Critiques of Family Literacy Programs

Although family literacy programs benefit children’s language and literacy learning and parents indicate that they benefit from them, a number of scholars have critiqued them (e.g., Auerbach, 1989; Crooks, 2017; Reyes & Torres, 2007). Critiques include the following: Vernacular literacies are ignored or invalidated and literacy activities valued in schools are promoted; dominant languages (e.g., English) are favored, and home languages are discouraged; and programs tend to reflect hegemonic Eurocentric, middle-class orientations, and perspectives. Swain and Cara (2019) concluded that these issues persist in some of the family literacy programs that they examined. However, some program developers and providers have attempted to make their programs more socio-contextually responsive; the development of bilingual family literacy programs is an example.

Bilingual Family Literacy Programs

Hirst et al. (2010) reported on a study involving 16 families originally from Pakistan, living in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Families were encouraged to use their first language—Mirupuri, Punjabi, or Urdu. For about a year, a teacher and a cultural worker visited the eight families participating in the family literacy program; the other families served as a control group. Each visit had a particular focus such as emergent writing, oral language, or shared reading. There were no significant differences between the control group and the program group in children’s scores on the Sheffield Early Literacy Development Profile (Nutbrown, 1997) at the commencement of the program; at the end of the program, children who had participated in the program scored significantly higher than those in the control group.

In a study involving 42 Chinese Canadian families, Zhang et al. (2010) documented the impact of a bilingual family literacy program on the children’s home language and English. During the 2-hour sessions, the teachers had families engage in age appropriate language and literacy activities and provided rhyming books and web-based language and literacy activities for home. Pre- and postcomparisons of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test indicated that the children made significant gains in receptive vocabulary; they did not make significant gains on the Expressive Vocabulary Test. Furthermore, children of parents with higher income and more education made greater gains than children whose parents had lower education levels and income.

Boyce et al. (2010) reported on a study with migrant families in the United States that focused on storytelling. Families told stories to children about their day-to-day experiences, which, with the facilitators’ support, they made into books for sharing with the children. Compared with a control group, both children and parents expanded their language use including the number of words used and the number of new words used.

Working in Socioculturally Diverse Contexts

Early in his career Jim the first author taught in small, rural, socially disadvantaged communities, often with low educational achievement and expectations. However, his first experience with working in an initiative to address these issues more systematically occurred when he was an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in a rural school district in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, in the late 1980s. A principal of the elementary school in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community, who grew up and still resided there, approached the district, seeking support in developing an “intervention” program to address persistent, systemic issues of low achievement, low expectations, low high school completion rates, and low participation in postsecondary education.

Jim’s role was to support the principal and the districts early childhood consultant in developing and implementing the program.To begin, we met with the Parent Advisory Council of the school, social agencies, and parents of young children to identify goals and strategies.The groups decided on a program wherein 4-year-olds and a caregiver would attend monthly half-day sessions in the kindergarten classroom at the school for the year prior to school entry.The early-childhood consultant and the kindergarten teacher collaborated in designing learning centers where the children engaged in age-appropriate activities, supported by parents/caregivers. Ann, the second author, participated as a parent and volunteer.

Norman (1997) interviewed the parents and found that they were overwhelmingly supportive. Anderson et al. (2013) conducted retrospective interviews with 10 of 18 parents who had participated in the initial offering of the program two decades previously, and their findings were similar. Norman also tracked the results of the Canadian Test of Basic Skills Tests administered to Grade 4 students at the school every three years for a decade as follows: 1984,20th percentile; 1987,37th percentile; 1990, 30th percentile. In 1993, the year when the original cohort of children from the program was in Grade 4, the class scored at the 50th percentile, the first class at the school to ever achieve that level, which Norman attributed to the effect of the program.

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