Family Literacy Programmes

Peter Hannon. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

Family literacy research has become indispensable for a full understanding of how young children learn literacy and how they may be taught or helped to acquire it. This chapter focuses on family literacy programmes. These are ways of teaching literacy that recognize the family dimension in individuals’ learning. The aim of the chapter is, first, to offer a way of conceptualizing family literacy programmes and the research base that provides their rationale. The development of such programmes—so far in English-speaking countries—over the past two decades or so will then be summarized. Family literacy programmes belong to the field of adult education as well as to early childhood education but, for the purposes of this volume which is concerned with early childhood literacy, programmes are viewed mainly from the perspective of early childhood education. There are several research issues in the field. Seven key ones will be reviewed: deficit approaches, targeting of programmes, evidence of effectiveness, gender, bilingualism, training for practitioners, and policy research. Some of these have attracted considerable research interest and activity; others remain under-researched or under-conceptualized. The chapter makes suggestions about what we know about family literacy programmes and what we still need to know.

Conceptualizing Family Literacy Programmes

The term ‘family literacy’ has had two basic meanings. In the first it refers to interrelated literacy practices within families. Taylor (1983) appears to have coined the term with this meaning. Her original research, which involved qualitative case studies of middle-class white families in the United States, showed how young children’s initiation into literacy practices was shaped by parents’ and other family members’ interests, attitudes, abilities and uses for written language. Many other studies have shared this focus even if they have not all used the term ‘family literacy’: Heath (1983), Teale (1986), Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines (1988), Hannon and James, 1990; Baker et al. (1994), Moss (1994), Purcell-Gates (1995), McNaughton (1995), Voss (1996), Weinberger (1996), Gregory (1996), Cairney and Ruge (1998), Barton and Hamilton (1998), Hirst (1998). These studies can generally be classed as descriptive-analytic in that they have sought to understand existing family literacy practices rather than to evaluate any attempt to change them (although Cairney and Ruge, 1998, combined this approach with a study of innovative literacy programmes). All studies have involved qualitative methods but some have also made use of quantitative survey or longitudinal data (e.g. Hannon and James, 1990; Baker et al., 1994; Weinberger, 1996; Hirst, 1998). This body of research—now covering different societies, and different social classes and ethnic groups within those societies—constitutes a rich archive which opens our minds to the variety of language and literacy practices that can be found in families and therefore the many ways in which children can be drawn into literacy without the direct agency of schools. Not much more will be said about ‘family literacy’ in this sense as it is addressed more fully in other chapters in this volume, notably that by Trevor Cairney.

It is the second meaning of ‘family literacy’ that is the focus of this chapter. Here the term refers to certain kinds of literacy programmes involving families. The origin of this meaning is not so clear but it appears to have emerged (again in the United States) in the late 1980s, one of the earliest documented instances being the University of Massachusetts English Family Literacy Project (Nash, 1987). This meaning is now so common as almost to obliterate the first—a matter of some regret for, as Hannon (2000b) has argued, it was very useful to have a term which referred to literacy practices which occur independently of any programme. Without such a term, programme designers and practitioners can easily overlook valuable language and literacy activities in which family members engage, separately and interactively, independently of any programme.

Family literacy programmes can be defined as programmes to teach literacy that acknowledge and make use of learners’ family relationships and engagement in family literacy practices. An obvious example of a programme fitting this definition would be a school involving parents in the teaching of reading to their children. This acknowledges that many parents do, to some degree, assist their children’s reading development, and makes use of their motivation to do more, their opportunities at home to do so and the likelihood that, because of their relationship to their parents, children will enjoy and benefit from the experience. Another example would be an adult literacy programme for parents that made use of their desire to help their children learn to write and which created shared writing activities to enable both parent and child to learn together.

It may be helpful to contrast family literacy programmes with non-instances of the concept, i.e. programmes in which members of families may participate but in which no account is taken of their being family members. Most traditional schooling and adult education of the past century or two has been of this character. This is not necessarily a bad thing where it is desirable or appropriate to treat learners as individual children or adults. For example, if some parents value adult literacy classes because they offer a respite from childcare rather than an extension of it, it is sensible to take account of their wishes. It should also be noted that not all learners—especially in the case of adults—are members of families and in these cases the question of providing family literacy programmes does not arise.

