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Family Literacy Bridging the Gap through Family Literacy Programming Michelle L Tarshus 9/15/13

What can we do to increase family literacy so that children and parents are learning together?

We learn a lot from our parents whether we like to admit it or not. They are the first to teach us how to smile, laugh, eat, walk, and talk amongst many other things. They are usually the first ones who read and sing to us and teach us the letters of the alphabet and how to count to one hundred by ones, fives, and tens. They teach us how to share and how to be kind to others. I think it’s safe to say that our parents teach us a lot about what it is like to be human and how to socially interact with each other. It is not until we start school though that we learn different subjects like Math, English, Science, and Social Studies as well as different areas of literacy that shape the way we understand the world around us. School provides us with teachers and educators who are supposed to teach us the ins and outs of the world we live in

through past, present, and future exploration. Teachers provide us lessons and homework assignments to build on our understandings that will carry over into other aspects of our lives. They spend hours of the day teaching us information that will become 12+ years of schooling that is supposed to prepare us for College and the “Real World”. When we get home from school, our parents usually ask us about how our day went, what are we learning, and what homework do we have. Most kids answer these questions with “fine”, “stuff”, and “maybe”. Some parents inquire more, while others carry on with their days for various reasons (e.g. they are busy with work, they have things around the house to do, they have errands to run, or in some cases, they don’t have the same literacy levels to help their children even if they asked for it.) Family Literacy is an ever-growing topic of


discussion. It encompasses learning that takes place (or at least is supposed to) at home. In an article, “Family Literacy, Educational Leadership” Holloway, starts off by saying that “Even as schools strive to provide the best reading instruction, educators are aware that factors outside the school influence their student’s success in learning to read for instance” (Holloway, 2004). Unfortunately these various factors can contribute to the lack of family literacy that occurs in households across the United States on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. This article is intended to talk about Family Literacy and what it is, why it is important, and how we as educators and future librarians can work together with parents and students to build and enhance learning environments outside of the classroom that can then influence learning inside of the classroom and everywhere else.

What is Literacy? Let’s start with the definition of Literacy, so that we can better understand the basis of what Family Literacy entails. It is common for people to associate literacy with being ‘literate’ in reading and writing, but there is more to it than that. According to an article created by the NYC Department of Education entitled, “Opening the Door to Learning—Literacy is a Family Affair”, Literacy is described as “the ability to use listening, viewing, speaking, reading, writing, and presenting to interact with others, learn new ideas, exchange information, make decisions and express thoughts and feelings” (NYC Dept. of Education 2008). As we can see Literacy is a broad term that describes ones understanding based on their abilities to

utilize their skills in various ways. Being literate in Math, English, Science, and Social Studies is very important, but literacy is not limited to these subject areas only. Literacy also encompasses the understanding of technical and digital interfaces and their uses and can also describe financial understandings as well as different social understandings in terms of culture and familial impacts. Essentially, one can be literate in many aspects of life—social, educational, and professional-related. Taking it a step further, literacy is about fluent understanding and how one decodes, compresses, and constructs meanings out of given contexts and perceptions in order to make sense of new understandings and meanings. Literacy is an ecosystem. It uses one’s skills to cultivate one’s learning. The more literate people are in various ways, the more capable they are of making connections and developing critical thinking skills that will broaden their understandings.

What is Family Literacy? Family literacy in short, is the literacy that takes place within the “home”. When I started this article, I mentioned how our parents are our first teachers. I spoke about some of the practical things they teach us, like eating and walking, as well as the more advanced things like talking and understanding language in spoken and written forms. The level of a parent’s literacy can affect the way a child learns and receives information at home. In an article entitled: “Family Literacy Programs in School Libraries: Helping Parents Become


Their Child’s Best Teacher”, Griffis explains that “Parents are commonly described as their child’s first and most important teachers” and that “over the past two decades, our society has experienced many changes that have kept some parents from fully undertaking this role in their child’s life” (Griffis, 2003). Some of the factors that have affected Family Literacy in positive and negative ways include, but are not limited to, the following: Factors st




