Family Literacy - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Family Literacy


Family literacy is a phrase that is used to describe the intergenerational development of literacy within families. Family literacy services or programs refer to sponsored programs in which more than one generation of a family participates in activities designed to promote literacy in the home, school, or community. The term was first used by Taylor (1983) to describe the meanings and uses of literacy in families. Wasik and Herrmann (2004) describe the phrase as referencing “literacy beliefs and practices among family members and the intergenerational transfer of literacy to children” (p. 3).

Family literacy appears in several federal laws, including the Workforce Investment Act; the Reading Excellence Act; the Community Opportunities, Accountability, and Training and Educational Services Act (Head Start Reauthorization); and the Family Literacy Federal Work-Study Waiver. The No Child Left Behind Act contains numerous references to family literacy and parent involvement, including articulation of the William F. Goodling Even Start Family Literacy Program. As stipulated in these laws, many federally funded programs, such as Head Start, Reading First, and Early Reading First are required to include a family literacy component. It is an approved expenditure for several other programs, including Title I preschool programs, education of migratory children programs, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The federal definition used in these statutes reads as follows:

services that are of sufficient intensity in terms of hours, and of sufficient duration, to make sustainable changes in a family and that integrate all the following activities:

(A) Interactive literacy activities between parents and their children.

(B) Training for parents regarding how to be the primary teacher for their children and full partners in the education of their children.

(C) Parent literacy training that leads to economic self-sufficiency.

(D) An age-appropriate education to prepare children for success in school and life experiences.

Other definitions of family literacy found in the professional literature vary in their emphasis. Some scholars (Morrow, 1995) emphasize an empowerment model that expands upon the definition of what counts as family literacy. This model goes beyond an emphasis on direct parent-child interactions around literacy tasks to include parents or other caregivers working independently on reading and writing, using literacy to address family and community problems, addressing child-rearing concerns through family literacy class, supporting the development of their home language and culture, and interacting with the school system regarding children’s early learning.

From a social constructivist perspective (Neuman, Celano, and Fisher, 1996), programs that support family literacy are not about changing people; rather, they are about offering choices and opportunities for families. Parents come to family literacy programs with life experiences and family stories that should be honored and used in program development. Family literacy is about providing context, resources, and opportunities for families that allow them to demonstrate what they already know and can do. To be effective, family literacy programs must be responsive to parents’ needs and interests. From this perspective, family literacy is about power.

Research on family literacy has expanded understandings of the potentials of these various sources of support. For example, a recent study explored the meaning family literacy programs had for participants. Family members acknowledged its potential to improve their abilities to help, encourage, and read to their children, as one mother noted. “Before [family literacy] I thought reading was just reading. Now I know it’s also talking and asking questions” (Handel, 1999, p. 135). Participants also focused on their own learning, including opportunities to interact with other adults, the quality of the materials and teaching staff. Another participant noted how willing people were to help her, describing the school “like a relative” (p. 138) to her. She eagerly responded to their offers of assistance. The women expressed the idea that the program reflected their personal values and life experiences. From the participant perspective, family literacy can replace negative educational experiences with positive educational experiences that can change parent attitudes about their children’s educational opportunities.

A comprehensive family literacy model includes all four components listed in the federal definition (adult basic education, age-appropriate education for children, parenting education, and parent-child literacy activities) in a fully integrated and unified package. Adult educators collaborate with early childhood teachers and parent educators to plan and deliver the programs that are located together. Through such an integration of services, families have an opportunity to break out of intergenerational patterns of poverty to achieve economic self-sufficiency while concurrently boosting their ability to support the literacy development of their children. Comprehensive family literacy programs that have developed and served as models over the past twenty years include the Parent and Child Education Program (PACE), the Kenan Trust Family Literacy Project, and Even Start—a federally funded family literacy model program.

Family literacy services or programs generally represent a continuum of options, ranging from the fully integrated comprehensive model to programs that engage family members from multiple generations in one or more literacy activities concurrent with the services provided to individual family members (e.g., early childhood educators use parent volunteers to read books to children or adult education programs that offer monthly family picnics with oral storytelling). Programs that systematically take a family-focused approach, integrating two or more components, can typically be found in libraries, community centers, family resource centers, adult basic education programs, Head Start programs, and many other community-based programs. They can be ongoing in nature or limited to single events. Adult educators recognize that family literacy programs differ from traditional adult literacy programs in that they are designed to maximize the probability that adults who receive literacy education will actually succeed in transferring aspects of their new beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and skills across generations to their children.