At this point it is necessary to acknowledge that the terms ‘family,’ ‘literacy’ and ‘teaching’ can have many different meanings. The concept of family employed in this chapter is intended to be inclusive of the full range of groups within which children are cared for and grow up. Carers of young children can be biological parents, step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, siblings, or others in the home. In general one would expect children to learn from carers but the reverse is also possible: carers can learn some things from children and there can be joint learning. However, family literacy programmes may sometimes be based on narrow concepts of family and of who learns from whom. There can be unexamined assumptions about family structure, e.g. that children in programmes have fathers at home. Regarding literacy, current research and theory tends to conceptualize it either as a set of social practices involving written language or as a skill. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive conceptions since social practices do involve skills (often transferable from one practice to another) but it does still matter whether one gives primacy to the social practices or to the skills. Although some family literacy programmes give primacy to skills, the approach underlying this chapter is that it is the social practices that matter. Reference will be made later to literacy inequalities. By this is meant unequal access to those literacy practices associated with power in society or those literacy practices valued in formal education. Teaching literacy cannot by itself reduce literacy inequality but it can contribute to that goal. Finally, the concept of teaching itself needs unpacking. It includes many ways in which those engaged in literacy practices can help others—whether children or adults—to become proficient in those practices. Hannon (2000a) has suggested that there is a teaching spectrum with ‘instruction’ at one end and ‘facilitation’ at the other. Instruction involves deliberate, planned teaching to meet curricular objectives, often carried out with one instructor teaching many students in settings distanced from real-life contexts. Facilitation is support of on-task learning, embedded in real-life contexts—well captured by the Vygotskian notion of learners doing in cooperation with others today what tomorrow they will be able to do on their own. Broadly speaking instruction can be said to be characteristic of schools and other formal learning situations; facilitation is characteristic of learning in out-of-school settings, particularly families. Family literacy programmes vary in the balance struck between instruction and facilitation, those giving primacy to teaching literacy skills being more likely also to emphasize instruction.

A consequence of there being different concepts of family, literacy and teaching is that, depending upon which ones are applied, there can be many different kinds of family literacy programmes. A further source of variation amongst programmes concerns their aims. These can be limited to teaching children and adults how to participate in specific literacy practices or they can be broader in enhancing families’ awareness of their own literacy and that of others in society and how literacy may play a part in maintaining or changing their position in society. This issue will be considered in a later section on ‘deficit approaches.’

A wide variety of family literacy programmes over the last two decades have been documented (McIvor, 1990; Nickse, 1990; ALBSU, 1993b; Dickinson, 1994; Meek Spencer and Dombey, 1994; Cairney and Munsie, 1995; Hannon, 1995; Morrow, 1995; Morrow et al., 1995; Wolfendale and Topping, 1996; Taylor, 1997; Tett, 2000; Auerbach, 2002; Cairney, 2002). A fundamental way in which programmes vary is in whose literacy they aim to change. Some focus on children, some on adults, some on both. Programmes vary in aiming for outcomes in individuals’ literacy in homes, schools, other educational institutions, communities or workplaces. Then there are variations in whether programme input is to children, adults or both. If both, there may be separate inputs to each or they may be combined in shared activities. Inputs may be to one family member with outcomes sought in another (e.g. work with parents to affect children’s literacy). The location of work with families can vary. In some programmes it is carried out in families’ homes; in others it is in centres/schools, libraries, workplaces, football clubs or elsewhere in the community. The workers can be early childhood educators, adult educators, paraprofessionals, or volunteers. Teaching can involve different mixes of instruction and facilitation. There are variations in the target populations for programmes, e.g. bilingual or ethnic groups, fathers, adolescent mothers, prison inmates. The underlying concept of literacy could vary from an emphasis on conventional activities within written language to broader conceptions involving media texts, oral language and additional language learning. Some programmes extend literacy to health awareness, parenting and life skills. Some make critical awareness of literacy itself the object of learning.