1 and 2 Generation Immigrant Families

Enriched cultural understanding

Economic Variance

Can instill lessons on monetary value

Non-traditional “Family Planning” (Teenage/Young Adult, Single Parent, NonParental homes)

Enriched perspective and Understanding of family values

Can create tension or a lack of support or motivation

Enriched perspective and motivation to achieve higher Enriched perspective, constant learning and growing from all members

Can create barriers in understanding or a lack of support Can lead to neglect or lack of equal support of all children in the household

Parents who did not complete formal education

Size of Family

Can produce language & cultural barriers Can create tension or a lack of resources in the home

It’s important to note that these factors are not a complete representation of all families that fall into any of these categories. They are simply a means to address certain factors that can lead to a

positive or negative family literacy experience. Please do not associate these factors subjectively or assume they represent an entire population.

Family Literacy Programs These various factors that impact a student’s living environment and family literacy can also have an effect on the way the student then learns in school. In an effort to address these issues and relieve the stressors that they create on families, schools and other organizations have created Family Literacy Programs (FLPs) which have gained support from federal and state legislatures. Griffis states that the “goal of family literacy programs is to increase the literacy skills of the entire family, this helping the family to achieve self-sufficiency and enabling parents to become active participants in their child’s education” (Griffis 2003). Family Literacy Programs allow parents and educators to connect with each other in order to enrich student learning experiences, especially ones that occur within the home. I will address Family Literacy Programs and their challenges and opportunities in the next section so that we can understand the roles of individuals and stake-holders that contribute to their success. Teachers, Librarians, Educators

Students Parents


Challenges and Opportunities There are many challenges that arise in the establishment and sustainability of Family Literacy Programs, but there are also many opportunities to expand on in order to make them more efficient and impactful. The following is a breakdown of individuals who play a role in the success of any given Family Literacy Program and the challenges and opportunities they can overcome to make an FLP successful.

Teachers and Educators Teachers and Educators have opportunities to contribute to family literacy. Since they make up the other half of the student literacy equation, teachers play an integral part in establishing grounds for family literacy to take place. Unfortunately, there are several challenges that teachers face when trying to understand family literacy and the role they play within it. Challenges Most of the challenges that teachers and educators face when addressing family literacy are directly and indirectly related to a lack of communication with parents and with other educators and administrators. Teachers become heavily invested in their responsibilities to standards and getting students to pass assessments that they tend to forget about the importance of communicating with parents to make sure they are on the same page. Although studies have shown that teachers agree that parents should be involved with literacy, many of them place a stigma on parents saying that “they are not qualified to give input” (Griffis , 2003) and instead

pass up the opportunity to involve parents in as many activities as they could. Similarly, the lack of communication between teachers and administrators is a hindrance in the potential of family literacy because there is no common thread of thought taking place between those who are educating and those who are establishing a means for education and learning to take place. Aside from a lack of communication, another challenge that arises for teachers and educators is the difficulty of measuring literacy differences between school and home, especially on a student by student basis. Additionally, it’s hard to monitor children’s familial support and whether they are receiving the adequate amount of motivation from school and from home to engage in literacy to the highest degree. Although these two factors are hard to quantify, they are still important to consider in terms of challenges. Opportunities Based on the challenges I have already mentioned, the biggest opportunity that teachers and educators can embrace is to build stronger communications with parents (and students for that matter). This can be done by meet and greet events that cater to follow-ups with parents, or even bi-weekly or monthly newsletters/email blasts that ask for parent input on various topics. Any way to get teachers and educators communicating with each other frequently is a great start to learning more about the family literacy that takes place in the homes of our students.


Another noteworthy opportunity that teachers and educators can embrace is a positive attitude. This may sound cliché, but it’s very important to keep in mind. Attitude is everything and according to Griffis, 2003, it’s a major barrier in understanding family literacy, especially with presumed stigmas that weigh in. Being open-minded and willing to communicate are two ways of fostering a positive attitude that will only further enhance the family literacy ecosystem.

