Involving the family in supporting pupils' literacy learning
Involving the family in supporting pupils' literacy learning

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Involving the family in supporting pupils' literacy learning

3 Identifying theoretical models of parent–school partnerships

Activity 2

Which, if any, of the five models of parent–professional partnerships identified by Dale (in the previous section) is reflected in the way in which your school works with parents?

Read Wragg et al.’s (1998) summary below of the manner in which parents were involved in the reading development of their children in the schools surveyed during the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project. Identify ways in which it reflects the same issues of power and assumptions of expert knowledge identified by Dale.

Involving parents and carers in children's reading

When schools were asked what new initiatives they were taking, or hoped to introduce in the future, the greater involvement of parents was the most frequently cited. This may be the result of the belief expressed by many teachers in interview that learning begins in the home. Sending home books, spellings, reading and writing assignments that were to be monitored by parents and entered in the home/school diary were regular occurrences in almost all the schools studied. No school expressed disregard for parents, and this was hardly surprising, given the pressure applied through school inspections and in the mass media to involve them in their children's learning. Most children in the 5 to 7 age group read to someone at home, and at least half of older primary pupils do so as well; home/school diaries are countersigned by many parents; spellings are checked; the general attitude of teachers towards parents is, in the main, extremely positive. On the surface, therefore, all appears to be well: schools do engage parents, and this is regarded ipso facto as a good thing.

[However], beneath the surface, the processes were not quite as unproblematic as might appear. The difficulties sometimes arose when parents tried to act in a manner regarded as professional, rather than amateur. In several schools the influence was largely in one direction, from school to home. When parents expressed reservations about what was happening, teachers saw it as their duty to explain what the school was trying to achieve, to persuade them about the rightness of existing practice, rather than change it: ‘Some of these parents really don't understand what we're trying to do and how we go about it’, as one teacher put it.

A common clash of ideologies occurred over hearing children read, for some parents the only method of teaching reading they remembered from their own school days. Another was about the different interpretations of what constituted ‘reading’, since some parents found it difficult to accept that looking at a picture book could constitute ‘reading’ as they understood the term. There were a number of exceptions to the ‘one-way persuasion’ solution to comment or dissent, like the school that received complaints from parents about children not being heard reading and so instituted a guaranteed weekly reading interview.

Many parents interviewed expressed ignorance about the methods used to teach reading, even in schools that had held parents’ evenings. Their responses often began with ‘I assume …’, or ‘I presume …’, rather than with some degree of certainty. Yet successful evenings involving parents were very much appreciated, explaining, for example, how children might recognise, at quite an early stage, longer and more complex-looking words, such as ‘elephant’, a revelation which one parent described as an ‘eye opener’.

Some parents seemed eager to play a more professional role, rather than the well-intentioned amateur role that teachers expected. Teachers tended to stress that reading at home was for ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’, avoiding any suggestion of drudgery, coercion, or indeed systematic teaching. Parents too were anxious to prevent reading at home becoming a chore, but several did want to be able to work more positively with their children, sounding out words, actually ‘teaching’ reading, rather than just hearing it. In a number of families there was tension and frustration when parents tried to push children on, expecting performance beyond what the child was achieving, or employed methods and approaches that were in contrast to what the child did at school. This frustration was summed up by [a] 6 year old boy … who said: ‘I think I'm a good reader at school. I'm not a good reader at home. … I can't read my books at home.’ What he meant was that his parents were asking him to read books that were beyond his level of competence. Not surprisingly, at that early age, he gauged his ability relative to the texts he was reading, rather than to other sources of reference.

Parent helpers in the classroom also performed a modest role. Few were given any instruction on what to do, unlike classroom assistants. As a result, classroom assistants often heard reading in a systematic way, did group reading, or carried out some carefully planned and structured activities, whereas parents usually operated in an informal, unstructured and ad hoc manner. Even in Birmingham, where most schools made parents a central part of their agenda for improvement, there were schools where the head too readily assumed that certain parents might not even be literate in their mother tongue, compared with schools in similar areas that had higher expectations from them.

What was also noticeable was the prominent role played by mothers, compared with fathers … [It] was more likely that mothers would hear their child read at home, complete the home/school diary, or help out in the classroom. It was extremely rare to see any kind of volunteer male presence in classrooms, especially in infant schools. Given the relatively poor performance of boys in reading in the early years and beyond, this raises the question of the need for more male role models …

The generally positive reaction of schools to the involvement of parents is a strong foundation stone on which to build, but there should be no doubt about the gaps, misunderstandings and lack of knowledge that exist, even in schools as effective generally as the ones studied in this research. Despite the efforts on their behalf, many parents still know little about how reading is taught, or about the specifics of what they can do to help at home, beyond exuding goodwill. Relatively few fathers become closely involved in their children's reading or are available to help in the classroom. Unwittingly perhaps, some schools may patronise their children's parents by glossing over their concerns, assuming that they are capable of very little beyond the most rudimentary, or, in the case of ethnic minorities, assuming too readily that they may not be equipped to help. In the many schools with a positive attitude, there are still steps that can be taken to strengthen the role of parents, even if this challenges some of the traditional assumptions about the limited role that parents can play in their children's education.

(Wragg et al, 1998, pp. 269–70)

Until comparatively recently there has been an assumption that the homes of poor working-class and ethnic minority-culture families are less good literacy-learning environments than those of dominant culture, middle-class families. A number of studies carried out in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that achievement on standardised tests of reading is strongly related to social class. For example, the National Child Development Study (Davie, Butler and Goldstein, 1972) followed all the children born in one week in 1958 through from birth. Tests of reading attainment were carried out when they were 7 years old. These tests showed relatively poor achievement among 30 per cent of the children. A number of home factors were found to correlate with poor achievement, among which was social class. Children whose fathers were semi-skilled manual workers were more than twice as likely to be poor readers as those children whose fathers held professional or technical posts. Hannon and McNally's (1986) study found a 27-point difference in mean reading test scores between middle-class and working-class 7-year-olds. Research by Wells (1985), Adams (1994) and McCormick and Mason (1986), among others, suggests a number of factors that might predispose to this apparent difference in reading achievement: the number of books to which children had access at home, the number of stories read to children by parents, and the overall number of reading interactions between parent and child.

The assumptions that we make about family life are very important in conceptualising ways in which those families might support the literacy development of their children. For example, the work on ‘family literacy’ in recent years has represented an interesting diversity of views on the ability of some families to support their children's literacy development where those families have little tradition of literacy.


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