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The Role of Literacy in Tilting the Balance from Vulnerability and High-risk Behaviors to Resiliency and Sustainable Behaviors


Ray Wolpow

Western Washington University


Eunice N. Askov

The Pennsylvania State University


            Many of today’s students are labeled as “at-risk,” “disadvantaged,” “vulnerable,” and/or “underprivileged” and do not meet literacy standards. Meanwhile, in many of these students’ neighborhoods, low-literate parents bearing similar labels enroll in community-based family literacy programs to help their children develop educational skills for academic success and seek to improve their own reading and writing abilities.


Engagement in reading may substantially compensate for low family income and educational background and engaged readers might sometimes overcome obstacles to achievement (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).  Further, students engaged in reading achieve more when they have self-efficacy or confidence in how they read to learn (Guthrie, 2004). The foundation for such learning requires positive human relationships and when “students feel disconnected, they won’t succeed” (Santa, 2006, p. 467).  Even so, the challenge of overcoming obstacles to develop a sense of self-efficacy may be formidable. Many students and their families carry burdens of poverty that often include histories of violence, abuse, and neglect and in many cases they are disconnected from a sense of community that nurtures learning. 


In this paper, we examine additional resources and strategies that may be effective in creating programs to address challenges facing secondary and adult literacy educators.  Our guiding questions are: (a) What role can literacy instruction play in assisting youth and their families cope with challenging school, family and community situations, (b) within the confines of our role as literacy educators how might we assist those who endeavor to tilt the balance of student behavior from vulnerability and high-risk towards resiliency and sustainable behaviors, and (c) what aspects of teacher preparation—specifically, what knowledge, skills and dispositions on the part of those who teach reading and writing—might lead to increased student success?    


To address these questions, in the following sections we first offer a brief overview of childhood and adolescent vulnerability. Second, we summarize the literature of childhood resiliency and related pedagogies to provide insights into adaptive factors and methods that lead to social and academic competence. Third, we explore the role of literacy in fostering sustainable resiliency among participants of two types of programs: coping skills and community based family literacy.


At-Risk and Out of Balance


There is a considerable body of data indicating that many U.S. students live in a culture of familial and societal violence and suffering. Juveniles and young adults are the most victimized age group in the United States. Juveniles experience non-fatal violent victimization (e.g., rape, sexual assault, aggravated assault; robbery) at a rate 2.5 times higher than adults (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Further, children are the victims of 2/3s of forcible rapes (Kilpatrick, Edmunds, & Seymour, 1992). Additionally, homicide and suicide are leading causes of death for adolescents. For example, in 2002, homicide was the fourth leading cause of death for children ages 1 through 11 and the third cause of death for youth ages 12-17. Further, instances of adolescent suicide, an indicator of suffering, isolation and despair, have shown significant increases in the last two decades (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). 


Attempts by young people and their families to restore balance to their lives after victimization are often hindered and sometimes compounded by challenges of severe poverty. In the United States, where we have the highest rate of childhood poverty among developed nations (Berliner, 2005), nearly one third of working families have incomes below the amount needed to meet basic needs (Allegretto, 2005). And, poor populations are often impacted by natural catastrophes most acutely, as witnessed after Hurricane Katrina (Metz et. al, 2005).


What are young people to do?  Those who live in families that mistreat them, who live in dangerous neighborhoods, and who attend school with hostile and delinquent peers cannot choose to leave. It is this absence of choice over people and environments that increase juveniles’ vulnerability to victimization and consequential participation in related high-risk behaviors (Berman, Kurtines, Silverman, & Serafini, 1996; Hashima & Finkelhor, 1999). The consequences can be devastating. Problems that may result include health and educational issues, including poor self-esteem, depression, attachment, personality and sexual disorders, and reduced academic performance (Kilpatrick et al., 2003; Van der Kolk, Perry & Herman, 1991). 


And, what are educators to do?  Literacy teachers are generally only trained to teach language-based communications. What are they to do when academic performance and learning is disrupted by violence, suffering, isolation, and despair? We begin to address these questions in the next sections of this paper. 


Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries for Insights and Strategies 


            The desire to teach in a manner that enables children to more effectively cope with stressors in their lives has led some educators to adopt a restorative pedagogy grounded in  “childhood resiliency,” a body of research that calls for a shift in thinking from established pedagogies of what is “wrong” with “problem” children to the study of what is “right” with them, that is, what it is about children and their social environments that enables them to adapt and in some cases thrive despite traumatic stressors in their lives (Benard, 2004; Werner 2006; Wright & Masten, 2006).  Longitudinal studies of populations from urban, suburban, and rural communities have been conducted with the resilient offspring of psychotic parents, alcoholic parents, abusive mothers, divorced parents, teenage parents, and with children raised under conditions of extreme poverty, detailed subsequently. Further, cross-cultural universality of individual and protective factors may be found in anecdotal narrative studies of the resiliency of abandoned, orphaned, and refugee children who survived war horrors (Ayala-Canales, 1984; Hemmendinger & Krell, 2000; Heskin, 1980; Moskovitz, 1983; Rachman, 1978; Rosenblatt, 1983; Sheehy, 1987; Werner, 1990). 

These studies suggest that resiliency is primarily a process. The dispositional characteristics associated with resiliency (e.g. internal locus of control, positive self-esteem, autonomy) and the coping skills needed to adapt to stressors (e.g., assertiveness, anger control, self-reflection, problem solving and positive attitude) can be modeled, learned, and supported (Benard, 2004; Fox, 1995; Sesma, Mannes, & Scales, 2006).


One of the most important factors associated with effective coping is the support of “kith and kin” (families, alternative caregivers, communities, peer groups, and schools) that often play significant roles in providing external support to foster resiliency.  Conclusions from Werner and Smith’s (1992) 30-year longitudinal study of resiliency in high-risk children emphasized the critical function of having a bond with at least one adult in the family or with one adult in the community. While the mother is often the most significant adult in early childhood, safe passage through the tumultuous years of adolescence is often attributed to bonding with significant non-parental adults such as teachers and school staff (Smink, 1990; Taylor & Thomas, 2002).  Thus, schools may be in an ideal position to provide students and their families with the social processes and mechanisms that might foster intrapersonal and interpersonal competence.


            In addition, the literature of resilience provides educators with several examples of restorative instructional methodologies that require teachers to always empower, never disempower (Herman, 1992), embed instruction in the “spiritual qualities of the heart – courage, commitment, belief, and intuitive understanding” (Katz & St. Denis, 1991, p. 28), model the conviction that life makes sense despite the inevitable adversities each of us encounters (Salzman, 2003) and teach and learn in ways that are mutually transformative (Fox & Serlin, 1996; Wolpow & Askov, 1998, 2001). 


This being the case, how can teachers help their students tilt the balance from vulnerability to resiliency? To see how these may be actualized, and to illustrate the potential role that literacy plays in such a process, in the following sections of this paper we examine a coping skills program in a rural community and the movement towards community-based family literacy programs in urban areas.


Teaching Coping Skills to At-Risk Adolescents


            Approximately 1,800 students attend Mount Vernon High School, located in a rapidly developing rural community of northwestern Washington State.  More than twenty years ago, aware of the growing numbers of students who returned to the high school after involvement with Juvenile Court, Child Protective Services, in-patient drug and alcohol centers, and other community agencies serving the needs of fractured families, the Mount Vernon School district instituted a Coping Skills Program. The program takes the form of a class of fifteen to twenty students that meets daily. The class is facilitated by a certified secondary teacher who is also a qualified drug and alcohol counselor with more than 30 years experience working with “at-risk” populations.  Its curriculum meets Washington State standards in reading, writing, communication, health, and social studies. Students who maintain membership for a semester earn credit comparable to any other social science elective. A longitudinal qualitative case study of this program revealed significant decreases in substance abuse, arrests, and pregnancies, with concurrent increases in school attendance, academic performance, family resolutions, and healthy peer relationships. More than forty percent of students who enroll in this class graduated from high school (Fox, 1995).