Parents According to a study entitled “Constructing a Family Literacy Program: Challenges and Opportunities” conducted by Jay and Rohl, they begin by stating that “Home environments may be influenced by a number of related and unrelated adults and children, covering two or more generations” (Jay and Rohl, 2005). Parents (and guardians as well as others in the immediate household) are at the forefront of family literacy. As teachers spend a significant amount of time with students, parents and families typically spend the most time with students since they live together, eat together, play together, etc. Jay and Rohl also state that family literacy includes the “parental ‘transfer of behavior, beliefs, practices, expectations and potential to their progeny” (Jay and Rohl, 2005). With that in mind, there are just as many challenges and opportunities that parents face in terms of family literacy. Challenges The biggest challenge that parents face with family literacy though is time. Between work, errands, chores, and other tasks, parents are usually constantly on the move

(the same can be said about students when it comes to school, practice, homework, and hanging out with friends, etc.) and although literacy can take place in a subconscious manner, time can create a boundary for family literacy to occur in a comfortable and controlled environment. The relationship that is fostered between a parent and their child can also have an effect on family literacy. If there is any lack of communication or lack of understanding that occurs without compromise or remediation then this disconnect will continue to grow, and the parent and their child will have to work harder to get back on the same page. Similarly, if the parent doesn’t have a formal educational background (which can mean many things depending on the context), or isn’t at least self-taught in some way, then there could be a lack of understanding or a feeling of embarrassment on the parent’s end that may leave them also feeling stressed or incapable of helping their child with their school needs. Opportunities Despite all of these challenges, there are always opportunities that parents can partake in to enhance their child’s literacy. For starters, parents can get to know their children’s teachers, educators, and librarians. If parents are in communication with the people who are schooling their kids, then they are likely to be more involved and invested in their child’s learning and literacy.


Better communication will also help parents build better relationships with their children. They will be more aware of what is happening in their child’s life and will have a clearer understanding of what their child is getting into inside and outside of school. This will in turn motivate the child to continue to strive to do better and will give the parent more perspective on their child’s goals and aspirations. One last opportunity that parents can take advantage of is learning with their children. Although educational levels may vary from parent to child, the parent can use this as an opportunity to learn and grow with their child instead of feeling a sense of embarrassment or incapableness. Learning together can take place at home or through family literacy programs that are promoted through the schools.

Students In terms of family literacy, students are the ones who are directly affected the most. They are constantly in between home and school and are influenced greatly by both environments. Students are especially vulnerable to literacy and the world in general because they are still growing and constantly learning about the life around them. Challenges Many of the challenges that students face with family literacy is often a reflection of their environments. If they are experiencing a lack of support from home or school then they may feel discouraged when it comes to learning and may not feel motivated to take learning into their own hands.

A lack in communication and guidance can also affect students. If they do not feel they are receiving adequate attention or do not feel they are connecting with those who are supposed to be helping them excel, then they may interpret this void as a means to ‘act out’ or not do what is expected of them. This can then lead to distractions and other possible negative influences that can turn into bad habits inside and outside of their learning and home environments. Opportunities Despite these challenges, there are also several opportunities that students can take advantage of. If students feel that they are not gaining the support they need, they can communicate that with their parents and teachers so that more can be done to provide them with that adequate support. Students need to take charge of their education and learn ways to enhance it instead of allowing various factors to mold it for them. This is obviously easier said than done and takes the contribution of all persons involved in the family literacy equation to maintain a space that has open communication that students feel comfortable expressing themselves in. Students can also take advantage of various learning opportunities that are inspired inside and outside of the classroom. If students find a hobby or take up an interest that is not related to the coursework they are learning, they should feel empowered to pursue it as opposed to feeling obligated to relate it back to school. As I have mentioned earlier, literacy is not only consistent of reading and writing. It translates across different mediums and is


all encompassing of the world we live in. If students are encouraged to participate in programs that will teach them different literacies, then the possibilities for learning are endlessly intertwined, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Impacts and Implications The impacts and implications of family literacy from a librarian standpoint are also critical to mention. Coming from a School Media Specialist perspective, I see the need for family literacy to be taken into high consideration and the role the school library plays as an open vessel to foster this ecosystem.

