Parents and Family Literacy

When a state or community literacy initiative promises to “promote literacy at home” or “engage parents.” I always look to see whether there is any discussion of the literacy level of the parents of the children that the initiative is targeting. If not, it’s a pretty safe bet that little-to-no resources are going to be invested in helping any of those parents or caregivers with low literacy skills become better readers themselves.

November is National Family Literacy Month, and I gather, from what I’ve been reading, that the term “family literacy” is sometimes used in this context to embrace a broad range of family based reading activities—most often initiatives that promote reading at home. It’s worth noting, however, that targeted literacy instruction for parents—as well as children—is what has historically distinguished a “true” family literacy program from other literacy initiatives. I know that there are those in the family literacy field who don’t believe that the components of a family literacy program need to be as rigidly defined as the Even Start program, but (I think) everyone does still agree that, at a minimum, a family literacy program should include literacy instruction for adults as well as children.

This isn’t just a semantic issue: funding for true, multi-generational family literacy programs has been dwindling in recent years (the federal investment in Even Start family literacy has been completely eliminated, in fact), and blurring the distinction between true family literacy programs and general literacy promotion could end up masking over the fact that support for family literacy is on the decline.

From a policy perspective, given what we know about the critical role that providing adult literacy education to parents likely plays in improving the academic achievement of children from low-income families, retaining this distinction makes sense. If adult and family literacy advocates don’t make that distinction, there’s no reason to expect that policymakers will. In many communities and in many households, a program that does no more than simply acknowledge a parent’s role in a child’s literacy development is probably not going to be enough.