Chapter 1 Family Literacy section one: what is family literacy?

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Chapter 1

Family Literacy
This chapter includes discussion about what family literacy is and what forms it has taken. Excerpts and references to legislation that govern family literacy are provided. You will also find print and web resources for further exploration.


Before examining the concept of family literacy, we must understand what it means to be a literate adult today. In the 1998 Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, the US Congress defines adult literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, compute and solve problems, at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family, and in society.” With this definition, the traditional emphasis on reading, writing and speaking English and on computation skills has shifted to the application of these skills in the workplace and community and the use of information to solve problems.

For the past 30 years, parent involvement in children’s education has been expanding. School programs like Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) and Title I, which were originally designed for school-age children, have incorporated programs for families. Head Start demonstrated that parents’ participation produced greater school success than programs without parent involvement. The PACE/Kenan project in Kentucky developed a successful model for teaching literacy skills to both parents and children, in which content skills were supplemented by parent education and parent-child activity time. Barbara Bush, then the President’s wife, founded a national foundation to promote family reading through which parents improved their own skills while helping their children. The International Reading Association created a commission to study family literacy from a broad perspective and to disseminate information on the way literacy is used in families, on parent involvement initiatives, and on intergenerational literacy initiatives. The federal legislation for family literacy, based on the Kentucky model and shepherded by Representative William Goodling from Pennsylvania, ushered in Even Start in 1988.

It is not surprising, then, that family literacy means different things to different people. Family literacy refers to the interactions of parents and children using language—talking, playing, exploring, limiting, soothing, explaining, encouraging, and nurturing. With the support of the adults in his or her life, a child learns to navigate his or her world with the help of language, acquiring limits and self-control, making choices and solving problems, communicating needs to others, developing emotional ties to parents and siblings, and responding to the print environment surrounding him or her. In recent decades, the locus of emergent literacy has shifted from learning to read in the first grade to preschool interactions in the home environment and from the first-grade teacher to the parent as first teacher.
A second use of the term family literacy applies to the federally funded programs developed to support intergenerational education for at-risk, low-literacy families—programs such as Head Start, Even Start, ABLE, and Title I. The legislation authorizing these programs contains a uniform definition of family literacy that entails four components:

  • adult basic education to improve basic skills, prepare for the General Educational Development certificates (GED), and to learn workplace skills that leads to economic self-sufficiency

  • early childhood education for preschool and school-age children to help them prepare for success in school and life experiences
  • parent education in which parents and caregivers discuss parenting practices and the importance of literacy experiences in the home

  • parent and child together time (PACT) for adults and children to practice literacy activities together.

While improving their reading, writing and math skills, parents have an opportunity to practice language strategies with their children in areas such as storybook reading, discipline, and play and exploration. These skills are integrated into units arising from family issues, citizenship, and workforce readiness.

Parents, children, and communities benefit from family literacy programs. Not only do individual literacy skills of parents and children improve but social skills increase and families place higher values on education. Parents’ expectations of their children change as they learn more about the continuum of child development. Parents become more involved in their children’s schools as they better understand new educational approaches and recognize the important role they have as partners with teachers in their children’s education.

For more information on the research about benefits of family literacy programs see Family Literacy: Who Benefits at

Family literacy, whether spontaneous or promoted by formal programs, is a process of incorporating the spoken and written word into meaningful activities within the family unit. This becomes the legacy of language practices that passes from one generation to the next.


Legislation that defines and funds family literacy programs is found in the following governmental agencies and departments:

U.S. Department of Education

Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Programs (No Child Left Behind)

Title I, Part A

Reading First (Title I, Part B, Subpart 1)

Early Reading First (Title I, Part B, Subpart 2)

Even Start, Migrant Even Start and Indian Even Start (Title I, Part B, Subpart 3)

Even Start Statewide Family Literacy Initiative Grants

Education of Migratory Children (Title I, Part C)

Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (Title I, Part F)

State and Local Technology Grants (Title II, Part D, Subpart 1)

Ready to Learn Television (Title II, Part D, Subpart 3)

Grants and Subgrants for English Language Instruction (Title III, Part A)

21st Century Community Learning Centers (Title IV, Part B)

Local Innovative Education Programs (Title V, Part A)

Community Technology Centers (Title V, Part D, Subpart 11)

Indian Education (Title Vii, Part A)

Native Hawaiian Education (Title Vii, Part B)

Alaska Native Education (Title Vii, Part C)

Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (Workforce Investment Act, Title II)

Federal Work-Study Program (Higher Education Act)

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