Librarians Instead of reiterating the challenges that I mentioned before among teachers and educators, parents, and students, which all seem to go hand in hand; I will simply state more opportunities that Librarians can engage in to enhance family literacy especially through programming. Librarians have a unique opportunity to change the way family literacy is understood and cultivated. According to Griffis, “The library media specialist (LMS) should be considered an important member of the planning and facilitating team for family literacy programs” (Griffis 2003). Librarians are the liaison between teachers, administrators, parents, and students; they are in the perfect position to enhance the way that family literacy is communicated amongst all persons involved, which also puts them at the forefront for expressing how family literacy is stimulated at home

and at school. Creating an open forum for communication will help librarians push FLPs in the right direction for success. Another opportunity that librarians can take advantage of is using surveys to gage family literacy from the student’s perspective. Librarians establish a unique trust with students, as they are not in the same position as parents or teachers. Students who engage and build relationships with their school librarians are more likely to open up about various things in their lives. This could provide the librarian with insight, especially on family literacy, that can lead to programming ideas or other enrichment opportunities that reach the needs of students (and families). The most obvious opportunity that librarians can engage in, which all previous points have led up to is finding and creating programs around family literacy. In Griffis’ article, she suggests several programs and ideas that librarians could use to promote family literacy and attract students and their families to the library. The following list contains a few ideas that she mentions and descriptions of each program: Program Idea Reading Bags

Library Visit

Book Fair Favorite Food Festival Book Selection

Description Create interactive literacy bags parents and children can check out from the library Take a field trip to the local library Host a book fair where parents and students can purchase books Invite each family to bring their favorite food or snack to share Inform parents about selecting quality books that fit the needs


Family Bookmaking

Home Literacy Centers

“Meet My Family”

and interests of their children and provide examples of these books Guide parents and children as they explore simple bookmaking techniques and allow time for writing and illustrating Give parents simple, inexpensive ideas for creating home literacy centers for their child and discuss ways that it will help improve literacy After sharing several books on families, ask parents and children to write “Meet My Family” books by answering questions about their family that can be shared with others Griffis, 2003

There are a few obstacles to keep in mind when librarians are pushing Family Literacy Programs forward. They include:






Although the librarian may be establishing FLPs, s/he should create a team that consists of stakeholders that represent each demographic (parents, students, administrators) to ensure that there is something relevant and enriching for everyone involved and as well as to provide balance. Be sure to find reliable sources of funding either through government/local grants to ensure that any programs and events established can continue to be maintained. Implementing FLPs will take time. Make sure stakeholders are aware of details and that programs are suitable for diverse communities. There will be various attitudes in regards to the direction and implementation of FLPs. Be sure to stay open minded and goal oriented so that negative pushback doesn’t influence the purpose of the program. Create relevant programs and make sure proper promotion


occurs to enhance the visibility and participation of the program(s). Program success is typically determined by the participant retention. Evaluate programs and collect feedback from participants to ensure that family literacy needs are being met and then make adjustments where necessary.

With these barriers in mind, librarians have the ability to create sustainable programs that reach students and their families and truly provide a positive impact on their family literacy. The possibilities are endless when it comes to Family Literacy Programs and how librarians play a lead role in establishing them in their libraries. Whether the librarian wants to create different events or provide regular programs, the library is the perfect environment to promote and foster family literacy that continues to grow at home and that is enhanced daily in the classroom. Here are additional resources that are centered on enhancing family literacy.     disciplines/Technology

A Librarian’s Story In 2011, Mariana Tessleton1 graduated with her MS in Library Information Studies with a Specialization in School Media from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse 1

Name has been changed.


