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Perspectives on Family Literacy Practices

Posted on 4th Apr 2017 @ 4:32 PM

While the concept of family literacy has existed for centuries, in the past decades, there has been heightened interest in families’ home literacy practices in relations to schools and literacy development and the strategies used to promote it (Anderson, Anderson, Friedrich & Kim, 2010). For many, the term family literacy encompasses a wide range of beliefs and practices relating to the enhancement and transfer of literacy within families. Not surprisingly, there has been disagreement between educators and researchers on whether family literacy must be conceptualized as descriptive or pedagogical (Percell-Gates, 2000). Educators and researchers who view family literacy as pedagogical believe parents need training on how to incorporate mainstream literacy practices in their homes to improve their children’s literacy performance at school (Caspe, 2003; Percell-Gates, 2000). As a result, these individuals view family literacy from a deficit or an instructional perspective geared towards training parents to engage in activities such as helping with homework and engaging in parent-child reading and writing activities. The underlying assumption from this perspective is that parents are deficient in important literacy instruction techniques. Hence, they do not practice desirable mainstream literacy activities that will influence their children’s academic success.

While research (Senechal & Young, 2008) revealed evidence that training parents to tutor their children using specific literacy methods impacted their literacy development positively, opponents have challenged this viewpoint arguing there are various ways in which educators can integrate literacy in family practices that do not include imposing foreign school literacy practices on families (Anderson, Anderson, Friedrich & Kim, 2010). Denny Taylor, who was credited for coining the term, used ethnographic research to study six middle class families in relations to their use of literacy in their daily lives (Taylor, 1983). Taylor’s work helped to illuminate the array of rich literacy practices existing in the homes of these families. She found evidence parents immersed their children in many daily literacy activities to influence their literacy learning. Taylor’s work dispelled the notion families need to learn formal instructional strategies in order to develop their children’s literacy skills in the home. These opponents supported descriptive ethnographic work on family literacy and believed research in this area must expand to examine ways in which schools are capable or incapable of building on the naturally occurring home literacy practices that are woven into the fabric of children’s daily lives.

Heath (1983) ethnographic work in which she examined the influences of class and culture on family literacy practices within different communities strengthened the notion differences exist in how families practice literacy in the home. Heath examined how preschool students home and community environment impacted their learning of language and literacy skills. She found stark cultural differences between the literacy events found in the homes of children from the different socio-economic groups within the communities. Heath’s work highlighted the fact some home literacy patterns are more compatible with mainstream literacy instruction than others. Her work also supported the view families, especially those from low socio-economic status and minorities are capable units which are placed at a disadvantage as it relates to literacy practices due to economic and political pressures. While these families practice literacy in ways which may be different from mainstream society, they engage in important rich literacy traditions in their homes. Hence, family literacy programs must be developed from the standpoint of understanding, respect and collaboration with families. 

Barbara L. Fearon