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March 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 6

Research Link / Family Literacy

Research Link /  Family Literacy - thumbnail
Even as schools strive to provide the best reading instruction, educators are aware that factors outside the school influence their students' success in learning to read. Research confirms the importance of such factors as children's home environments and preschool literacy experiences.
In The Condition of Education, 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) describes survey results showing that literacy activities in the home contribute to early reading success. For example, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study measured children's home literacy activities using an index that counted parents' reports of how often they read to their children, sang to them, and told them stories, as well as the number of children's books and audiotapes or CDs in the home. The children who ranked higher on this home literacy index also scored higher on reading and literacy skills when they entered kindergarten. The positive relationship between a home literacy environment and children's reading knowledge and skills held true regardless of the family's economic status (NCES, 2003, p. 74).
Another analysis of NCES survey data by Nord and colleagues (1999) confirmed that children whose family members read to them three or more times a week were more likely to know their letters than were children whose family members read to them less frequently. In addition, their research found that children whose family members read to them frequently were more likely to be able to count to 20 or higher, write their own names, and read or pretend to read.
Fortunately, NCES survey results suggest that family literacy activities are increasing. The National Household Education Survey examined the frequency in 1993 and 2001 with which parents engaged in various literacy-building activities with children ages 3–5. The percentage of children to whom a family member read frequently (three or more times a week) increased from 78 percent in 1993 to 84 percent in 2001. Increases also occurred in the percentage of children whose family members frequently told them a story (from 43 to 54 percent); taught them letters, words, or numbers (from 58 to 74 percent); and taught them songs or music (from 41 to 54 percent) (NCES, 2003, p. 75).

Factors Affecting Family Literacy Activities

Given the importance of family literacy activities in children's development of literacy skills, what family characteristics influence the frequency of these activities?
The National Household Education Survey found a correlation between family poverty and literacy activities: 87 percent of nonpoor children were frequently read to by a family member, compared with 74 percent of poor children. Race/ethnicity was also a factor: White children were more likely than black or Hispanic children to be frequently read to or told a story (NCES, 2003).
Yarosz and Barnett (2001) found that the mother's education was one of the factors most strongly associated with reading frequency. They also found that when the number of siblings increased, the frequency of reading decreased. Families with a home language other than English also tended to read to their children less frequently.

Family Literacy Programs

To counter factors that may limit family literacy activities, many schools are creating formalized family literacy programs that target disadvantaged parents and children. Such programs often consider the cultural background of the family, encompass all literacy activities that occur in the home, and involve the family's adults as well as the children.
Padak, Sapin, and Baycich (2002) studied family literacy programs across the United States. Programs vary in their design, say these researchers, but share the common goalto strengthen intergenerational literacy and help parents or caregivers learn that they are their children's first teachers and that they can be successful in this role. (p. 5)
  • Basic skills education for adult family members to help them learn skills for the workplace.
  • Early childhood education for the children to bolster the skills they will need to succeed in school.
  • Parent education that enables adult family members to discuss parenting practices, nutrition, and the importance of literacy learning for their children.
  • Time for the adults and children to participate together in literacy activities that they can also do at home.
What kinds of success have these family literacy programs enjoyed? Padak and colleagues reviewed evaluations of family literacy programs and found many documented benefits. For example, adults who participated in these programs enhanced their academic skills, showing improvement in reading, writing, and mathematics proficiency as well as in oral communication. Children demonstrated significant gains in school readiness and in language development and showed increased interest in reading. In addition, longitudinal evaluations have found higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates among participants as well as such long-term social benefits as fewer criminal arrests and higher earnings.
In a study of 100 parent participants in family literacy workshops, Primavera (2000) found that the participants' children reaped such benefits as increased reading time spent with parents, improved language skills, increased interest in books, and increased enjoyment of reading. Parents also benefited, gaining increased self-esteem, confidence, literacy competence, parental efficacy, and interest in their own education as well as a better understanding of the important role that parents play in their children's education.
In summary, research indicates that family literacy activities contribute to children's success in school and that family literacy programs can provide opportunities for educational success for parents and children. These programs can also serve as models of family involvement, showing how families can become part of an extended classroom and build on the work of the school.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). Societal support for learning: Family support (Indicator 37). In The Condition of Education, 2003. Washington, DC: Author. Available:

Nord, C. W., Lennon, J., Liu, B., & Chandler, K. (1999). Home literacy activities and signs of children's emerging literacy: 1993 and 1999 (NCES No. 2000-026). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Available:

Padak, N., Sapin, C., & Baycich, D. (2002). A decade of family literacy: Programs, outcomes, and future prospects. (ERIC Document No. ED 456 074).

Primavera, J. (2000). Enhancing family competence through literacy activities. Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, 20, 85–101.

Yarosz, D., & Barnett, W. (2001). Who reads to young children? Identifying predictors of family reading activities. Reading Psychology, 22, 67–81.

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