University. She was excited about her new Librarian job in Northern California, and was eager to make a positive impact on her high school students and school community. She had always been one to think outside of the box and really enjoyed starting new things wherever she went. Tessleton became the new Librarian of Laddenbrook High School1. Laddenbrook is a medium-sized high school in an urban community with grade levels ten through twelve. It has a diverse population of about seven-hundred students. Eighty percent of its students are bi-lingual and sixty percent of the bi-lingual population speaks Spanish, while the other twenty percent speak various languages ranging from Urdu, Arabic, Créole, French, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Tagalog. Literacy rates at Laddenbrook High School have gone up over the past three years and graduation rates are now surpassing eighty-five percent. Laddenbrook also has a diverse faculty and staff. Many of its teachers have received tenure and are shifting their focus to incorporating Common Core Standards more fluently into curriculum. As a note, family literacy at Laddenbrook High School had been poorly documented over the years, prior to Tessleton’s work. Laddenbrook High School had the ideal location and demographic that Tessleton had always wanted to be a part of. Ever since she started studying Librarianship she knew she wanted to work with students and families from a diverse urban population. When she arrived at

Laddenbrook on her first day, she was delighted at what she saw and she couldn’t wait to get started. Tessleton took over for the previous librarian who had been at Laddenbrook for the past seventeen years. The previous librarian developed some connections with teachers in the building, but failed to maintain collaborative efforts on a regular basis. Overall, many teachers and students utilized the previous librarian and library only when they needed to. As Tessleton was getting situated, the first thing she wanted to do was get to know people in her building, from faculty and staff to teachers and students. She walked around and was surprised at the encounters she had with others, especially when she introduced herself as the new librarian. Despite her enthusiasm, many shrugged her off and continued on their day. Feeling discouraged, Tessleton went back to the library and started brainstorming ways to engage the community of which she was now a part of within Laddenbrook High School. During lunch, Tessleton noticed a group of students making their way into the library. She greeted them with a smile and a “Hello” and they smiled back as they sat at a table near the far window. There was little interaction, but Tessleton sensed something interesting about these particular students. Before she knew it though, lunch was over and the rest of her first day was coming to an end. The rest of Tessleton’s week was similar, but she was trying the best she could to


establish herself as the new librarian at Laddenbrook High School. Over the next couple of weeks, Tessleton spent her time still trying to get to know teachers and students and was slowly beginning to gain a respected trust among her peers. She started taking on opportunities to collaborate with core curriculum teachers and was even starting to develop events that would attract more students to the library. She really felt like her degree was paying off, but she still felt that something was missing. Tessleton had been performing spokenword poetry since she was in college, and decided that it was about time she brought her love of poetry to the library. She started out by having an open-mic during the students’ lunch period on a Friday afternoon. To her surprise, about eleven students came to the open mic with their poetry and other creative writings. Among the students that showed up, were the ones who came into the library for lunch on her first day. Tessleton was very excited to hear their poetry and was intrigued by the various styles they had, and the cultural and social topics they spoke about. After the open-mic was over, Tessleton inquired about how long the students had been writing and if they had ever performed in the past. Most of them said they had been writing for “a while” or “a few years” and more than half of the students that came had never performed their poetry in front of anyone before. Tessleton also asked the students if their families ever heard their poetry. Most of the students said ‘no’, but there were a

couple who replied ‘yes’ or ‘sometimes’. Overall, Tessleton was happy that the openmic was a success and started planning for the next one. The following Monday during lunch, the same group of students came into the library again. Tessleton decided to get to know the students more and to find out what they would like to see or experience in the library. The students gave ideas related to technology, commons, and especially poetry. They asked for workshops on performing and publishing their poetry; two areas that Tessleton was already versed in. She continued thinking of more ways to enhance the library, but as she parted ways with the students, she overheard one of the girls talking to another girl. She was expressing much she wished her mom could hear her poetry because it would really help her get through the loss of her father, the girl’s grandfather. Tessleton was sad to hear this conversation, but eager to provide an opportunity for the girl’s ‘wish’ to come true. She started thinking about ways to bring parents and families to the library so that they could hear the poetry these students were writing. In November, before Thanksgiving Break, Tessleton planned an Open Mic and invited families to come and hear the students speak and perform their poetry. She also invited teachers and administrators to the event and encouraged everyone to share a piece (though some respectfully chose not to). Students shared pieces that spoke about their lives inside and outside of school.