            The learning objectives of the coping skills class include: “To teach the skills necessary to cope with an ‘at-risk society’; to learn alternatives to participation in our national epidemic of violence; to offer coping strategies to students experiencing the struggle to forge intrapersonal meaning and social competency; and to provide a daily, therapeutic forum within which students learn to cope with dysfunctional selves, families, and schools.”  The curriculum is designed to help students identify and practice basic skills that tend to foster personal resiliency. These include practice in “feeling management skills,” especially fear and anger; critical and creative problem strategies, personal learning and teaching skills, ways to recognize and alter self-destructive behaviors; bonding and trusting exercises – especially with drug independent peers; and instruction in “fair-fighting,” leadership, internal control, and effective communication.


The Role of Literacy in Teaching Coping Skills


Although the instructional methods employed in this class most closely resemble a therapeutic “support group” with encounters and discussion, there is a strong literacy component.  Upon entering the class, students are instructed that they each already own the textbook. Their text is the story of their own lives and the task of the course is for them to learn to read and rewrite their life text. As with the reading of most literary texts, readers can understand their own stories best through insightful interpretation of the language used by the writers. The coping skills teacher encourages students to listen carefully for word choice and models judicious use of literary devices, especially metaphor, when attempting to make meaning.  For example, when students say, “I don’t know” they are encouraged to dig deeper for words to explain the “dragon with which they are wrestling.”  One student, resigned to separation from an absentee parent, spoke of this relationship as “a quiet wasteland, dry without the rain of any positive expectation.”


Much of the reading and writing done by students involves keeping journals in which they monitor “life support” inventories. Specifically, students are required to examine and write about what they have done each week to maintain or improve their physical fitness, nutrition, sleep and rest, assertiveness skills, centering and solitude, fun, meeting of goals, support given and received, and creativity. In so doing, they provide themselves and their teacher with “. . . detailed operationalization of propositions regarding positive changes in relation to self, family, and education” (Fox, 1995, p. 150).


Discussion of life-support inventories heightened student awareness of the role they play in creating their own vulnerability and/or resiliency. Literacy skills, especially those involved in keeping a personal journal, play a key role in assisting the development of the dispositional skills of assertiveness, anger control, self-reflection, and problem solving. The following are a few examples from journals shared by students:


When I am feeling hurt, angry, hate, resentment or disappointment. . . taking the time to review anger-filled interactions . . . writing out the dialogue which invited my angry response [enables me] to identify when I gave up assertiveness and chose hostility. 


I’m growing; using the power of my choices not to make things worse . . . [I’ve learned that] assertiveness is better than madness.


I’m learning how to fair-fight, how to reprogram my vocabulary to help me achieve better and higher goals . . . .  I’m learning how not to be derogatory toward myself . . . I’ve learned how to eat, you know, when you’re doing a lot of drugs, you don’t eat . . . .  Believe me, I eat now.  I exercise every day.  I only have 17% body fat and I do have a positive feeling about myself.

                                                                                    (Fox, 1995, pp.167-182)


The Role of Literacy in Teaching Non-Violent Communication and Social Competence


The lives of “at-risk” students are full of crisis and drama – parents who use drugs and abuse their children raise young people with anger and distrust. Students often enter the coping skills classroom near rage or implosion due to parent or teacher actions that are perceived by them as unjust and/or threatening. At these times, students benefit from instruction received in Rosenberg’s (2003) “Giraffe Talk,” a paradigm for non-violent verbal and written communication. This metaphor is derived from the facts that giraffes have the largest heart among mammals and assertively stick their necks out to get what they need.  As illustrated in the following table, giraffe talk requires students to first name what they have observed, then state what they are feeling, to then explain that feeling, and finally to make a request.


Giraffe Talk


When I observe . . .

Describe events without using evaluative judgments, labeling, or name-calling.  What events triggered your response?  What did you see, hear, or witness?

I feel . . .

Name the feelings that were stirred in you.  Was it fear, sadness, anger, hurt, curiosity, rejection, excitement…?

Because I . . .

A statement of what I think you are thinking (or believe) about me.  (For example:  Because I imagine you think I am dumb.  Because I imagine that you think it is funny when I am hurting. Because I imagine that you don’t care about me…etc.)

I want (Would you be willing to) . .

