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Family literacy programs provide literacy classes for both children and their parents. It is based on the notion that literacy, because it is social and cultural in nature, is best developed within the context of the family. For language minority families, learning English is often a key component of these programs.

Successful programs share several characteristics. They:

  • Address parents’ personal goals
  • Value families’ home languages
  • View families from a resource model rather than a deficit model
  • Provide families access to information and resources that will encourage success for children
  • Encourage shared literacy experiences in homes rather than imposing a school-like transfer of skills from parent to child

How to establish a family literacy project

1. What are the first steps?

The first steps that will help ensure a successful program include establishing collaborative relationships with other institutions and determining the needs of the participants and available resources.

Family literacy projects often take a multidisciplinary approach as they draw on the expertise of child educators, adult literacy providers, community agencies, and institutions of higher education (Nickse 1990).

At the planning stage it is essential to determine the level of need for and interest in family literacy within a particular community. Parents who are currently active in the school can be instrumental in reaching out to those who participate less frequently. Other community organizations, such as religious institutions and day care centers, can also play a role in attracting families to the program.

2. Where and when should classes take place?

Schools can be an ideal location for literacy programs because many parents already accompany their children to and from school. Parents who previously entered the school infrequently may begin to feel a sense of belonging and may come to associate their learning success in a literacy program with the school.

Separate parent rooms are ideal, but other spaces in the school can serve equally well. However, it is best if the space can be available consistently because, if they are frequently asked to move to accommodate other programs and events, parents may begin to feel that the school does not welcome their presence. Space provisions should also be made for preschool children; it is best if they can be kept close to the parents without unnecessarily interrupting the classes.

Other potential sites for family literacy programs include community centers, churches, and adult education sites.

Determining an appropriate time for holding classes should be negotiated with the participants and program providers.

Transportation is another factor to consider in choosing a program site. Some neighborhoods are particularly concentrated and transportation is not a major issue. However, accessibility does promote attendance so, if families live at a distance from the site, it is best to provide transportation, if possible.

3. How should the curriculum be designed?

Curriculum design should reflect the needs of both parent and child participants. Initial information-gathering meetings with parents regarding their desire to participate in the program provide opportunities to find out about these needs.

Flexibility is an essential design feature. Family literacy programs may offer instruction to adults only, adults and children together, or adults and children separately.

4. What language(s) should be used for instruction?

There are several reasons for programs to include the use of home language(s) for instruction. First, parents need to be reassured that their linguistic abilities in a language other than English are strengths and that their children will benefit if they are provided a solid base in that language. When parents are encouraged to model literacy in their strongest language, it is more likely that they will positively influence their children’s literacy development.

Second, for language minority parents who are not yet proficient in English, native language instruction ensures adequate learning opportunities. Novice English learners will have difficulty fully participating in an English-only instructional setting. Unable to ask questions or share their knowledge of family practices, for them, the sessions can be little more than a teacher telling information to parents.

Third, even in classes designed to increase parents’ English abilities, there is growing evidence that the use of the first language is pedagogically appropriate (Moll and Diaz 1987), especially for learners with limited literacy (Auerbach 1993). When teachers are proficient in the students’ native language(s) they can explain fine points of English and support further development of native language skills.

5. What do ESL classes within family literacy programs look like?

ESL classes for family literacy often have much in common with other adult ESL classes. They focus on the English that adults need to negotiate their lives in the United States and may include the English that they need to assist with their children’s schooling.

Teachers need to invest adequate time in searching for materials for family literacy. There are no ready-made books that will adequately fill the range of interests and needs of the families.

Better sources of instructional resources include newspapers, job applications, food labels, advertisements, and other written materials from the community. Since the major purpose of the program is to help parents support their children’s learning, report cards, school permission slips, and children’s literature can be good sources, too.

Participants can also provide materials; ask them to bring examples of written materials they would like to understand.

ESL educators must be sensitive to the wide variety of previous experiences parents have had in schools, both in the first and second languages.

6. How do we successfully staff a program?

Teachers who are sensitive to diverse cultures and have a broad knowledge of adult and child literacy development are essential to the success of family literacy programs.

Those who have had previous experience working with the community and in education settings are an asset, but even these teachers may benefit from further preparation or inservice training. Because family literacy is a fairly new area for many institutions, teachers must clearly understand the goals of the program and the interconnectedness of parent and child learning.

7. How can attendance and involvement be maintained?

The best means of keeping attendance steady is to provide a quality program that meets the needs of the participants. However, providers should be aware of the realities of the lives of the families involved and be flexible with attendance policies.

Family literacy programs should be viewed not only as educational opportunities for families but as social ones, too. Research suggests that immigrant families often feel isolated from the school (Delgado-Gaitan 1990; Flores, Cousin, and Diaz 1991) and can benefit from sharing their experiences and knowledge.

8. How do we know the program is working?

Evaluations provide evidence of how family literacy programs are working and how they can be improved. Measures of the success of the program are usually necessary to assure funding agencies that their support is being well used.

Further, program evaluation allows success to be monitored in an ongoing manner so that appropriate adjustments can be made. This allows programs to serve families better. The most effective assessment and evaluation methods consider multiple aspects of program performance, such as the following:

  • Attendance and attrition

    A basic measure of program success can be found in attendance and attrition data.

  • Children’s achievement

    Because family literacy programs are designed to increase academic achievement, some assessment of this should be conducted.

  • Parent achievement

    Standardized tests, a traditional means of adult ESL or literacy assessment, are often preferred because they are cost effective and easily obtained and administered. Supplementary evaluation instruments that are specifically tailored to a program’s goals and design will provide findings about ongoing progress.

  • Affective measures

    Important changes in family literacy use often occur affectively and will not show up on traditional assessments. Therefore, interviews on parental beliefs about their roles in children’s learning, attitudes toward school, and confidence in helping their children succeed in school, for example, will provide a rich source of data.


Family literacy is a new and exciting arena for improving the relationships between language minority families and schools by situating learning experiences in the context of the family.

We must look for new ways to provide useful and appropriate information about children’s learning to parents who were not educated in this country, and we must learn to draw on the resources that families can offer to help bridge the home-school gap.

As the field of family literacy develops, it has the chance to play a pivotal role in reshaping the education of language minority children, a difficult yet critical challenge.

Excerpted from: Mulhern, M., Rodriguez-Brown, F., & Shanahan, T.(Summer, 1994). Family Literacy for Language Minority Families: Issues for Program Implementation. NCBE Program Information Guide Series, Number 17. National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
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