How to conceptualize this complexity, and the potential for countless permutations of focus, input, location, workers, target populations and conceptions of literacy? It is hardly surprising that such categorizations of programmes as have been proposed tend to be illuminative rather than comprehensive. Nickse suggested that ‘Family and intergenerational literacy programs are organized efforts to improve the literacy of educationally disadvantaged parents and children through specially designed programs’ with the basic idea that ‘parents and children can be viewed as a learning unit and may benefit from shared literacy experiences’ (1990: 2). She proposed a fourfold typology according to whether programmes target the adult directly and the child indirectly, vice versa, both directly, or both indirectly. This is helpful as far as it goes but clearly leaves out many features that could be important to researchers, practitioners and policy makers. Morrow and Paratore (1993) distinguished two categories of programmes: home-school partnerships and intergenerational interventions. Cairney (2002) suggested similar categories (home/school programme initiatives, intergenerational literacy programmes) but added a third, termed ‘partnership programmes,’ in which the focus is on links at the level of schools, families and communities. Some agencies—notably in the United States the National Center for Family Literacy (Darling, 1993) and in England the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (ALBSU, 1993b)—have insisted on a specific definition of family literacy that refers to programmes which combine basic skills and parenting input for parents with early literacy education for their children and joint parent-child activities. This definition, whilst having the virtue of clarity, has been so restricted as to exclude most programmes other than those the agencies themselves promoted (Hannon, 2000b). It excluded ‘home-school partnerships’ or ‘parental involvement,’ leaving only what Morrow and Paratore (1993) and Morrow et al. (1995) term ‘intergenerational’ programmes. The confused and contested status of the term led Morrow et al. to conclude rather weakly that ‘family literacy refers to a complex concept associated with many different beliefs about the relationships between families and the development of literacy’ (1995: 2). Wolfendale and Topping (1996) characterized family literacy as a broadening of parental involvement in early literacy to include a wider range of activities often also concerned with the needs of parents and carers. Auerbach (1997a) proposed that programmes be grouped according to three paradigms whose assumptions, goals and practices are informed by different ideological and theoretical perspectives: the ‘intervention prevention’ approach, the ‘multiple literacies’ approach and the ‘social change’ approach. Categorization according to these three paradigms is not straightforward but the categories rightly draw attention to the fundamental aims and purposes of programmes, and the extent to which they enable families to challenge social forces that marginalize them. Taylor argued for a redefinition of family literacy programmes as ways to ‘organize the advantaged and disadvantaged to read, write, and do other kinds of work together to increase the opportunities available to all’ (1997: 4). Recent reviewers (Purcell-Gates, 2000; Wasik et al., 2001; Padak et al., 2002) have accepted that it is extremely difficult to impose any overall conceptualization on the field. Given the heterogeneity of current family literacy programmes, and the continuing inventiveness of practitioners in developing new ones, it is probably best to work with the general definition offered earlier, that we are dealing with a class of programmes to teach literacy that acknowledge and make use of learners’ family relationships and engagement in family literacy practices. The programmes thus encompassed vary considerably; some of their variations are significant for research, practice or policy.

From the viewpoint of early childhood educators, family literacy programmes could be conceptualized simply as another method for achieving historic aims regarding teaching literacy to young children. This, however, would be a rather narrow view: for the concept, fully appreciated, means educators shifting their focus from the individual child to the family, acknowledging that their role may be secondary to that of parents, recognizing pre-existing family literacy practices, and seeing that teaching aims might be better achieved by also taking an interest in the learning of other family members. It means rethinking some pedagogical assumptions in early childhood education and a two-way professional exchange with adult education. This has research implications to be discussed later.

Rationale for Family Literacy Programmes

What is the justification for taking seriously the concept of a family literacy programme? We can look to studies in literacy, language, child development and education for a rationale. The research of most relevance concerns children’s, rather than adults,’ literacy and was carried out in the period leading up to the emergence of family literacy programmes in the late twentieth century. That emergence no doubt owed much to political and ideological factors but the ground for it had been well prepared by research.

The most influential research is that showing the importance of home (for which one can generally read ‘family’) factors in school literacy achievement—throughout all the years of schooling. Achievement in school literacy and in reading tests reflects proficiency in only one kind of literacy practice but it is one valued by many families. Compelling evidence comes from large-scale surveys. In the USA, for example, studies within the National Assessment of Educational Progress have shown the very strong association between the extent of literacy materials (newspapers, magazines, books, dictionaries) in homes and children’s reading test scores at ages nine, 13 and 17 (Applebee et al., 1988). By the end of schooling, children in families having ‘many’ as opposed to ‘few’ such materials enjoyed approximately four years’ superiority in reading achievement. In the UK one could cite the National Child Development Study which showed that the likelihood of children being ‘poor’ readers or ‘non-readers’ at age seven was very strongly related to social class (Davie et al., 1972). It can be argued from such evidence that efforts to reduce literacy inequalities are unlikely to be successful if they are confined to school learning; literacy education needs also to address learning at home—in families.

Research concerning parental involvement in children’s early literacy development also underpins family literacy programmes. In the UK, for example, studies have shown that such involvement—not necessarily encouraged by specific programmes—is very common (Newson and Newson, 1977; Hannon and James, 1990) across all social groups and that within disadvantaged groups it is strongly associated with literacy achievement (Hewison and Tizard, 1980; Hannon, 1987; Bus et al., 1995). It should not be surprising that parents involve themselves in this way. For most parents, it is intrinsically motivating to be involved in their children’s development—it being one reason for becoming a parent in the first place—and literacy is a part of that development. That alone might be considered sufficient justification for family literacy programmes.

