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Family Literacy Programs

Family literacy programs help parents improve both their parenting and literacy skills while providing young children with early childhood education. The parenting component often includes in-home visits and enrichment activities. Learn more in this overview of the components of family literacy programs.

Parents' literacy skills, along with their attitudes about learning and formal education, have an immense impact on their children's academic achievement.

Poor parents, despite few opportunities for education or bad school experiences, are still often able to foster their children's development through innate, nontraditional literacy activities. However, they may be unable to help them in ways that support and enhance the school's education program (Taylor, 1993).

To provide parents with skills that increase their verbal and math literacy, and to assist them in promoting their children's educational development, local family literacy programs operate throughout the country.

Many are supported by the Federal Even Start Family Literacy Program, authorized in 1988 to fund local partnerships that provide instruction to low-income parents. Even Start now supports more than 637 projects reaching 34,400 families (Tao, Gamse, & Tarr, 1998).

Some are independent single-site centers that were created by local educators and activists in direct response to community needs. Others, established by national organizations that receive additional funding from private foundations, largely adhere to a pre-established curriculum and structure (Come & Fredericks, 1995; NCFL, 1994).

Most evaluations of family literacy programs have found them to be effective in developing the skills of both parents and children (NCFL, 1994; Tao et al., 1998).

Therefore, to help guide family literacy program developers in shaping their curriculum, and educators and community leaders in creating independent parenting programs, this article describes the parenting education component of successful urban programs.

General program principles

Family literacy programs have three basic components:

  • Adult education, which comprises instruction in reading, writing, computing, and problem-solving, and may also include English as a Second Language and GED classes and jobs skills training
  • Parenting education, which helps families actively participate in their children's education at home and at school
  • Early childhood education for preschoolers

Participants in family literacy programs are ethnically and culturally diverse, speak a variety of native languages, and, increasingly, are teenage parents and very poor. In many urban areas, they are refugees whose native countries had little traditional literacy, and whose past includes physically or emotionally debilitating experiences.

Despite such personal challenges, families have a wide range of experienced-based knowledge that can inform program development. Thus, developers have found it useful to draw on the strengths, interests, concerns, and goals of diverse families by involving them in the design, implementation, and evaluation of their own and their children's learning programs.

They respect and incorporate into the program families' naturally-occurring literacy activities and traditions, including, as appropriate, their intergenerational orientation.

Such collaboration with parents facilitates learning by maximizing participants' familiarity with curriculum topics and increasing their self-confidence and feelings of empowerment. It also produces a group identity and a safe and supportive atmosphere for sharing concerns, and promotes attendance and retention.

Finally, collaboration helps disenfranchised families believe that personal literacy development will improve their family's lives and overcome their feelings of powerlessness (Dwyer, 1995; Gadsden, 1996; NCFL, 1994).


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Come, B., & Fredericks, A.D. (1995, April). Family literacy in urban schools: Meeting the needs of at-risk children. Reading Teacher, 48(7), 566-70.

Dwyer, M.C. (1995). Guide to quality: Even Start Family Literacy Programs. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corp.

Gadsden, V. (1996, January). Designing and conducting family literacy programs that account for racial, ethnic, religious, and other cultural differences. In L.A. Benjamin & J. Lord (Eds.), Family literacy: Directions in research and implications for practice. Washington, DC: Pelavin Research Institute.

National Center for Family Literacy. (1994). The power of family literacy. Louisville, KY: Author.

Tao, F., Gamse, B., & Tarr, H. (1998). National evaluation of the Even Start Family Literacy Program. 1994-1997 Final Report. Alexandria, VA: Fu Associates, Ltd.

Taylor, D. (1993, Fall). Family literacy: Resisting deficit models. TESOL Quarterly, 27(3), 550-3.

Excerpted from: Schwartz, W. (June, 1999). Family Literacy Strategies to Support Children's Learning. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, eric-web.tc.columbia.edu. Teacher's College, Columbia University.

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo