Education Talks: Family literacy programmes: when and how?

Books may not always be a good way to engage parents in their children’s literacy, and native language is not a reliable indicator of a group in need. What else do we know about family literacy programmes? Dr. Amos van Gelderen spoke to us about this subject when we attended the Open the Door for Reading conference in May. He is a professor at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and a senior researcher at the Kohnstamm Institute, University of Amsterdam.

What is a family literacy intervention?

In family literacy interventions, schools and parents enter into a sort of partnership regarding how they use language. They mainly deal with very young children from preschool to kindergarten and sometimes a bit beyond that. These interventions, these family literacy programmes, are mainly targeted at children of lowly educated parents, who get very little linguistic stimulation at home. And by “linguistic stimulation” we mean speaking to many people.

How can teachers engage parents in family literacy programmes?

What a teacher has to do to involve parents in the school is very complicated. Because he has to come up against all these preconceptions that parents from lowly educated contexts have towards schools. A lot of these parents don’t have such good experiences with school. So there is a cultural gap between what the parents think the school is and how the school wishes to present itself to the parents. And to close this gap, teachers need to be very skilled in order to persuade parents. That is one of the most basic conditions to be able to work with the parents on the language development of their children, and to be able to do activities with them. So teachers have to try to learn a bit more about the domestic situation. So the use of various activities in the class has to be organised by the teachers, and the parents also have to be encouraged to participate in them in a productive manner.

Which literacy activities for parents and children have proven most effective so far?

According to research, when these groups are confronted with the demand to read aloud, it often has an adverse effect. Because reading aloud requires that they already can read well, and for them that is a very threatening situation, since they don’t feel competent. And so prescribing these reading activities to parents who are in this situation is not so sensible. We were able to show that situations where parents have to explain their normal everyday activities to their child using language – when they go buy groceries, when they cook, when they do the laundry – if they involve their children in this, using verbal communication, this works much better than if they have to use books. But these are all things that are also very culturally sensitive, because in many cultures children just have to be obedient, without talking back and without speaking their mind. In such cases teachers have difficulty intervening.

Which groups of parents do these programmes target?

In most schools you will find many different types of parents, from all sorts of backgrounds – cultural, linguistic – but also from different educational levels. Treating them all the same and using the same intervention is very problematic. In other words, you would be better off working with parents who have the greatest need of this support. Parents with a high educational level could also gain something from it, but something completely different from parents who hardly use language at home, and who are totally unaware of their role in the language development of their children. That problem occurs frequently with teachers who think someone who speaks Moroccan or some language other than Dutch – in our case Dutch – has to be lowly educated. But that is of course not necessarily the case. Or functionally illiterate – that is not necessarily so. These people can speak, write, listen and so on just fine in their own language. So that's a big problem – that teachers have not really learnt, from their training, to look at the linguistic situations and see the difference between “functionally illiterate” or “lowly educated” and simply “non-native speaker”.