Parental motivation matters particularly in the case of parents who feel they have literacy difficulties. Adult literacy tutors are familiar with the situation where an adult decides to do something about their literacy at the point when their young children are beginning to learn to read and write. The fact that parents’ motivation to help their children and to help themselves can peak at the same time, and reinforce each other, suggests that family literacy programmes that provide opportunities for both could be very effective.

Another line of research serving to justify family literacy programmes is that from the 1980s which showed the (previously overlooked) extent of young children’s knowledge of literacy before formal schooling. Some of this work has been in the emergent literacy tradition (Goodman, 1980; Goelman et al., 1984; Teale and Sulzby, 1986; Hall, 1987). Knowing about literacy practices and skills valued by schools confers advantages on some children starting formal education, just as lack of it disadvantages others (Heath, 1983; Harste et al., 1984). The relevant knowledge can include awareness of the purposes of literacy (Heath, 1983), awareness of story (Heath, 1982; Wells, 1987), knowledge of letters (Tizard et al., 1988) and phonological awareness (Bryant and Bradley, 1985; Maclean et al., 1987). If children have this knowledge at school entry it seems reasonable to infer that they have acquired it in their families. If they do not have it (and if it is desirable that they should) there is a case for family literacy programmes to help them acquire it.

More generally, research into preschool language and literacy learning has forced a re-evaluation of the power of home learning. On the basis of studies such as that by Tizard and Hughes (1984) comparing children’s early language experiences at home and in preschool classes, Hannon (1995) identified many ways in which home learning can be more powerful than school learning (e.g. in being shaped by immediate interest and need, in often seeming to be effortless, in spontaneity, in being a response to real rather than contrived problems, in being of flexible duration, in having a high adult-child ratio, in being influenced by adult models, and in allowing a ‘teaching’ role for younger family members). Hannon further suggested that families can provide children with four requirements for early literacy learning: (1) opportunities to read texts and attempt writing, (2) recognition of early literacy achievements, (3) interaction with more proficient literacy users, usually through facilitation rather than instruction, and (4) models of what it is to use literacy. Nutbrown and Hannon (1997) and Hannon and Nutbrown (1997) have shown that this framework (generally abbreviated to ORIM) can be used to construct family literacy programmes.

Finally a strong research justification for family literacy programmes comes from those studies, cited at the beginning of this chapter, which have revealed the nature and extent of families’ uses for literacy and family members’ interrelated literacy practices. Once these practices are recognized, children’s literacy learning is deindividualized. It is seen as part of a larger system—a system moreover that from a social learning perspective has the capacity to scaffold and otherwise facilitate young children’s literacy development.

The Development of Family Literacy Programmes

Early childhood educators tend to see family literacy programmes as the latest form of parental involvement in early literacy education. That is true up to a point but fails to do justice to the contribution of adult educators who, not unreasonably, tend to see such programmes as a new form of their practice. It is better to see the development of family literacy programmes as stemming from both of these strands of education.

Taking first the early childhood education strand, it is worth noting at risk of some oversimplification that parental involvement in the teaching of literacy is a fairly recent development. In industrialized countries, mass compulsory schooling, since its beginnings in the late nineteenth century and throughout most of the twentieth, was characterized more by parental exclusion than by involvement (Hannon, 1995). This was probably not planned or even conscious and can be attributed, at least in the early years of the system, to a lack of space and physical resources in schools, to a lack of cultural resources (an educated teaching force, literature for children), and to an ideology that took it for granted that children should be educated outside their homes, in large groups, in specially dedicated educational institutions (i.e. schools) where it was assumed that school teaching methods, often characterized by rote learning, were superior to home learning. Even when more sophisticated methods were developed later (e.g. systematic reading schemes), the effect was often to privilege professional knowledge and distance parents further from their children’s literacy development.

It was not generally until the last quarter of the twentieth century that, in industrialized societies, early literacy educators began to see parents differently. The change reflected interest in parental involvement as a tool for reducing persistent educational inequalities, increased adult literacy in society, rethinking of professional knowledge concerning literacy development, more print in the environment (including children’s books), and a recognition of families as active users, rather than passive beneficiaries, of educational services.

Parental involvement in the teaching of literacy developed gradually. Parents were enjoined to support their children’s school literacy learning through encouragement and showing an interest. To this end they were informed about schools’ policies and practices. Parental involvement was often seen as a matter of coming into school, it being assumed that school, not home, was the key site for literacy learning. Reading was prioritized over writing (with the term ‘literacy’ at first rarely used). Later, involvement became more direct, for example in the UK, when schools began encouraging and supporting parents of young children to ‘hear’ children read aloud books that they brought home from school. A pioneering programme with six-to seven-year-olds in Haringey, London, was found to have measurable outcomes in terms of children’s reading test performance (Tizard et al., 1982) and had a national impact on practice. Parents in the Haringey programme were not given any particular method for assisting their children’s oral reading but other, more prescriptive programmes, most importantly ‘paired reading,’ were developed and also spread rapidly (Bushell et al., 1982; Topping and Lindsay, 1991; 1992). In New Zealand, another prescriptive programme, ‘pause, prompt and praise,’ was developed and evaluated (McNaughton et al., 1981). In the US, prescriptive programmes have included giving quite explicit directions to parents (Edwards, 1994) and ‘dialogic reading’ (Whitehurst et al., 1994). The ‘hearing reading’ programmes (whether ‘open’ or ‘prescriptive’) have been the most clearly documented and evaluated but they emerged at the same time as a multitude of less easily catalogued approaches to involving parents and families (Dickinson, 1994; Hannon, 1995; Wolfendale and Topping, 1996). Some programmes have reached into the preschool years (Hannon, 1996) and a few have gone beyond books to focus also on writing and oral language (Wade, 1984; Green, 1987; Hannon, 1998). A recent national initiative in England has involved several thousand parents in courses to familiarize them with changes in the school literacy curriculum and to help them support their children’s learning (Brooks et al., 2002).

In summary, within the early childhood education strand, parental involvement in the teaching of literacy began, after a long period of routine parental exclusion, with a focus on parents helping children’s oral reading. It has gradually evolved to take on a broader concept of literacy, preschool as well as school-aged children, and support for a wider range of at-home as well as in-school activities. These actions by schools can be counted as family literacy programmes in that they clearly ‘acknowledge and make use of learners’ family relationships,’ but it must be admitted that the learners with which they are concerned are mainly young children and that on the whole programmes have been concerned not so much with ‘engagement in family literacy practices’ as with families’ engagement in school literacy practices.

Within the adult education strand there has been, as one would expect, more concern for parents as learners. In the United States, McIvor (1990) documented eight family literacy programmes, all of which were devised and delivered by agencies whose mission was primarily to do with adults (libraries, colleges, adult education services, prison organizations, services to users of day care or Head Start). In England, it was the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit that did more than any other organization to promote ‘family literacy’ by securing and distributing government funding for a particular model of family literacy—taken from the US—that clearly aimed to aid parents’ literacy development as well as children’s (ALBSU, 1993a; 1993b). The introduction of adult literacy educators into family literacy reinforced concern for families’ own literacy values and practices. For example, in the US, Nickse, in a foreword to McIvor (1990), pointed out that family literacy programmes required extra sensitivity from providers who had to become aware of different cultural and literacy practices in families. She suggested, ‘When families are involved together for literacy, more of their lives are shared with us, and adults become more vulnerable. This is a trust not to be taken lightly’ (1990: 5). These considerations are not always uppermost in the minds of early years educators whose focus is the child in a school setting.

Family literacy programmes in the twenty-first century can thus be seen as a merging of literacy teaching in early childhood education and in adult education. Future development will depend upon success in combining the strengths and avoiding the weaknesses of each strand. Future research in the field also needs to draw upon traditions associated with each strand.

Research Issues in the Field

Family literacy programmes now constitute a large field of educational activity in which can be found, in some form or other, most issues of interest to early childhood literacy researchers. The following are singled out because, to this reviewer, they seem currently to have high theoretical or practical interest.

Deficit Approaches

It has already been noted that family literacy programmes developed by early childhood educators tend to emphasize the engagement of families in school literacy rather than the engagement of schools in the families’ literacy. Some adult educators do the same but many take a more sceptical view of the value of school literacy (which has often been problematic in their students’ lives) and a more positive view of the strengths of parents and families in relation to everyday life and literacy. There have been critiques (by Auerbach, 1989; 1995; 1997b; Grant, 1997; Taylor, 1997) of what is termed a ‘deficit approach’ in family literacy programmes. Families may be heavily engaged in literacy practices and have many literacy skills but these may not be the practices and skills valued by schools. Cairney (2002) points out that many family literacy programmes are about taking school literacy into families. Further, it is probable that there are family literacy programmes that proceed on ignorant, and even offensive, assumptions concerning what certain families do not do or what they are supposed to be incapable of doing. That is, some programmes ignore the family literacy research cited earlier in the section ‘Rationale for family literacy programmes.’ They are also ignoring research that has shown more generally the extent to which families’ knowledge is undervalued by schools (Moll et al. 1992). Such assumptions, as well as being educationally unsound, have political consequences in ‘explaining’ the situation of poor families in terms of their literacy being less than, rather than simply different from, that of the powerful in society whose hegemonic definition of what counts as literacy goes unchallenged.

