Family Literacy Essay

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Family literacy is commonly examined in larger discussions of literacy and language and in relationship to PreK through 12 schooling, adult learning, or childparent learning in home and school settings. As a formal area of inquiry in language and literacy research, family literacy has a relatively short history. Definitions of family literacy vary. A common definition used in the United States and the United Kingdom describes family literacy as encompassing a wide variety of programs that promote parents and children in literacy-enhancing

practices and activities. This definition is often accompanied by a more purposeful and controversial goal, described later in this entry: to improve the literacy of “educationally disadvantaged parents and children,” based on the assumption that parents are their child’s first and most influential teachers. However, family literacy in its broad sense includes a focus on the social practices that exist within families and the ways that individual family members and the family as a unit access and use fundamental reading, writing, and problem-solving abilities to engage with each other and the world and to achieve their personal, academic, and work goals.

Historical Background

The origins of family literacy can be traced to different and equally compelling points in the larger discussion of literacy, particularly reading research in the 1960s. Delores Durkin’s work on young children in low-income homes in Chicago pointed to the significant role that parents assume and play in engaging their children in reading and supporting their literacy development. Studies such as Durkin’s emerged during a time when there was increasing attention to children’s achievement in diverse cultural, ethnic, and language families and communities. Although they were not borne entirely from the national focus on civil rights, the studies were often intertwined with controversial discussions that coincided with the civil rights movement and questions about equality, equity, and justice for minority children and their families.

Prior to the 1960s, family literacy had long been the site of inquiry on reading and literacy—as far back as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, family literacy studies centered on the lives of children and families of European ancestry who were from upperincome homes, were literate, and were exposed to high levels of literacy within the home. Because these families shared a common social status and land of origin, there was little examination of intragroup differences and the relationship between these differences and the cultural histories that divided or connected the families. Not until the 1960s and 1970s did these studies directly address the cultural dimensions of literacy within families or the importance of exploring culture in designing and implementing instructional approaches.

The historical progression of family literacy mirrors the shifts in reading and literacy research more generally. By the 1980s, traditional foci on reading had expanded to literacy, taking into consideration social processes, sociocognitive development, and sociocultural contexts for learning. Increased attention to children’s literacy within these contexts as well as increasing emphasis on adult literacy translated into a life-course perspective in which children’s early literacy or emergent literacy was examined. William Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby’s research on emergent literacy opened up discussions of parents’ understanding of children’s early expressions of reading and writing. At the same time, adult literacy was shifting its focus to consider the diversity of purposes for which adults seek to improve their literacy, the diversity of learners themselves, and the places (e.g., programs) where such literacy learning was taking place.

Despite the focus on families in family literacy, few studies at this point provided a picture of the nature of family interactions, experiences, and processes or examined in depth how the social, cultural, and societal issues associated with different levels of literacy influenced learning in families. Denny Taylor’s 1983 book, Family Literacy, served as a catalyst for examining the ways in which families use informal and formal literacy knowledge to support themselves, their children, and their communities. Taylor’s ethnographic approach to studying families and literacy also deviated from past approaches and offered observers—researchers, practitioners, and policy makers alike—a new lens into the everyday literate experiences, negotiations, and goals of families.

A range of studies was conducted subsequently, with foci that traveled between and within different methodological and conceptual frameworks. One conceptual strand included studies that were primarily interested in the ways in which families take up roles and responsibilities that require differing levels of literacy. Another examined children’s literacy learning in school and the role parents play in supporting children’s literacy development in and out of schools. A third focused primarily on parent-child literacy interactions. A fourth addressed family literacy within diverse language groups. A fifth examined intergenerational learning in families and the reciprocity between and among different social systems that constitute families.

The primary focus of work in family literacy today is still largely on parent-child learning, although several studies of intergenerational learning exist. Much of the public attention has focused on family literacy programs themselves. Such programs and associated projects number in the hundreds and are based in settings ranging from Head Start to other public-funded and private-funded early-childhood efforts designed to enhance reading, writing, and other literate acts in the home and school. A common mission of these programs is to address the needs of parents with low literacy, to “eradicate low literacy,” and increase the literacy options and opportunities for these parents’ children. Programs vary by focus and location and differ in the primary adult populations they serve. In addition to getting parents involved, some programs recruit grandparents as a way both to engage children in literacy learning and to help children learn more about their heritage. Other programs are located in schools, while still others are administered through outreach efforts and are operated by churches and faith communities. There are also programs offered in community centers or in prisons that may encourage the use of computers or may prepare parents to reconnect with their children.

Current Issues And Tensions

Several issues have been identified as areas of tension in family literacy. For example, unlike reading research, family literacy is still being defined, though there continues to be relatively limited focus on families as institutions and cultures guiding the instruction. The single focus on improving literacy is associated by many researchers with a deficit perspective that assumes that low-income and lowincome minority families come to literacy learning with few resources or are empty vessels to be filled. Thus, a mismatch may exist between the findings of research on reading and literacy within families and the emphasis of family literacy programs.

At the same time, researchers and practitioners alike have focused on the social processes in literacy learning and highlighted the significance of culture and context in understanding and supporting children’s literacy development. On the one hand, the field of family literacy has struggled to situate itself in broad conceptualizations and critical discourses of literacy. For example, a series of rich ethnographic studies from the 1980s to the present have pointed to multifaceted and complex relationships within home, school, and community contexts. These contexts were thought to influence how children and adults engage in formal literacy instruction, draw upon diverse linguistic and cultural practices to communicate within and across different settings, and make meaning of literacy.

