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

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4 Family literacy

Hannon (2000) discusses the rhetoric surrounding ‘restricted’ family literacy programmes, that is programmes which insist that parents or carers must participate in initiatives designed to raise the level of their literacy level simultaneously with that of their children.

Hannon points out that ‘restricted’ family literacy programmes are premised on the ‘literacy-deficient’ notion of some families. Programmes that ignore preexisting literacy in families are prescriptive and interventionist and may not recognise possibilities for drawing on existing patterns of family literacy to inform children's learning. In addition, the assumption of a necessarily reciprocal relationship between low levels of parental literacy and the poor literacy development of their offspring is not fully supported by research findings. One of the problematic areas in the evaluation of restricted literacy programmes is that there is insufficient evidence that programmes which involve both parents/carers and children in literacy development achieve greater and longer lasting effects than ‘stand-alone’ programmes. Hannon argues that, rather than targeting a few families for restricted literacy programmes, it may be more profitable to provide universal, literacy-rich, early childhood education. This should seek to identify children's difficulties and develop appropriate interventions at an early stage, involve parents in their children's literacy development and offer opportunities for parents and carers to enhance their own literacy if they wish to.

Hannon identified a number of issues crucial to the discussion of parental willingness to participate in literacy programmes which all those intending to implement such initiatives might do well to address:

  • how families are invited to participate;

  • the substance of what they have to do;

  • the extent to which the programme can respond to family circumstances – for example, home-based programmes have achieved higher mean take-up and retention rates than centre-based programmes.

There are a number of inherent difficulties in the deficit perspective on some pupils’ families for those conceptualising appropriate ways in which to support the improvement of children's literacy:

  • the school is absolved from responsibility for addressing the literacy difficulties of those students from ‘literacy-deficient’ families;

  • the families themselves cannot be viewed as a source of positive support for the student's developing literacy until and unless their deficiency in literacy in addressed.

Despite these rather negative views on the ability of families with little history of literacy to support their children's literacy development, Blackledge (2000) cites a number of studies which refute the deficiency model of poor working-class and ethnic minority-culture families. For example, Anderson and Stokes (1984) found in studies of African-American, Mexican-American and Anglo-American families wide-ranging language learning unrelated to school studies. Delgado-Gaitan (1990) found regular use of texts in Spanish and English in poor Mexican-American families. Auerbach (1989) and Ada (1988) found that poor minority-culture immigrant families often value and support their children's literacy development as one key to social mobility.