This issue may not, however, be quite as straightforward as stated and it is one that could benefit from further research—both conceptual and empirical. The term ‘deficit approach’ is not entirely helpful, for there is a sense in which there is nothing wrong with deficits—with learners acknowledging they have them or with teachers seeking to address them. None of us would ever engage in any conscious learning if we did not feel we had some deficit we wanted to make up. Problems arise if differences (e.g. in literacy practices) are uncritically viewed as deficits, if deficits are imputed to learners without their assent, if deficits are exaggerated or if deficits are seen as all that learners have (i.e. their cultural strengths are devalued). These problems can arise in any form of literacy education—indeed in any form of education—but they are more exposed in the case of family literacy programmes within which the cultural values and practices of homes and schools are brought together. The challenge for family literacy educators is to value what families bring to programmes but not to the extent of simply reflecting back families’ existing literacy practices (for it is patronizing to suppose families need help with their existing literacy practices). Somehow they must offer families access to some different or additional literacy practices but through collaboration and negotiation rather than imposition. If educators fail either to facilitate families’ entry into powerful literacy practices or to empower them to challenge those practices, they will simply perpetuate families’ continued exclusion from whatever benefits participation in those practices confers. Some family literacy programmes do take up this challenge (e.g. several in Taylor, 1997) but their efforts are documented rather than rigorously evaluated. Using and valuing what families already know in order to teach them what they do not know is a subtle process that can easily go wrong. Research can help by elucidating teaching possibilities and pitfalls. Studies of particular programmes by Delgado-Gaitan (1990), Moll et al., (1992) and Tett (2000)—as well as others discussed by Auerbach (1997a)—have begun to provide insights into this, but more research in a wider range of cultural settings is needed.

Targeting of Programmes

A recurrent idea in family literacy discourse is that there are families in which parents have literacy difficulties and in which it is supposed the children are consequently destined to have low literacy achievement, at least by school measures. The policy and professional literature in family literacy, if not the research literature, abounds with claims that there is a ‘cycle of underachievement’ which be can be broken, but only by targeting parents’ and children’s literacy at the same time and in the same programmes. Conspicuous advocates of this view in the US have included Nickse (1990) and Darling (1993a), and in the UK the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (1993a). It leads directly to the idea that targeting intergenerational family literacy programmes on families where parents have literacy difficulties will have a major impact on literacy levels in society.

Despite a certain common-sense appeal, this idea is poorly supported by research evidence. It is actually two propositions wrapped together: (1) that parents with literacy difficulties will have low achieving children; and (2) that low achieving children have parents with literacy difficulties. Both have to be true for the ‘cycle of underachievement’ claim to be accepted as an explanation for literacy inequalities in society (and for targeted family literacy programmes to be seen as the remedy). It is not easy to conduct research into the literacy of parents and children in a representative sample large enough to permit statistical analyses, but one such study has been carried out in the UK and reported by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (1993c). ‘Low literacy achievement’ for children was operationalized in terms of performance in the lowest quartile of a nationally standardized reading test and for adults in terms of whether or not they reported having reading difficulties. The research claimed to have found ‘the first objective evidence of the link between a parent’s competence in basic skills and the competence of their children’ (1993c: 3), but a reinterpretation of the data by Hannon (2000b) showed that, even if one were to accept the validity of the measures used, the link is far weaker than first appears. According to ALBSU (1993c) those few children who had parents reporting reading difficulties were three times more likely than other children to have reading test scores in the lowest quartile. This might appear to support proposition (1) were it not for the fact that around half the children in these families did not have low scores. There was practically no evidence for proposition (2) since the overwhelming majority (92%) of children in the lowest quartile did not have parents reporting reading difficulties. Literacy inequalities amongst children in a society such as the UK therefore cannot, on the available evidence, plausibly be attributed to parental literacy difficulties. It follows that targeting family literacy programmes only on those families where parents acknowledge that they have literacy difficulties can make no more than a modest contribution to reducing literacy inequalities amongst young children.