On the other hand, theorists such as Brian Street and David Barton and Mary Hamilton would argue that the field has not moved far enough outside of autonomous models, in which literacy as a technique is applied across all social and cultural contexts with uniformity, to embrace more expansive models (e.g., critical literacy or new literacy studies).

Two seminal works in literacy and family literacy, Shirley Brice Heath’s 1983 Ways With Words and Denny Taylor and Catherine Dorsey-Gaines’s 1988 Growing Up Literate, both argue that the study of family literacy is more than the study of individual learners within a family or within programs alone. Learners typically do not leave family influences or cultural markers at home upon entering literacy instruction. Similarly, in the 1990s, Victoria PurcellGates and Vivian Gadsden referred to the increasing significance of studying culture in family literacy, stating that research into family literacy practices is research into cultural practice.

To organize assumptions, goals, and practices in the field, Elsa Auerbach identified three models— intervention/prevention, multiple literacies, and social change—that still hold currency. The intervention/ prevention approach is consistent with historical efforts to eradicate low literacy among poor, undereducated parents, through a series of programs and approaches designed to replace home practices with school-like approaches. The multiple-literacies approach takes up this sociocultural perspective in a particular way by examining the much-discussed mismatch between the expectations and practices of school-based literacy learning and the home practices of children who are not achieving in school. Social change is focused on multiple literacies but also highlights the role of power hierarchies in sustaining political and social structures that alienate rather than engage learners and their cultural histories. From this perspective, failure to attend to these imbalances of power reinscribes inequity and inequality. For example, in a series of texts during the 1990s (From the Child’s Point of View, Learning Denied, Toxic Literacies, and Many Families, Many Literacies), Taylor discusses the need for structural change in the social and political hierarchies that govern institutions and work against the inclusion of historically marginalized groups.

Possibilities And Considerations

More is known about family literacy today than a decade ago. However, challenges remain in terms of how much more there is to learn and how to disentangle the complexities that arise from problems that interfere with learning (e.g., poverty, poor schools). Although there are several issues that persist, two are highlighted here. The first is a conceptual question that ultimately contributes to methodological options: What are the ways that family literacy might be examined in the context of new models of research, including critical literacy and new literacy studies? Moreover, how do we study, understand, and serve learners as members of a family units, which they are as likely to distance themselves from as embrace? The second follows from the first: How are the issues of father involvement addressed in family literacy programs? As Gadsen and her coresearchers have observed, there are few fathers who participate in family literacy programs, and there is little information about those who do attend. Some of the problems associated with engaging fathers stem from the unavailability of some fathers who serve as the family’s primary breadwinners; in other cases, fathers live outside of the home and are not considered as important by program staff, are difficult to reach, or are not accessible. The issue of father involvement raises questions about how gender is discussed and approached in programs.

As the field of family literacy grows, several questions persist, a few of which are: What are the outcomes of children and adults participating in family literacy programs, and how do we examine these outcomes to capture the range of learning that occurs? What actually occurs in programs that promote reading, writing, and problem solving? What are the activities involving reading, writing, and problem solving that are integrated within the larger life issues of parenting, parent-child interactions, and family functioning? And finally, how are issues around cultural difference, race, and poverty examined and addressed in research and practice?


  1. Auerbach, E. (1995). Deconstructing the discourse of strengths in family literacy. Journal of Reading Behavior, 27, 643–661.
  2. Auerbach, E. (1997). Family literacy. In V. Edwards & D. Corson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of langauge and education: Vol. 2. Literacy (pp. 153–161). London: Springer Press.
  3. Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. New York: Routledge.
  4. Durkin, D. (1966). Teaching young children to read. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  5. Gadsden, V. L. (1995). Representations of literacy: Parents’ images in two cultural communities. In L. Morrow (Ed.), Family literacy connections in schools and communities (pp. 287–303). Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.
  6. Gadsden, V. L. (1998). Family culture and literacy learning. In F. Lehr, J. Osborn, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Learning to read (pp. 32–50). New York: Garland Press.
  7. Gadsden, V. L. (2007). The adult learner in family literacy: Gender and its intersections with role and context. In Belzer (Ed.), Defining and improving quality in adult basic education: Issues and challenges (pp. 573–587). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  8. Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Purcell-Gates, V. (1993). Issues for family literacy research: Voices from the trenches. Language Arts, 70, 670–677.
  10. Street, B. V. (1984) Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Street, B. V. (2001). Literacy and development: Ethnographic perspectives. New York: Routledge.
  12. Taylor, D. (1983). Family literacy: Young children learning to read and write. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  13. Taylor, D. (1990). Learning denied. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  14. Taylor, D. (Ed.). (1997). Many families, many literacies: An International Declaration of Principles. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  15. Taylor, D., & Dorsey-Gaines, C. (1988). Growing up literate: Learning from inner-city families. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  16. Teale, W. H., & Sulzby, E. (Eds.). (1986). Emergent literacy: Reading and writing (pp. vii–xxv). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  17. Wasik, B. H. (Ed.). (2004). Handbook of family literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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