Some Lessons Learned from Working with Children and Families in Diverse Communities: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Table of Contents:

Jim Anderson and Ann Anderson

In this chapter, we trace three decades of working in/with family and community-initiated literacy programs in socioculturally diverse communities in different areas of Canada. We first describe the framework that has informed this work. Next, we briefly review the literature on family literacy, including inherent tensions and differing perspectives. Then we describe the various initiatives and the contexts in which they took place. We identify insights drawn from this work and conclude by proposing a modest agenda for future work with families, in an era of superdiversity (Vertovec, 2007).


We draw on sociohistorical theory (e.g.,Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1991), and its central tenet that learning is initially social, before becoming internalized. That is, supported by more knowledgeable, significant others, individuals learn to use cultural tools such as literacy that are important and valued in their community, inter-psychologically.This support or “scaffolding” (Wood et al., 1976) is withdrawn gradually, as individuals become more proficient and able to use the tools intra- psychologically, or independently'. As Rogoff (2003) cautions, although there is considerable variation in development and learning across cultures “[tjo date, the study of human development has been based largely on research and theory coming from middle class communities in Europe and North America” (p. 4).

Relatedly', we pay attention to the notion of cultural models (Holland & Quinn, 1987) of learning and literacy'. Cultural models are “theoretical constructs composed of the interconnected ideas, beliefs, goals, and practices shared by members of a cultural group that guide their actions and interpretations of phenomena” (Suizzo et al., 2014, p. 256). For example, while some families believe that children develop literacy naturally by being surrounded by activities and events in their daily lives, by being read to, and by engaging in conversations and discussions, other families emphasize rote memory and practice (e.g., Anderson et al., 2017; Li, 2008).

Bronfenbrenner’s bio-ecological model of human development (e.g., Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) also informs our work. He postulated that different systems, each increasingly more distant from the child, influence learning and development. The microsystem, most proximal, consists of family members, teachers and so forth; the macrosystem, most distal, includes “belief systems, resources, hazards, lifestyles, opportunity structures, life course options and patterns of social change that are embedded in these systems” (Bronfenbrenner, 2005, p. 149). For example, a lack of resources in a community will affect the extent to which families and schools can support children’s literacy development, as can prevailing attitudes toward, and beliefs about, literacy.

In our work with immigrant and refugee families for most of whom English was an additional language, we drew on the literature on bilingualism and the benefits of maintaining one’s home language. For example, Bialystok and her colleagues documented the cognitive benefits of being bilingual that extend across the life course (Bialystok, 2017). Cummins (1980, 2016) has been a strong proponent of children and families retaining their home language as they learn the dominant language of their community (e.g., English). He proposed the notion of common underlying proficiency, postulating that although there are surface- level differences across languages, interlinguistic resources—analytic and cognitive skills—transfer from one to the other. In their report to the influential National Reading Panel in the United States, Snow et al. (1998), deduced from research that maintaining the home language facilitated children’s learning to read in a second language. Wong-Fillmore (1991,2000) demonstrated the negative effects on family life and intergenerational communications when children lose their home languages and parents and grandparents are not facile in the new language.

Related Literature

Denny Taylor (1983) brought the concept of family literacy into prominence with the publication of her foundational book with that name. Her ethnography involving eight middle-class families documented how young children acquired knowledge and skills through an acculturation process as they were surrounded by, and participated in, literacy activities and events embedded in daily life. Studies with families from socially and culturally diverse communities (e.g., Delgado-Gaitan, 1987; Heath, 1983; Purcell-Gates, 1996; D. Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988) revealed that children experienced and participated in literacy activities and events prior to formal instruction, although these experiences sometimes did not map on to school literacy as did those of children from “mainstream” homes such as those in Taylor’s original study.

Based on studies such as these demonstrating that families can play important roles in children’s early literacy development, educators, and others concerned with young children’s learning began to develop family literacy programs. Whereas the term family literacy originally connoted the naturally occurring, day- to-day literacy practices of families in the contexts of their homes and communities, family literacy programs were designed “to teach literacy knowledge and make use of learner’s family relationships and engagement in family literacy practices” (Hannon, 2003, p. 100). These programs proliferated, and although originally there was relatively little assessment or evaluation of their efficacy (Purcell-Gates, 2000;Thomas & Skage, 1998), researchers and program providers responded and began more systematic evaluation of these initiatives.

Several scholars have conducted systematic reviews and meta-studies of research in family literacy programs. In their meta-study, Brooks and colleagues, (2008) examined 19 qualitative and quantitative studies. Although they did not compute effect sizes, as in meta-analyses, they found that in 18 of the 19 studies, children made gains in language and literacy. Interestingly, four of five studies found that gains in children’s literacy were maintained post-program.

In their meta-analysis, Senechal and Young (2008) included 16 studies involving more than 1300 children. They divided the studies as follows and reported the effect size of each type of activity: parent/significant other reading to children (.18), children reading to their parents/significant other (.52), and parents/significant other teaching literacy skills such as letter-sound correspondence (1.15). Only the first condition, parents reading to children, did not yield statistically significant results; the overall effect size of the 16 studies was .65, which was statistically significant and considered medium (Cohen, 1988).

Marulis and Neuman (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of studies that examined young children’s expressive and/or vocabulary development. Children’s vocabulary is a good predictor of their later literacy achievement (Storch & Whitehurst, 2002) and considered crucial in comprehending disciplinary texts that children encounter as they enter elementary school. Marulis and Neuman examined 67 studies involving about 5,900 students, approximately 3,200 in intervention groups and 2,700 in control groups. They found an effect size of .88, which is large (Cohen, 1988).

van Steensel et al. (2011) in their meta-analysis of 30 studies found an effect size of .20, which was statistically significant but is considered small. They noted that small effects may be educationally significant and “non-trivial” (van Steensel et al., 2011, p. 88) but cautioned about the need to have reasonable expectations of the effects of family literacy programs.

As Swain et al. (2014) pointed out, most assessment and evaluation studies of family literacy programs focused on children’s language and literacy. In a study that focused on the benefits that might accrue parents/caregivers, they interviewed about 100 parents from 74 programs across England. They found that participants: felt better able to support their children’s learning, ascribed greater importance to education, understood schools and education systems more fully, developed social networks, and became more interested in furthering their own literacy development and education. In a subsequent study, Swain and Cara (2019) reported that parents indicated that the programs helped demystify school literacy.

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