4.2 Family Role in Literacy

illustration of a branch

Family literacy development refers to parents and their children using literacy practices and strategies together at home. These literacy experiences are usually informal and occur within the context of the normal family routine (Wasik, 2012). These experiences, compounded daily, support the influence of the family on a child’s literacy development. Many decades of research support the vital parental role in nurturing a child’s literacy development. Consider the literacy-rich moments illustrated in the exchange between Ava and her father getting ready to go to the store.

Vignette: Grocery Store Trip

Two year-old Ava is happily drawing a picture while her father is creating a list for the grocery store. Her father mentions that he is planning to buy grapes at the grocery store. Ava proceeds to scribble across the paper and exclaims, “I added grapes to my list, too.”

This scenario demonstrates the value of an everyday interaction that takes place in many homes. The daily conversations and interactions between children and adults in the home provide models of how people use reading, writing, and language to engage with the world. Every day parental interactions create opportunities for adults to model literacy skills. Early childhood educators have the responsibility to honor the language and literacy expressions present in families’ daily lives. When early educators focus on developing partnerships with families and champion the role of the family as a vital space for meaningful literacy interactions, they help promote family literacy.

4.2a The Home Literacy Environment

The home literacy environment is ordinarily defined as activities facilitated by family members at home that relate to literacy learning, and literacy resources in the home combined with parental attitudes towards literacy learning (Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006). Home literacy environments include practices such as shared picture book reading, storytelling, conversations and singing songs. Literacy contexts reflect multiple variables and include a child’s interests, library experiences, and how parents and children enact a variety of literacy practices in the home (Myrtil, Justice, & Jiang, 2019). Bronfenbrenner’s human ecological theory suggests that children must be understood in the context of their families and communities (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). The ecological environment is a set of nested structures, each couched inside the subsequent one, similar to a set of Russian dolls where each doll of decreasing size fits inside the next. The innermost setting would include the developing child and their immediate setting, likely home and classroom. Bronfenbrenner’s approach closely matches the nest model, where not only is the child considered, but also the immediate environment and the wider context.

 

A parent and two children are sitting at a fountain. The parent holds the book in front of one of the children while the other looks on.
Sharing books with children is an important way to promote literacy in the home.

More recently, the concept of funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) acknowledges the influence of the household and community. Funds of knowledge encompass families’ traditions, experiences, information, and practices. When educators and supportive adults establish a relationship founded on the common goal of successful and healthy development of the child, it supports the aims of cultural responsiveness, equity, and inclusion. For example, when a child shares their enthusiasm for a television program their family is watching together, it draws upon many of the child’s own funds of knowledge. While the child is drawing on a shared family and cultural experience in the show itself, the child is also engaging with notions of occupations and outings, values, chores and activities and vocabulary. A child’s experience shopping at the grocery story is another example of funds of knowledge. A child may learn about quantity, money, shopping practices, cultural norms around food, and patterns of interacting, all while learning and practicing signs and symbols. Drawing on socio-cultural perspectives, educators embrace the funds of knowledge children possess utilizing these resources and skills to build productive pedagogy. In this way, educators acknowledge that every child comes to school with previous experiences that influence their interactions with language and support their emerging literacies.

The home environment of each family is complex and personal, and includes economic, social, and cultural influences. The complexity of home and community environments explains the diversity we see amongst school readiness nationwide. The home literacy environment, parental expectations for their child’s literacy success, and parental characteristics are influencing factors in literacy development (Senechal & Lefevre, 2002). Ideally, prior to entering kindergarten, children have the developmental precursors for reading well-established. This includes skills children learn from shared book reading and oral storytelling experiences, exposure to rhyming structures, and opportunities exploring alphabet material. Literacy development is “rooted” in experiences young children have prior to formal schooling. These informal literacy experiences take place daily in the home environment and involve interactions with caregivers. Examples include caregivers reading to children and an emphasis on environmental print. The caregiver might point out a word or sign to the child. It could also sound like a family member singing a familiar song with a child, making up silly words that rhyme, or saying the letters in the child’s name.

