Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
August 29, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 1

Seeing Families as Partners in Literacy Growth

author avatar
Guiding principles for drawing on families' strengths and cultural knowledge to build literacy connections.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

EngagementEquityCurriculum
September 2022 Qarooni Header Image
Credit: FATCAMERA/iSTOCK
My journey as a literacy educator began early. When I was 10, my dad's eldest sister, Ameh Joon Shokooh, lived with us for several months and became my first student. After school every day, she would sit beside me while I read aloud from Roald Dahl's The BFG, sliding my finger under each word, exaggerating pronunciation for clarity. I would turn the book over to her and support her careful articulation of each syllable, imploring her to stretch out sounds.
Fast forward and here I am, decades later, studying family literacy practices as an educator, professional learning facilitator, and mother of four young multiethnic kids. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Iran, that memory of teaching my aunt to read English is one of many that shapes who I am as an educator. I routinely translated for my family at doctor's appointments, filled out forms for them in waiting rooms, and broke down insurance claims to explain why we were charged a copay. My mother's English was far from perfect, but she read stacks of library books to me, translanguaging naturally by inserting Farsi words. When I learned to read, she would drive me to faraway library branches where I checked out coveted copies of The Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew books. These experiences were incredibly important for my acquisition of language, close reading of text, and development of critical questioning skills.
If my teachers at the time had been aware of these interactions in my home, they might have seen my family as strong partners in my academic learning. In fact, they might have centered these experiences to make my learning more relevant, immediate, and authentic. But because these connections were never made, these two aspects of my learning ran on parallel paths.
As a literacy coach, I worry that schools are still missing this important home-school connection. Some educators are conditioned to believe that only caregivers who excelled in formal education themselves are capable of supporting their children's learning. This simply isn't true.

Guiding Principles Framework

Families and caregivers are the essential connective tissue in learning experiences for children; they provide space for curiosity and critical conversation as well as the generational knowledge that is essential to raising a more equitable society. In several important studies, Luis C. Moll found that caregivers in Latinx households impart knowledge in a multitude of forms—from generational medicinal remedies to carpentry lessons, from cooking sessions to financial literacy. These experiences, Moll and his colleagues discovered, contribute greatly to children's literacy learning. What set Moll's research apart was that it wasn't limited to counting the number of books in a household; it recognized (and accounted for) the deep knowledge that stems from all kinds of at-home interactions.

All adults have rich lessons to share with their children about the navigation of a multidimensional world of language.

Author Image

Inspired by these and similar findings, I conducted a project for Chicago Public Schools' Department of Literacy during the 2021–22 academic year. The project included three phases: The first was interviewing stakeholders in 14 pilot schools (that agreed to participate in the study) about their existing family literacy engagement practices and goals. The second phase included gathering and analyzing national and academic research about successful family engagement literacy programs. And the third tapped into the expertise of Chicago schools' staff to contribute to and green-light a roadmap developed to increase family engagement and literacy skills.
Through interviews with teachers and leaders at the 14 schools, I discovered several factors that undergird strong family literacy engagement opportunities. I've drawn a guiding framework from these findings that can help schools and districts ensure that family engagement opportunities are authentic, inclusive, and sustainable.

1. Inclusive Content Focus

A holistic approach to teaching and sharing literacy practices is essential for embracing the diverse multitude of families and children in our care.
  • Provide multiple points of access. Ensure ongoing opportunities for family engagement that support an inclusive literacy community (such as regularly available book access with related suggestions for interacting with texts; multigenerational events that elevate student and adult literacy, such as a cooking class that incorporates composition of recipes either orally or in writing; opportunities for caregiver insight into classroom instruction and literacy-related school initiatives and projects).
  • Expand understandings of literacy. Adopt the mindset that fostering literacy growth involves valuing and building on the variety of ways in which families engage in authentic literacy practices in their daily lives (this means, for example, embracing a broad definition of what "counts" as text, recognizing the role of oral tradition in literacy growth, and elevating various uses of written communication at home, such as letter writing, sign making, or other authentic writing experiences).
  • Strengthen social-emotional learning. Enhance social-emotional learning by empowering families to understand the multitude of ways they already contribute to their children's literacy development through natural, purposeful engagement.
  • Support essential literacy skills. Build academic skills through family engagement in joyful and educational learning experiences by nurturing adult-child interactions through which caregivers and children can grow together. This can happen by communicating with families how natural conversation and authentic storytelling with everyday practices grows their children's communication skills.
  • Expand intergenerational involvement. Invite multiple generations of family members, as well as students of various ages, into school literacy events, welcoming grandparents and children of all ages to join. This can rally entire families around robust literacy learning experiences.

