Family literacy in Ireland

Summary of national and international research

What is family literacy?

The term ‘family literacy’ was introduced as a concept in Taylor (1983) who studied the development of literacy and language at home in the USA. Since then the term family literacy has been used to describe literacy development work that focuses on how literacy is developed at home, and education courses that support and develop this dimension of literacy development. Research in Ireland and at international level reveals similar issues in relation to literacy, schools, children’s learning and the key role of parents and carers. In particular, the research highlights the vital role played by parents, grandparents and other care-givers in children’s education. According to the research parental involvement in a child’s learning has more of an impact on their educational outcomes than any other demographic measure including social class or level of parental income (Desforges, 2003; Feinstein et al, 2004; EFLN 2008: NESF, 2009).

Findings from NALA research

Our findings are presented under the following headings:

  • Learning in the home;
  • School issues;
  • Impact on home school relationship;
  • Benefits to parents; and
  • Recommendations from the research.

 

Learning in the home

  • Parents described family literacy as what happened outside school. This learning activity was seen to be located within the wider nurturing work of the family and to have care, resource and skill implications;
  • Views of family literacy were clearly rooted in parents’ own experience of nurture and how they had processed this in adulthood. There were frequent references to their own childhood experiences of learning at home and school; and
  • Parents spoke of building individual and family bonds with children around learning, paying attention to their concerns and bolstering their learning identity. They talked about heaping praise on their children’s efforts and achievements and creating spaces when, as a family, they could talk and listen to each other.

 

School issues

Analysis of the research data shows that when it comes to school issues:

  • Parents felt confident about family literacy work that happens prior to formal schooling;
  • Parents level of inclusion and involvement in their children’s schooling was largely determined by the ethos of individual schools and the leadership provided by the school principal; and
  • The degree of home school collaboration impacts on the quality of family literacy and how best to support children.

  

Impact on home school relationship

Our data shows that participation in family literacy programmes has:

  • Helped equip parents with the coping skills to interact more effectively with school and school staff and has helped facilitate better communication between the home and school;
  • Provided parents with a better understanding of the requirements of their child/ren’s school work and has had positive academic outcomes for the children involved; and
  • Raised recognition among many school staff of the important role family literacy performs in enhancing home school relationships and improving the behavior and academic performance of the children involved.

 

Benefits to parents

According to parents, participation in family literacy programmes has:

  • Provided them with an opportunity to socialise with other parents alongside developing their learning skills;
  • Been of benefit to families in helping with their children’s homework and other related school work;
  • Provided all round family support that extends beyond the requirements of school work;
  • Helped to alleviate some of the pressure experienced by parents with literacy difficulties; and
  • The provision of a small allowance to cover additional costs, for example, childcare costs, has assisted low income families to continue in and progress in family learning programmes.

 

Conclusion

Literacy development remains a crucial and pressing issue in Ireland and investment in family literacy provides a win-win scenario to policy makers. In the context of the current climate, family literacy provides a policy option that can help deliver value on several socio-economic priorities such as raising adult literacy levels, enhancing child literacy development and improving children’s perfomance in schools.

Research has shown how family literacy work helps to overcome the barriers to learning felt by some adults and children. It is an important way of recognising and building the literacy strength of families who before have felt excluded or marginalised from the expectations of schools and society. Our research has highlighted how family literacy programmes can improve the literacy practices of family members. More importantly family literacy work offers potential opportunities to break inter-generational cycles of educational disadvantage that exist in Ireland.

 

Recommendations from the research

Policy recommendations

  • National literacy policy should include an increased commitment to family literacy as a basis for improving chances of educational equality for children and adults.
  • HSCL personnel should have access to relevant adult literacy awareness training.
  • Family literacy also needs to be supported and enabled with quality childcare provision and peer support opportunities.
  • A NALA, DES, IVEA partnership should work with DEIS schools to make a systematic community development model of family literacy available to parents in their locality.

Practice recommendations

  • Parents with literacy needs should be offered access to an intensive family literacy programme as a first stepping stone back into learning. Where necessary advice, guidance and counseling should be made available.
  • When it comes to the design and delivery of family literacy programmes parents want to be consulted about the content of the programmes as their needs are complex and change according to the age and number of children.
  • A menu of accredited family literacy modules should be made available to parents.

These modules would include:

  • Understanding how learning happens;
  • Early years language development;
  • Reading with children;
  • Fun and creativity in language,
  • Literacy and numeracy;
  • Computer skills;
  • Communicating successfully with schools;
  • Dealing with bullying; and
  • Strategies for family literacy with children who have specific learning difficulties.