Evidence of Effectiveness

There have been many studies of the effectiveness of parental involvement in the teaching of early literacy, i.e. the early childhood strand of family literacy programmes. A review of over 30 studies by Hannon (1995), which also built upon several earlier reviews by previous researchers, concluded that there was substantial evidence of benefits, and no reports of negative consequences, of involving parents. Most evaluations concerned open or prescriptive approaches to parents hearing children read. A more recent review of 35 studies since 1990 of US family literacy programmes reached broadly similar conclusions (Padak et al., 2002). It should be noted, however, that there have been very few randomized control trial (RCT) evaluations. One does not have to believe RCTs are the only way of conducting evaluations, or that they are the gold standard, to wish that now and again they could be used in comparing family literacy programmes to alternatives, especially in view of the bold claims made for effectiveness (Hannon, 2000b). Emerging findings from an RCT evaluation of a preschool parental involvement literacy programme conducted at 11 sites in Sheffield, England, indicate immediate post-programme effectiveness with an effect size of 0.40 (Hannon and Nutbrown, 2001). Many other evaluations have relied upon quasi-experimental controls or pre-test/post-test comparisons using standardized tests (in effect using a test standardization sample as a quasi-experimental control group). Nevertheless the sheer weight of positive findings is probably sufficient to conclude that parental involvement generally ‘works.’ What is harder to judge, given the weakness of research designs, is how well it works. There is no evidence that any programme so far developed is guaranteed to have profound effects for all families involved. Some programmes in some circumstances appear to have considerable impact on some families but in other cases the effects may be rather modest. The problem of take-up has often been overlooked in evaluations even though, from a policy perspective, programmes with low take-up cannot make much impact at community level. Apart from Hewison (1988) there is a lack of follow-up studies of parental involvement programmes. Neither is there sufficient evidence to compare the effectiveness of different kinds of programmes. In practice the conditions for direct comparison do not often arise. Research has, however, helped identify factors to be kept in mind in choosing between programmes. For example, Hannon (1995) concluded that some programmes are costly in professionalsals’ time but may be helpful for older children having continued difficulties with reading; others might be suitable for all children at a younger age but may not be sustainable over a long period. Little is known about the effects of combining different forms of involvement. Another gap concerns involvement in writing, the predominant focus having been book reading. In summary, a great deal still needs to be researched but enough has been done to conclude that the parental involvement form of family literacy programme is effective.

What about family literacy programmes that aim to change parents’ literacy too? Here there are numerous small-scale, largely qualitative studies but few well-designed quantitative studies. The former are interesting in revealing issues in programme design, the nature of effects and factors limiting effectiveness (e.g. Finlay, 1999; Tett, 2000; Padak et al., 2002). The latter have found positive effects for both children and parents (St Pierre et al., 1995; Brooks et al., 1996). Brooks et al. (1997) in a follow-up study also found that effects persisted. However, there is as yet no evidence that intergenerational programmes combining provision for adults with provision for children (including parent-child sessions) have greater effects, or are more cost-effective, than separate child-focused or adult-focused programmes (Hannon, 2000b). One seriously under-researched issue in those family literacy programmes that require parents’ participation as literacy learners is take-up. If take-up is low (and Hannon, 2000b, suggests there are signs this is often the case) the value of such programmes is greatly diminished. Finally, it is unfortunate, and perhaps a little surprising, that no study has yet set out directly to test the strong claims made for the synergistic benefits of intergenerational programmes as compared to stand-alone programmes. It is easy to agree with Padak et al. that ‘for the most part, evaluation of family literacy programs is still in its infancy’ (2002: 22).


This chapter has consistently referred to ‘parents’ in programmes when generally it would be more accurate to talk of ‘mothers.’ This is not to say that fathers or male carers are never involved in programmes, only that the numbers are generally low (typically well under 10% in centre-based programmes). Using the word ‘parent’ is inclusive and helps maximize the number of fathers who are involved (if programmes referred only to mothers the gendered nature of parental involvement would be reinforced and it is likely that there would be even fewer fathers). Sticking to ‘parent,’ however, must not blind us to the highly gendered nature of parental involvement. Many programmes are sensitive to this issue and have made serious efforts to include men, in some cases adopting this as a primary goal (Haggart, 2000; Lloyd, 2001; Millard, 2001; Karther, 2002). There are at least three research challenges here. First, it would be helpful to understand more about the gendered nature of family literacy practices and how they vary in different economic and family circumstances (e.g. as men in industrialized countries respond to increased literacy demands in the workplace). Quantitative, as well as qualitative, studies could make a contribution. It would be interesting to know whether men’s lower involvement is an artefact of school-based programmes where employment and cultural expectations reduce fatherss’ attendance; they may be more involved, if less visibly so, in home-based programmes. Secondly, research could usefully distinguish different kinds of family structure referred to earlier in this chapter and the different roles that men and women now perform as parents, stepparents, grandparents, foster parents and carers within them, whether or not they are in daily contact with children. Thirdly, it would be helpful to have detailed evaluations of those programmes that have made special efforts to involve men. To be really helpful such studies need to go beyond documentation of interesting cases to a quantitative evaluation of key issues such as take-up and outcomes.


