Northern Illinois University
Background on Family Literacy Programs
The Even Start family literacy program was established in 1989 to improve the literacy of young children and their parents by providing services for early childhood education, adult education, parenting education, and parent-child interactive literacy activities (St. Pierre, Ricciuti, Tao, Creps, Swartz, Lee, & Parsad, 2003). The program model is based on the intergenerational transfer of cognitive skills (Sticht, 1992) and the development of literacy within the family context (Heath, 1983; Taylor, 1983). At present, more than 50,000 low-income families participate in Even Start programs across all 50 states in the U.S. (Goodling Institute, 2005).
While the concept of family literacy is well-represented in the literature (e.g., DeBruin-Parecki, & Kroll-Sinclair, 2003; Heath, 1983; Paratore, 2001; Purcell-Gates, 2000; Taylor, 1983; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Wasik, 2004); there is still a lack of substantial research on the design, implementation, and outcomes of family literacy programs. The ARF session presented by Eunice Askov, “Family Literacy: Understanding the Parent-Child Interactive Literacy Component” is a promising step toward conducting and disseminating research on family literacy programs.
Askov and her co-researchers, sought to examine how family literacy programs in Pennsylvania implemented parent-child interactive literacy time, with specific attention to the “extent to which language and literacy development are explicitly and/or implicitly taught during parent-child interactive literacy activities.” (Grinder, Askov, Saenz, & Aldemir, 2005, pp. 2-3). One of the common criticisms of family literacy is that research has not shown the “value-added” impact of family literacy programs in comparison to more traditional adult education and early childhood education programs.
The study reported by Askov sought to address this issue by gathering data on the parent-child interactive literacy component of family literacy programs. The findings of this study indicate that many of the surveyed programs did not identify literacy as a major focus of the interactive literacy component of their family literacy programs. Rather, the activities and instruction appeared to focus on parenting skills during this component of the program. In addition, it was noted that programs had difficulty providing interactive literacy time for school-aged children due to scheduling conflicts and lack of support from elementary school teachers.
Responding to the Research Findings
After reflecting on these findings, it appears to this author that several important trends warrant consideration. The Even Start legislation requires programs to include interactive literacy activities for parents and children; however, support to do so is lacking. Many educators who teach in family literacy programs may not be experts in this area since certification does not exist for family literacy. Training is currently available from the National Center for Family Literacy, and a Certificate of Graduate Studies is available through Pennsylvania State University. Such professional development, however, is expensive and difficult to pay for when family literacy programs tend to be grant-funded, with very limited budgets for training and professional development. Professional development needs to be a priority for family literacy educators so they can understand the power of the interactive literacy component of Even Start. To this end, the professional development must focus on the language and literacy development of young children, the influence of parents on children’s literacy development and learning, and research-based methods for promoting literacy development and parent involvement in education.
Another issue of concern is that few materials are available that clearly outline and describe the types of activities and experience that are most beneficial for inclusion in parent-child interactive literacy time. As a result, many family literacy programs must invent their own curricula using instinct and creativity. For example, the author of this response serves as an evaluator for several Even Start programs in her state. While observing in these programs, she has frequently found that program personnel cite their reason for implementing certain parent-child interactive literacy activities as “these activities are fun” without reference to the research or theory that supports the activities. While it may be true that a seasonal craft project may be fun, this activity does not provide the type of language and literacy support that Even Start children need to be able to succeed in school (Wasik, 2004). Clearer guidelines are needed for the interactive literacy component to help family literacy program personnel understand the types of activities that are most beneficial for children and their parents. These guidelines might come in the form of sample lessons (provided to all Even Start programs free-of-charge) that are cued to a developmental continuum listing the progression of language and literacy skills for young children. Another option is the development of video tapes of exemplary parent-child interactive literacy activities that can be distributed to all Even Start programs.
The level of knowledge that family literacy educators have about children’s language and literacy development and how parents can support such development is also an area of concern. It is this author’s experience that many of the family literacy educators in her state are adult educators by training, but they are expected to have in-depth knowledge about children’s literacy and language development. More professional development is needed in this area, but it is a challenge as most family literacy programs operate on very small budgets. Providing on-line training or teleconferences that Even Start programs can access free-of-charge are promising ways to provide the professional development that family literacy educators need related to language and literacy development.
The lack of coordination between family literacy programs and elementary teachers is a serious challenge. Even Start programs are designed to serve families with children through age 8, but the study conducted by Askov and her colleagues indicated that most of the programs had difficulty developing working relationships with elementary schools and their teachers. This difficulty is likely due, at least in part, to the lack of knowledge or experience many teachers have regarding parent involvement and family literacy. In addition, given the tight budgets and busy schedules of family literacy educators, they may not feel they are able to visit the elementary schools attended by all of the children whose families are enrolled in a family literacy program. When these challenges are combined, a very difficult situation arises. This issue is most likely best addressed in a two-pronged manner. First, elementary teachers need professional development in the areas of parent involvement and family literacy so they can understand the power and promise of family literacy programs for their students. Second, family literacy programs need to be proactive in establishing working relationships with elementary teachers. Possible routes for doing this are to hold informational meetings with elementary teachers, prepare and share informational brochures about family literacy, and develop efficient methods of communication between family literacy programs and elementary schools. In addition, teacher education programs must prepare preservice and inservice teachers to work collaboratively with parents and other educational programs for the benefit of their students.
The Even Start program is currently under fire for failing to produce expected results (St. Pierre, Ricciuti, and Tao, 2004). The U.S. Office of Management and Budget Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) recently rated the Even Start program as “Ineffective” based on three National Even Start Evaluations (Office of Management & Budget, n.d.). As a result of this rating, President George W. Bush’s proposed 2006 budget completely eliminates Even Start funding. Family literacy educators must act now to implement Even Start programs with fidelity so each component is of high-quality, including parent-child interactive literacy, and research must be gathered to show the impact of the program on the literacy development of parents and children.
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Goodling Institute. (2005). Policy brief: Even Start’s impact on families. Retrieved February 24, 2005, from Pennsylvania State University College of Education Web site:
Grinder, E.L., Longoria Saenz, E., Askov, E.N., & Aldemir, J. (2005). Understanding the Parent-Child Interactive Literacy Component of Family Literacy: A Re-Examination of Research. In R. Schlagal (Ed.), American Reading Forum Online Yearbook Vol. 25. Reading: Legacy, Realities, and Predictions. Available: http://www.americanreadingforum.org/05_yearbook/volume05.htm
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Office of Management and Budget (n.d.). Program assessment rating tool results for President Bush’s fiscal 2006 budget. Retrieved February 24, 2005, from
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Purcell-Gates, V. (2000). Family literacy. In M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, Volume III (pp. 853-870). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
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St. Pierre, R.G., Ricciuti, A.E., & Tao, F. (2004). Continuous improvement in family literacy programs. In B.H. Wasik (Ed.), Handbook of family literacy (pp. 587-599). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
St. Pierre, R., Ricciuti, A., Tao, F., Creps, C., Swartz, J., Lee, W., & Parsad, A. (2003). Third national Even Start evaluation: Program impacts and implications for improvement. Abt Associates Inc. Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education & Evaluation Service.
Taylor, D. (1983). Family literacy: Young children learning to read and write. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Taylor, D., & Dorsey-Gaines, C. (1988). Growing up literate: Learning from inner-city families. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wasik, B.H. (Ed.). (2004). Handbook of family literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.