to determine what occurs during the parent-child interactive literacy component and to learn how programs administer this component in family literacy programs (Grinder, Longoria Saenz, Askov, & Aldemir, 2005).  In particular, we wanted to know the extent to which language and literacy development is explicitly and/or implicitly taught during the parent-child interactive literacy activities.  To answer this and related questions, we conducted our study using qualitative methods.  We gathered information through individual phone interviews with administrators and/or teachers from 24 program sites from 19 of the 73 family literacy programs across Pennsylvania.  These sites were selected because previous statewide assessments (Van Horn, Kassab, & Grinder, 2002) indicated that they had met the majority of the Family Literacy Performance Standards required by the state.

The phone interview questionnaire consisted of 14 questions that focused on designing, administering, and assessing the interactive literacy component for all ages of children in family literacy programs.   Sample questions included: “What is the purpose of the interactive literacy component?” and “What information did you use to decide how to structure parent-child interactive literacy time?”  Additional probes were used to gather more in-depth information about some of the questions.

Although the study results are presented in detail in another publication (Grinder, et al., 2005), some findings are particularly interesting not only to family literacy educators but also to those individuals involved in elementary teaching and teacher education since many of the families who participate have school-age children in the family literacy program. The study revealed several challenges that programs staff encounter as they implement this component of family literacy.  Conceptually, parent-child interactive literacy activities should focus on language and literacy development of children through interactions with parents.  However, program administrators overwhelmingly defined this component as a time for parents to work on parenting skills taught during the parenting educational component of the program.   As a result, few comments by the administrators from the phone interviews related to the explicit and intentional teaching of literacy skills.  Of the 24 sites interviewed, only eight (35%) site administrators and/or teachers mentioned literacy as one of the purposes of parent-child literacy interactions, while 15 (65%) sites did not mention literacy in their conversations at all. 

The phone interview results revealed that programs focus primarily on administrative concerns. The information used to structure interactive literacy programs seems to be extraneous to the goals of the component as defined by the legislation.  Site administrators and/or teachers appear to be preoccupied with working around barriers to implementation, such as the physical setting of a site, parents’ needs and schedules, transportation, services provided by collaborative partners, and the make-up of the group.  Although these sources of concern are important considerations in ensuring participation and meeting the educational needs of parents and children, they are not consistent with the goals of the parent-child interactive literacy component. 

To implement an effective component focusing on parent-child interactive literacy, and to follow the mandate of No Child Left Behind, family literacy programs are supposed to use appropriate information such as scientifically-based reading research to design interactions that will assist both children and their families in literacy development.  When program staff were asked during the interview what information they use to design and/or plan parent-child literacy interactions, no program spontaneously mentioned using scientifically-based reading research (SBRR).  When probed by the interviewer about using SBRR, a variety of responses were provided that ranged from answering the question directly to “never thought [about parent-child literacy interactions] as scientifically-based”.  Thus, only a small number of program staff were able to identify that they used resources that support scientifically based reading research.

Finally, and most importantly for K-12 teacher educators, program staff mentioned the difficulty of coordinating the parent-child interactive literacy component with elementary schools (since family literacy programs can serve children through age 8 with federal funds). Although a few program staff mentioned collaborating with elementary school staff members, the majority commented about the difficulty they had collaborating with schools to meet the needs of this component for school-age children.  Elementary school teachers were viewed by family literacy administrators and/or teachers as being overwhelmed and as not understanding family literacy programs and the four component structure.  To family literacy staff members, schools seemed reluctant to commit to a relationship with family literacy programs.


To implement an effective program, family literacy administrators and teachers need to have a fundamental understanding of the crucial role of the parent-child interactive literacy component.  Many programs seem to lack cohesiveness in this component, beginning with its purpose in relation to the other components of family literacy programs.  Rather than using the parent-child interactive literacy component to focus on children’s language and literacy development through interactions with parents, program staff define this component as a time for parents to interact with their children in working on parenting skills.  Family literacy programs need a better repertoire of best practices within the parent-child interactive literacy component to achieve high quality family literacy programs. 

Family literacy programs also need to improve their collaborations with elementary schools to better address the parent-child literacy interaction needs of school-age children.  This age group is often overlooked because of the difficulty family literacy programs staff have in making connections with elementary school teachers.  However, children may need the most support from their parents when they make the transition from preschool to elementary school.  Fundamentally, family literacy program staffs perceive that elementary school teachers do not understand that family literacy programs exist to prepare at-risk children for successful school experiences.  If elementary school teachers begin to understand that the goals of family literacy programs are similar to those of the schools, then working relationships may improve. 

 A further challenge to the creation of these programs lies in the fact that some elementary teachers are seen by family literacy program staff (and parents) as not wanting contact with parents.  More specifically, some elementary teachers may not value the parents as “teachers”, especially if their literacy skills are marginal. If parents’ skills are marginal, they may lack the confidence and—without assistance—the ability to help with volunteering or even with homework (Jacobs, 2004). And teachers may conclude that parents are uninterested in their child’s education, as sometimes happens what low-literacy parents are unable to read or respond to teacher notes written in too complex a way.

Clearly, parent-child interactive literacy programs can help parents have a better understanding of the academic needs and requirements of their children (Jacobs, 2004).  However, finding time for parents to interact with children in or out of school is often a challenge. A complex of factors must come together to create successful parent-child interactive literacy programs in elementary schools. These include scheduling, facilities, understanding and integration of the four components, and most importantly, team work (Jacobs, 2004).

Family literacy programs are in an ideal position to remedy the lack of communication and/or understanding between parents and elementary school personnel.  When family literacy staffs take parents and children to school to meet the elementary school teachers, the sense of a partnership between teachers and parents can be developed.  Teachers can learn to respect what parents can do and can tailor expectations to the parents’ abilities.  In this context, communication must be established in ways that will benefit the children as they begin formal schooling, the time in which they most need parental support.  Parent-child interactive literacy “in the elementary school setting, within the context of a quality family literacy program, can help bridge the gap between student achievement and parent involvement” (Jacobs, 2004, p. 206).

So, how does this happen?  First, and foremost, teacher educators must inform their students of the value of family literacy programs and the importance of communication and coordination with all parents regardless of literacy level.  Second, family literacy program staff need to take the initiative to make their work known to the elementary schools, particularly the four component model of family literacy programs so that the transition to school is smooth for those children most at risk of school failure.  Finally, elementary school staff must be helped to understand they are part of a continuum of services for at-risk children that includes the involvement of low-literate parents (Jacobs, 2004).




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