More research is needed into programmes for bilingual or multilingual families. There have been valuable reports either of research or concerning programme design by Auerbach (1989; 2002), Delgado-Gaitan (1990), Hirst (1998), Brooks et al. (1999), Blackledge (2000), Kenner (2000) and Cairney (2002). These point out how such families can be different (e.g. in relation to the gendering of parenting, expectations of children) but also how they can often be similar (e.g. in parents’ aspirations for their children). What also emerges is how families are perceived by educators (who may grossly underestimate the cultural resources of homes). However, much of the literature on family literacy programmes concerns monolingual, English-speaking families. As we enter the twenty-first century and take an international perspective it becomes ever clearer that bilingualism and multilingualism, rather than monolingualism, will be the norm. Some of the issues to be investigated are very complex. For example, the first language of some families may not have a written form or, if it does, it may not be much used by family members. Parents’ literacy can appear limited in comparison with what is familiar in industrialized countries. Parents’ aspirations for their own and their children’s literacy may or may not accord with the assumptions of programme designers and national policy makers. Different cultures, different concepts of childhood and different pedagogies may require their own programmes and desired outcomes. Research still needs to catch up with global realities.

Training and Professional Development

If early childhood educators are to play a full part in family literacy programmes they need appropriate training and professional development opportunities. Working with adults demands a different awareness and set of skills than does working with groups of children. Nutbrown et al. (1991) proposed a framework for pre-service and in-service provision within which early childhood educators could become better equipped to meet the demands of family literacy programmes and they urged research into key issues. Since then there has been very little progress either in the provision of training and professional development or in associated research. Hannon and Nutbrown (1997) investigated teachers’ use of the ORIM framework referred to earlier but that is only one variety of family literacy work. Potentially, there are as many issues worth researching in training and professional development in relation to family literacy work as there are in relation to wider aspects of early childhood and adult education. There is the issue, for example, of whether family literacy teachers/tutors should be reflective practitioners or technicians implementing—and obediently following—prescriptions of programme designers (Hannon et al., 1997). Another issue is the role of organizations providing or accrediting training who may use the opportunity to impose their particular models of family literacy. Research can enable a more open and critical approach to programme development and to related professional development.

Policy Relevance and Policy Research

It is by no means clear what role family literacy programmes should play in relation to mainstream, compulsory early childhood education. It could be argued that all education should take a family approach; alternatively that family literacy programmes can never be more than an adjunct to mainstream provision, perhaps only in areas of disadvantage. Research has a role to play here, not only in providing evidence—particularly about take-up and effectiveness—to inform family literacy policies but also in examining and critiquing those policies. One area where there is scope to do this concerns the claims made for family literacy programmes. Some of these seem rather extravagant. In the US, the National Center for Family Literacy has claimed that family literacy programmes enable ‘at risk families with little hope to reverse the cycle of undereducation and poverty,’ bringing about changes that ‘pave the way for school success, and thereafter life success’ (1994: 1). Brizius and Foster have claimed family literacy ‘provides disadvantaged children with educational opportunities that can enable them to lift themselves out of poverty and dependency’ (1993: 11). Although it is to be hoped that family literacy programmes can make a useful contribution to these goals, promising more than the research evidence warrants may store up trouble for the future.


This review has shown that family literacy programmes have, over the past two decades, come to occupy an important role in early childhood literacy education. There is some fuzziness in the conceptualization of family literacy programmes but this reflects the variety that has been, and continues to be, developed. The effectiveness of programmes is reasonably well established in a general sense but there remain significant unanswered questions about the extent and duration of effects, the benefits of combining the different components of programmes, and the limiting effect of low take-up. There are also other areas to be developed, relating for example to implied deficits, gender, bilingualism, training and policy. These are to be expected in any field of education but may be more exposed in family literacy programmes. All of them can be illuminated by future research.