Family literacy programs can also be found within schools. The National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) supports an initiative to develop school-based family literacy programs. In this program, school personnel can apply a gradual phasing- in approach to family literacy. In pilot projects using this model, elementary teachers began by bringing parents into their classrooms for parent-child literacy activities. They expanded these efforts so parents could attend adult education classes during the day in the elementary school building, occasionally breaking to participate in structured parent-child literacy activities. The NCFL website,, offers details and information about this program.

When offered with sufficient quality, intensity, and duration, family literacy programs can be effective in breaking cycles of illiteracy. Data from more than sixty NCFL sites across fourteen states that enrolled more than 2,000 families over a five-year period indicate changes in several critical areas. Families remained active in family literacy programs longer and attended more frequently than those in typical adult-focused programs, literacy activity in the home increased, and adults showed significant gains in language and math skills (NCFL, 1996). A comparison study involving over 500 former Even Start families up to six years after program exit (NCFL, 1997) also found many positive results for both children and adults. For children, findings showed that 90 percent had earned satisfactory grades in reading, language, and mathematics. For adults, 54 percent of those seeking educational credentials had earned a GED or high school certification, 40 percent continued to make educational progress by enrolling in higher education or training programs, and 45 percent increased their self-sufficiency by reducing or eliminating their dependence on public assistance. A research synthesis on family literacy programs confirmed findings that family literacy participants have increased positive child and adult outcomes (Tracey, 1994).

Since early childhood education is a critical component of family literacy, it is important that the quality and nature of it be consistent with effective programs. Research on preschool programs for children living in poverty consistently indicates that compensatory programs isolated from strong parent components will not provide children with long-term educational benefits. More can be achieved for both children and parents by offering family literacy programs than can be achieved by traditional age-based service delivery models. Parent levels of education are closely related to child achievement in school. Drawing from research on high-quality early childhood classrooms, Dickinson, St. Pierre, and Pettengill (Wasik, 2004) conclude that increasing a family’s ability to support child development produces the maximum potential impact on long-term language and literacy achievement of the children.

Family literacy programs reflect the belief that the primary source for learning continues to be the family. Families live and interact within the context of their communities. Communities provide a wide array of educational and cultural resources of varying quality that can and do contribute to the literacy of residents within the area, such as public schools, libraries, theatrical productions, and so forth. Nevertheless, the family remains the most fundamental learning environment in the lives of young children. The concept of family literacy then refers to the role the family plays in helping all its members grow and develop into educated citizens ready to contribute to the family, the community, and the nation—as members of the workforce, as leaders in the community, and as guides for the next generation.

Further Readings: Handel, Ruth D. (1999). The multiple meanings of family literacy. Education and Urban Society 32, 127-144; Morrow, Lesley Mandell, ed. (1995). Family literacy, connections in schools and communities. Newark, DE: International Reading Association; National Center for Family Literacy (1996). The power of family literacy. Louisville, KY: National Center for Family Literacy; National Center for Family Literacy (1997). Even Start: An effective literacy program helps families grow toward independence. Louisville, KY: National Center for Family Literacy; Neuman, Susan B., Donna Celano, and Robyn Fischer (1996). The children’s literature hour: A social-constructivist approach to family literacy. Journal of Literacy Research 28, 499-523; Taylor, Denny (1983). Family literacy: Young children learning to read and write. Exeter, NH: Heinemann; Tracey, D. H. (1994, November). Family literacy: Research synthesis. Paper presented at the 44th annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, San Diego, CA; Wasik, Barbara Hanna, ed. (2004). Handbook of family literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates;

Web Site: National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL), NCFL is the primary national organization for family literacy and provides basic information on family literacy, policy and research information, training and technical assistance, family literacy in the schools, and the Family Literacy Alliance. The Web site offers links to many other related Web resources.

Susan Benner