2. Tailored to the School Community

Intimately understanding the needs of a specific community ensures that programming is designed with the families' nuanced journeys, successes, and challenges in mind.
  • Adopt culturally sustaining practices. Programming for parent literacy engagement sustains diverse cultures and ways of knowing by elevating already existing traditions for rich literacy practices in the home. (For example, teachers can encourage natural translanguaging in composition and conversation in the classroom so that students can use their whole repertoire of language skills in any setting.)
  • Support bilingualism. Programming should be offered in the caregivers' native languages, or materials should be translated as needed.
  • Be neighborhood-specific. Convey a sense of understanding for the local community by building trust and knowledge about families' needs.
  • Maintain sensitivity in handling of caregiver education-trauma. Understand and be sensitive to the trauma caregivers may have experienced in their own education.

3. Designed to Promote Ownership and Sustainability

Bringing all families into the fold ensures that they have opportunities to co-plan and make decisions alongside educators and school leaders.
  • Co-create with caregivers toward sustainability. Co-create events and book clubs and share family literacy engagement programming ideas with school leaders and caregivers. When caregivers are given a seat at the table to make decisions about programming for their children, there is more likely to be traction and continued sustainability from school year to school year. Often, a parent lead will take over the leadership role of certain events so that teachers don't have to run events on their own. This sharing of responsibility makes events personal and tailored to the needs of children and families but also allows for caregivers to contribute to the ethos of the school.

Developing a Plan for Action for the School Year

A system for robust family literacy engagement is not developed overnight, but you have to begin somewhere. The new school year is an excellent time to make a plan. The steps that follow represent a modified starting point for teams to think through important parent literacy engagement strategies. They touch on the Guiding Principles Framework to determine how typical parent engagement activities will carry the highest impact.
  • Get to know your families. You cannot build authentic relationships without knowing the people whose children you serve. You can do this through surveys, outdoor (pandemic-safe) visits, phone calls, or communication of any kind that plants the initial seeds for understanding and trust. Who are they, what's the family makeup, what languages do they speak, what do they do for work, what are their everyday rituals as a family, and what are their authentic literacy practices in the home (natural conversations about things that happened that day)? In what ways do they already support their children's reading, writing, speaking, and listening growth? Plan for multiple monthly touchpoints in the form of collaborative learning projects.

    There are many ways to connect families to the fabric of your classrooms and to elevate family stories toward students' understanding of their own identities. You can periodically schedule listening sessions with groups of families and caregivers to better understand their at-home successes and challenges and invite caregivers into the curriculum based on their expertise or interests. A free-form community map can be an alternative to the family tree that acknowledges a broader collective behind every child. This map can achieve the same concept of illustrating connections between the student and those who have an impact on their lives.
  • Excavate your biases about how families should look and operate. It is necessary for us to rethink the way we envision how families must look and participate in their children's learning. As educator and literacy expert Kimberly Parker writes in her book, Literacy Is Liberation:
We see the world through our own racialized, gendered, complicated lenses … [and] we can fail to acknowledge the powerful attributes our students bring with them to school and can, instead, see them as deficits unless we actively work to confront our biases. (ASCD, 2022, p. 53)
Take into consideration what and who we tend to exalt, celebrate, and praise. We have to interrogate ourselves with hard questions. How do we define "family"? What are all the ways a family can look? Do we value a certain kind of family more than others? Do we protect certain families because of the roles their parents play? Do we reach to call mothers before fathers? To connect with white, English-speaking moms who might engage in the PTA rather than with immigrant moms who might prefer a face-to-face conversation?
We all have biases. We may be uncomfortable when families don't look like the ones we imagined we would be working with. Our "ideal" student may look and act a certain kind of way. Or we might project our own thinking about who may or may not be able to support their children's literacy at home. Yet we have to understand that all adults have rich lessons to share with their children about the navigation of a multidimensional world of language, whether they are the executive managing a multinational business operation while traversing transnational flights, the mechanic keeping a neighborhood of decades-old cars running so his neighbors can get to work, the hair stylist working until midnight the evening before prom so her young clients can have the night of their dreams, or the HVAC technician keeping a luxury high-rise apartment cool during a sweltering summer heatwave.
It might be easy to assume that some families can't or don't wish to participate in school activities, when in reality we should look at the barriers to participation that we've created or reinforced through our own unconscious biases. Barring the outwardly toxic, there are no "bad" caregivers, just as there are no "bad" kids. We need to combat deficit thinking about caregivers that stands in the way of building authentic and important relationships with our students' fiercest advocates.
  • Create a system for consistent caregiver communication. If we want true partners, we have to recognize families as such throughout the entire school year. In what ways could you consistently share what's happening in your classroom—not just when there's a problem or special event—so that families feel equipped with context about their child's learning? Figure 1 shares examples of how a classroom teacher might think about ongoing communication with caregivers to ensure they know what's happening in the classroom.
September 2022 Qarooni Figure 1
  • Sit down with your team to determine your plan for family engagement events and experiences throughout the year. List your goals and create a calendar of aligned events that either school staff runs or a community organization supports. Remember, one-off events don't grow family collaboration; consistent, meaningful touchpoints throughout the year do. Use the Guiding Principles Framework to ensure that your plans are authentic, inclusive, and sustainable. Be sure that these guiding principles are informing every component of the event or experience. You can also engage in the following thought exercise, which can help your team cover all bases when planning events, like a family literacy night.