A request for concrete, specific actions that the other person can do to help you meet your needs.  The request needs to be positively framed and should not be a demand, threat, or guilt-shaming manipulation.  The listener to this request has the right to say “no.”  If you don’t get your needs met, move on.


            The first author of this paper has observed dozens of examples of “giraffe talk” used by coping skills students and ways in which teachers incorporated literacy to help students reconcile difficult problems. In one such instance a teacher had humiliated Mariposa (all names presented in this chapter are pseudonyms), a female student. Mariposa was dealing with struggles at home – most recently her mother’s alcoholic live-in boyfriend (who she described as someone “who couldn’t manage to take his morning shower without a beer in hand … the empty bottle from which seemed to inevitably fly in my direction”).

Mariposa had managed, for the first time since entering high school, to attend consecutive weeks of classes, including her 7:30 AM biology class. Mariposa considered this a significant accomplishment. Inspired and encouraged by the comments of other coping skills members, she studied hard for a biology test. Mariposa arrived the day of the test with “sharpened pencils for bubbling-in the Scantron answer sheet” in hand, as she reported. However, she was a bit shy on sleep because of what she described as the “drunken scream fest” between her mother and her boyfriend late into the night before the exam.

Mariposa, however, missed the teacher’s instructions to bring a pen for writing an essay on the exam. On the morning of the test, she sensed a derogatory tone in her teacher’s voice as seh reminded the class they had been told to bring a pen and a pencil to class. Thus, Mariposa decided not to ask for a pen and completed both portions of the exam in pencil. When her graded exam was returned all the multiple-choice questions were marked correct, but her essay earned zero points because she had not used a pen. She received an overall grade of “F.” Mariposa was prepared to fly into a rage, the kind of rage that landed her father in prison – the kind of rage that her mother’s boyfriend consistently used to bully people to do things his way – the kind of rage that had resulted in previous school suspensions.


            To make a long story short, after nearly an hour of coping group debriefing and discussion, Mariposa wrote the following note to her teacher: 


Dear Mr. Jones: 

When I saw my paper with its failing grade, I felt embarrassed, hurt and angry. This is because I thought you were like my father, that you wanted to see me fail.  I did study and I was able to answer each of the multiple choice questions correctly. After talking with others, I realize that I am at fault for not following your directions.  I used pencil and this was reason to not give me credit for my answer.  Would you be willing to read my essay and tell me if I answered it correctly?  I realize I don’t deserve credit, but I would appreciate any feedback or encouragement you might provide.


In this case, dispositional characteristics associated with resiliency (e.g. internal locus of control, positive self-esteem, autonomy) and coping skills needed to adapt to stressors (e.g., assertiveness, anger control, self-reflection, problem solving) were modeled, learned, and applied. Literacy played a significant role in this process. Despite the inevitable adversities Mariposa was encountering, by putting pen to paper, this student was empowered to make sense out of her life.


 We think that it is fortunate for “at-risk” adolescents, such as Mariposa, to have opportunities to participate in programs that help them to learn coping skills needed to forge what  “intrapersonal meaning and social competency,” as was the case in the coping skills program described in this section. Children in this program were fortunate to have a daily, therapeutic forum where they could learn to cope with “dysfunctional selves, families and schools.” But what of the low-literate adolescents who are not afforded this opportunity?  In light of the literature of childhood resiliency, in the following section we re-examine family literacy programs for low-literate parents and the potential of these programs to help children and parents adjust to violence and poverty.


Family Literacy to Foster Resilience


In her review of two decades of investigation into models, methods, and data about resiliency, Masten (2001) concludes that resilience is made up of ordinary rather than extraordinary processes. She refers to “ordinary magic” as the unexceptional factors that give children resilience against poverty, low-literate parents, and so forth. One such factor that leads to resilience, according to Masten is parenting:


Effective parenting…also appears to be protective with respect to antisocial behavior…Again, it is not clear what processes might be involved, including genetic covariance.  However, experimental intervention designs that demonstrate a change in child behavior as a function of changes in parenting behavior…support the conclusion of resilience investigators that parenting quality has protective power, particularly against antisocial behavior in risky environments. (p. 6)


            The goal of family literacy is to enable low-literate parents to help their children develop literacy skills while also improving their own academic abilities. Through the process of strengthening literacy among family members, these programs promote resilience by strengthening bonds among family members, strengthening dispositional skills such as positive self-esteem and autonomy, and modeling appropriate coping skills such as self-reflection and problem solving.