4.2b Literacy Materials and Experiences

There are many ways families engage in early literacy experiences in the home. Research studies demonstrate the strong relationship between school success and early literacy exposure. Children who enter school with foundational literacy skills will likely have success in formal schooling. Children’s access to diverse literacy materials in the home encompasses a range of resources that promote children’s interactions with print. Literacy materials include children’s access to print based materials such as books and magazines as well as access to a variety of writing and drawing materials that children can use to generate print. The influence of technology is also situated in this arena. Digital media offers children additional ways to interact with text and acquire literacy as they read, play, or otherwise explore words and sounds. Children’s interactions across a variety of literacy materials supports their emerging knowledge about literacy practices.

Reading aloud has long been touted as an important practice to encourage literacy development. Educators and parents have long known the positive impact of sharing books with children. Positive interactions between children and caregivers that include picture book reading promote language skills and vocabulary development (Wells, 1985). Additionally, research suggests the way in which children are read to is related to their language gain. If children are given opportunities to be actively involved in the reading experience, for example, asking questions about the pictures, children show greater gains than when an adult simply reads the book (Whitehurst, et al., 1988). While this finding is valuable for educators to consider, the mere value of reading to a child should not be understated or undervalued. Providing children opportunities to engage with books in various ways and settings, including school settings, encourages positive feelings related to literacy.

Books offer children and families intentional and focused opportunities to share, discuss, and experience reading together. It is important to note the emotional connection that is facilitated by sharing a book with a child. This connection is valuable for development, but also for the pure joy of learning to love books and the experiences they create. Books are also used to teach young children skills and to provide understanding of topics that may be difficult to discuss. Shared storybook reading provides an avenue for language learning, offering exposure to new concepts, ideas, and vocabulary that might not be encountered in everyday conversation. This learning occurs both through the text and the talk that is facilitated around the text by the caregiver and child (Brannon & Dauksas, 2014).

Pause and

After viewing this video, write a reflective paragraph summarizing the positive aspects of the read aloud experience you viewed. Be specific regarding what this mother did to enhance this experience.

Sharing books is not the only way to support literacy development for young children. People use stories to learn about curricular concepts, share life experiences, and capture the imagination. Culture and history are, in part, transmitted through story. Storytelling is frequently described as an oral language activity, but the presence of gestures and physical expression are also an important part of storytelling. Moreover, storytelling can also take place through the use of signing, gestures, picture cards or props, and assistive technology. Storytelling is an important expression of symbolic thought as children or adults use language to convey information beyond the present moment or situation. Additionally, it allows children to gain insight into the world of communicating ideas to an audience. Children’s response to stories is both social (Alexander & Levine, 2008) and cognitive (Lehne, et al, 2015). Speakers practice story concepts such as sequence and structure, dialogue, and vocabulary. Storytelling allows children to process emotions and find their voice.

5 Tips for Storytelling at Home and School

This video by the author of How to Tell Stories to Children is an excellent overview of how to tell stories to young children. Summarize the 5 tips presented here and  your reaction to the video. Also, what has your experience with storytelling been, either the storyteller or the audience?

 

Parents read with their child on the floor
Sharing books with children provides a strong literacy foundation

In addition to reading aloud, sharing books, and storytelling, families can also build strong literacy experiences through everyday conversations. Chapter two introduced the idea of “serve and return” and the five steps in facilitating serve and return interactions with young children. Engaging with children regularly using these steps is an integral component of supporting language development. Children successfully acquire language through consistent experiences and opportunities with adults they love and trust. When a young child babbles and an adult responds appropriately, connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication. Much like a game of volleyball, the back and forth interaction is both rewarding and capacity building. Responsive caregivers provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences to build language and literacy knowledge and skills.

Pause and Consider: How Does Our Own Literacy Background Influence Us?

Our early literacy experiences influence how we think about children’s home literacy environments. This includes previous experiences with family members, teachers, friends, and how our time and physical space were structured. Whether it is conscious or not, we are accessing our own memories. Did you have a family member who was a great storyteller at family gatherings? Did you have access to books? Were you read to? Were trips to the library part of your routine? Do you remember any specific favorite books? What was your own pathway to reading like? If possible interview those who might help you recall your experiences.   Our personal literacy journey is shaped by these early and formative experiences. How do you think these experiences supported your literacy development? How do your previous experiences impact your perception of what you believe families should provide to the children you are educating today?

When you have gathered this information, write a one page paper detailing your literacy history.

 

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The Early Literacy Journey: Supporting and Celebrating Young Learners Copyright © 2024 by Sandra Carrie Garvey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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