They talked about the boys and girls they liked, school lunches, bullying, domestic violence, gang warfare, loss, success, college anticipation, and even about the awesome janitor that is friendly to everyone. The young lady whose grandfather passed away also shared her piece in front of her mother, bringing her to tears. After the open-mic, the student and her mother approached Tessleton to give her a hug. The mother thanked her for allowing her daughter to have a place to share her poetry and expressed her appreciation for her daughter’s piece. Until that day, the mother had struggled with the loss of her father and wasn’t sure how to talk to her daughter about it. After hearing her daughter’s piece, the mother felt more at ease about moving forward. Though some of the pieces were explicit, more so in content than language, Tessleton explained that it was all selfexpression and that students should feel free to express themselves without judgment in a respected safe space. Everyone agreed, and the open-mic was the start of many further conversations that strengthened the relationships and understandings among parents and their children as well as among teachers and administrators with their students. Since November 2011, Mariana Tessleton has had eleven successful open-mics (now planned mostly by the student-established group, Poets of L.H.S.) each one growing and attracting more students, and has had several poetry workshops around writing,

performing, and publishing. She has invited local writers to come in and share with students and has encouraged parents and families to accompany the students in any of these workshops. Tessleton has fostered a space where families are writing and performing together inside and outside of the library which has brought them closer than ever before. Tessleton’s programming efforts are high and wide. Though many are centered on poetry, they have all helped students establish their voice and build confidence within themselves that they translate into other areas of their lives inside and outside of the classroom. Her poetry program has developed into a full out family literacy program that encourages self-expression through the arts, whether related to poetry, creative writing, drawing, painting, etc. Tessleton has made her mark on Laddenbrook High School and has indeed thought outside of the box to start something new. Tessleton never gave up; despite feeling discouraged as a new librarian when no one seemed to want to give her the time of day. She continued trying to get to know her students and her peers though, and ended up finding a way to connect her personal passion and love for poetry to her love for librarianship. Tessleton is no longer the ‘new librarian’; she has established herself as the “Poetic Librarian of Laddenbrook High School” and has built strong trust and friendships among families, students, teachers, and administrators, one poem at a time.


Conclusion Family literacy is unique to each family and should be embraced. Family literacy should no longer hinder students or their families. It is not a determining factor of brilliance or potential, but instead an ecosystem that fosters growth inside and outside of the classroom. No family is perfect, and not all families are subject to the same experiences, opportunities and literacy fluencies. However, family literacy gaps can be bridged through Family Literacy Programs with the guidance of School Librarians and with the help of students, families, educators, and administrators. Learning does not start when the school bell rings at 8 am and it does not end when the school bell dismisses at 3 pm. Learning is constant. It is an ongoing process that is continuously evolving and is fostered by one’s environments. Literacy is how learning develops and enhances. It is how we connect the dots of our daily lives. We begin learning from birth, and our learning continues to develop with the help of family literacy as we grow older. Family literacy connects generations; one word, one book, one laugh, and even one poem at a time.

Resources Griffis, J.(2003). Family Literacy Programs in School Libraries: Helping Parents Become Their Child’s Best Teacher. Library Media Connection, 22(1), 3034. Retrieved from &db=llf&AN=502908624&site=ehost -live

Holloway, J. H. (2004). Family Literacy. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 8889. Retrieved from &db=ehh&AN=12472274&site=ehos t-live Jay, J., & Rohl, M. (2005). CONSTRUCTING A FAMILY LITERACY PROGRAM: CHALLENGES AND SUCCESSES. International Journal of Early Childhood, 37(1), 57-78. Retrieved from w/194777450?accountid=14214 New Visions for Public Schools & New York City Department of Education. (2008). Opening the door to learning: Literacy is a family affair. NY, NY: Author. Retrieved from hlearn/sls/FLG08_English.pdf Image Credit: 0with%20kids_0.jpg?1357578589

Family Literacy | Bridging the Gap through Family Literacy Programming  

This article was created for my IST668 classes and talks about the family literacy ecosystem.

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