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 eight years. Family literacy, as defined by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I is unique in that it is composed of four instructional components: (a) parenting education so that parents become their child’s first teacher and full collaborators in the education of their child, (b) interactive literacy activities between parents and their children, (c) adult education so that parents may become economically self sufficient (adult basic and secondary-level education and/or instruction for English language learners), and (d) age-appropriate early childhood education so that children can experience success in school and life (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). Family literacy programs 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.


Together, these four components aim to improve the literacy and basic education levels of parents, help them become partners in the education of their children, and support children in reaching their full potential as learners. In addition to academic gains, parents strengthen their dispositional skills of positive self-esteem and autonomy. They become more self-reflective and learn problem-solving skills needed to help their children succeed in school.


The children benefit in terms of their language and literacy development through frequent parent-child book reading (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 parents who talk with their children influence the development of their 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 positive results. In addition to these academic gains, children who spend time bonding with their parents and books also benefit from greater emotional and social growth that fosters attachment, assertiveness, and many of the resiliency factors necessary for their development (Werner, 1996; Powell, 2004; Pianta, 2004).


Community-Based Family literacy


            The National Center for Family Literacy is attempting to implement family literacy programs in non-traditional settings, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Salvation Army.  Several issues arise when implementing family literacy in community organizations. First, the primary purpose of community organizations, such as the Salvation Army, is not literacy development. Fostering resiliency and social competence among children and families, however, is a major goal. In this vein, community workers involved in family literacy organizations are usually not trained teachers. 

Second, although national legislation authorizing family literacy requires “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), this may be a problem with community programs that are operating with other goals. Typically, these programs foster resiliency by providing a safe and nurturing environment for youth that is removed from factors such as gang violence and drugs. The vision is that these programs can provide their usual services and also strengthen bonds among parents and children through literacy and thereby foster the resiliency of the family as a whole.

            The following steps in program implementation were derived from analyzing these issues. First, the family literacy model was introduced to community organizations. Second, staff analyzed the needs of their organizations in regard to family literacy.  From these self-analyses, program goals were derived, leading to written implementation plans. For example, although an Atlanta Salvation Army program operated an adult education program under special grant funding, it needed to make the program permanent with state funding. In comparison, Louisville sites did not have adult education programs (except for a small volunteer program operating in one site for special needs individuals).  None of the programs had the other components of family literacy, especially the parent-child interactive literacy component. To implement an effective family literacy program, the crucial role of the parent-child interactive literacy component needed to be understood and implemented (see Grinder, Askov, Longoria Saenz, & Aldemir, 2005).  




In this paper we briefly reviewed literature that illustrates how some U.S. children and their families live in a culture of isolating familial and societal violence and suffering, which influences negative educational outcomes. However, the literature on resiliency supports the notion that despite extraordinary hardship some students and their families who show deficiencies in intrapersonal and interpersonal competency can achieve levels of personal and social resiliency. These skills can be modeled, taught and learned, and literacy skills play a significant role in the process. In this respect we think public schools and community-based organizations are in excellent positions to provide environments, curricula, and opportunities for students and their families.

            While this paper presents potential roles of literacy in fostering resiliency in coping skills and family literacy programs, it does not address the role of the literacy educators in preparing future teachers to make meaningful contributions in this area. Anecdotal conversations lead us to believe that most literacy teachers are not aware of resiliency research and its relevance to their practice. Although family literacy programs are not required to adhere to national standards, and staff probably does not know resiliency research literature, these programs do have the goal of strengthening the family and deserve additional attention by educators.            

            Finally, we believe that if a part of literacy educator preparation concentrated on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to foster sustainable resiliency it would perhaps lead to improved teacher performance in all areas of teaching. Literacy plays an important role in tilting the balance from vulnerability and high-risk behaviors to more hopeful life choices.






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