Remember, one-off events don't grow family collaboration; consistent, meaningful touch points throughout the year do.

Author Image

Valued Co-Teachers

When I reflect on teaching my aunt to read, I'm reminded of how foundational and personal literacy is. Literacy is language, the ability to convey ideas with purpose and nuance and reach common understanding with others. It looks different in every household, but every way is valuable. Literacy is connecting with people through body language, facial expression, sound, and art. At its most basic, literacy is communication. It's no wonder the most engaging and authentic literacy lessons are those that layer cross-curricular connections and real relevance into the everyday lives of our students.
The school leaders I supported in Chicago who used the Guiding Principles Framework reported higher levels of interest, excitement, and enjoyment in long-term reading and writing among students—and higher levels of parental involvement. Although these findings are preliminary, they show promise in their all-encompassing reach.
Imagine schools and districts whose every move includes caregivers as valued partners. Imagine, too, that those partners recognize the natural ways they already engage in literacy-rich experiences with their children. When we step back and remember the foundational understanding that literacy is communication, we may see all the ways that our students' caregivers not only contribute, but already serve as teachers themselves.
Author's note: Special thanks to Jane Fleming, director of literacy at Chicago Public Schools, and our CPS Family Literacy Advisory committee: Hilda Calderon-Pena, Kareem Pender, Berenice Pond, and Edna Navarro-Vidaurre.

Thought Exercise for Event Planning

Pick an event that you plan to host, like a schoolwide family literacy night, that includes multiple activities around reading and writing. Now, refer back to the guiding principles as you plan the event and consider questions such as:
  • How will you inform caregivers? Written communication can alienate non-native English speakers and electronic communication can miss caregivers without reliable internet access, so incorporate text messages, phone trees, and multilingual flyers into your event promotion.
  • Will the event inspire joy as well as show caregivers what instruction happens in the classroom? Will parents and caregivers observe their children engaged in exciting learning? For example, kids can create an art project connected to the setting of a text and talk to their peers about the conflicts the characters are facing. Caregivers can actively participate by observing and asking clarifying questions about the text. You can then provide parents with a set of genre-specific questions they can take back to their homes to ask their kids when reading texts alongside them.
  • In what ways will the experience tap into family and caregiver knowledge? Who will speak and how are you shaping the power dynamics of the event? Carve out time and space in the event for caregivers to contribute, or better yet, work with caregivers in advance to help them prepare a portion that shares a relevant aspect of their life. Events are a heavy lift for teacher teams, but they can also be an opportunity to give caregivers agency by enlisting their help. For larger initiatives, you might partner with a community organization to lead a piece of the work.
  • What about logistics? What time will be most convenient for your families? If you schedule an event at dinner time and provide food, your families may welcome a night off from cooking. Whenever possible, invite intergenerational participation, welcoming caregivers of all ages. And offer on-site childcare so families can fully engage with the learning.
  • How will you design the event space to break down physical and psychological barriers for caregivers? Parents and caregivers may have found love or trauma in their own educational experiences and may associate these memories with your school building. If you typically use an auditorium for family events, bring the chairs down off the stage to sit with parents rather than above them; consider using stations in a gymnasium rather than a speaker at a podium; or rotate through more inviting classrooms for a community feel. Even better, find a space outdoors or in the community where families share a greater sense of familiarity and comfort.
  • Finally, how will your next event connect to this one? Can you remind participants of previous experiences and preview what's to come in others, so there's a cohesive sense of literacy excitement across the year?
    September 2022 Qarooni Figure 2

Reflect and Discuss

➛ How do you plan to get to know families throughout the school year? Name one additional action, noted in the article, that you could take.

➛ In what way could you elevate the authentic literacy practices students experience at home in the classroom?

➛ Check your caregiver biases. For example, do you tend to call mothers before fathers or English-speaking parents before immigrant families? What steps could you take to eliminate deficit thinking around families and literacy?

Nawal Qarooni is an educator, literacy coach, and writer who supports a holistic literacy model of instruction in schools. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work alongside teachers and school leaders to grow a love of reading and composition in ways that exalt the whole child, their cultural capital, and their intrinsic curiosities. Her first book about family and caregiver literacy will be published in 2023.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Engagement
Motivational Pull
Jen Schwanke
18 hours ago

undefined
Co-Constructing Family Engagement
Jamila Dugan
1 month ago

undefined
Community Circles Build Restorative School Cultures
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
1 month ago

undefined
EL Takeaways / September 2022
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

undefined
Pandemic-Era Lessons on Family Engagement
Noble Ingram
1 month ago
Related Articles
Motivational Pull
Jen Schwanke
18 hours ago

Co-Constructing Family Engagement
Jamila Dugan
1 month ago

Community Circles Build Restorative School Cultures
Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
1 month ago

EL Takeaways / September 2022
Educational Leadership Staff
1 month ago

Pandemic-Era Lessons on Family Engagement
Noble Ingram
1 month ago
From our issue
September 2022 EL Cover
Strengthening School-Family Partnerships
Go To Publication