Intergenerational Literacy

Intergenerational Literacy

Intergenerational Literacy
An Open Door Collective Background Paper
July, 2016


The Open Door Collective (ODC) is dedicated to reshaping U.S. society to have dramatically less poverty and economic inequality and more civic engagement and participation in all our society has to offer. We advocate including adult basic skills, including English language, basic literacy, numeracy, high school equivalency, college readiness, and technology skills as an integral part of a larger agenda of reducing poverty and income inequality, broadening social participation, and moving us closer to the kind of society in which we all want to live. State and federally funded adult basic education programs and adult schools in the United States comprise what is often referred to as the Adult Basic Education (ABE) system. Each year, about 1.8 million adults participate in ABE programs funded by federal and state government under Title II, Adult and Family Literacy, of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
An important outcome of adult family members’ participation in ABE programs could be improved reading skills of their children. This impact could come when parents interact with their children or it could come from parents’ improved ability to understand and respond to written communications from their children’s teachers, to help their children with homework, and to be more comfortable participating in their child’s school’s parent insolvent activities.
Parental Role in Helping Children Learn to Read
The National Research Council’s (NRC) report of the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children[1] found that children of parents with low literacy skills are likely to enter school with neither language and pre-reading skills needed to succeed at literacy acquisition nor the motivation to practice reading. The report describes the mechanism that causes this deficit as having two components: (1) Parental attitudes and beliefs and (2) Parental behaviors.

  1. Parents who value reading and read because they enjoy it have children who are motivated to learn, and use reading skills, while parents who do not read or find reading challenging have children who view reading as a school experience unrelated to their life outside of school. When their own negative attitudes and beliefs are absorbed by their children, parents can undermine their children’s motivation to learn to read.
  2. Parents who frequently ask their children questions and respond to the questions their children ask, provide a print-rich environment and read to their children, demonstrate reading’s ability to solve problems, interact with their children around reading activities, make reading an enjoyable experience for their children, and help their children develop strong oral language skills are helping their children prepare for learning how to read in school.

The report also found that family literacy programs that build parents’ language and literacy skills and help parents learn how to support their children in learning to read do produce the kind of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that support children’s acquisition of reading skills. A parent’s participation in an adult literacy class can change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in ways that have a positive impact on their children’s progress in acquiring and improving reading skills. These changes occur as a result of parents improving their literacy skills, but the impact of these changes can be increased by directly teaching parents how to display attitudes and practice behaviors that research has identified as having a positive impact on children’s literacy acquisition and improvement. 
What Parents Should Do
The NRC findings led the National Institute for Literacy[2] to commission a study of specific activities that parents should do with their children to support their learning to read, which was published as five booklets[3] for parents of young children who have not started school and those who have started school. These booklets summarized the research literature into a set of easily understood activities that parents should do with their children at each age level. Some of these activities do not require literacy skills, while others require literacy skills that could be developed in an adult literacy class. The activities are:
When a child is two or three years old, parents should:

  1. Talk to their child throughout the day about what the child is doing, what the parent is doing, and what is happening around them.
  2. Ask their child questions that the parent knows the child can answer.
  3. Teach their child the names of everything in his or her environment.
  4. Make learning and using new words fun.
  5. Buy some children’s books and alphabet toys and encourage their child to play with them.
  6. Give their child paper and something to draw with and encourage them to draw pictures and then tell the parent about them.
  7. Read to their child every day, even if it is only for a few minutes.
  8. When the parent reads, point to any pictures and ask the child questions about them.
  9. When their child has a favorite book, ask her or him to bring it to the parent, who should be willing to read it many times. As a child learns that story, a parent should ask their child to tell the story as the parent turns the pages.

When a child is four or five years old, parents should:

  1. Talk with their child throughout the day about what the child is doing, what the parent is doing, and what is happening around them.
  2. Ask their child questions about what they did, what they are doing, what they want to do, and ask them to give details.
  3. Teach the child words that are not in their environment by describing them, showing them pictures, or going to see what the words describe.
  4. Help their child hear and say the first sound in words, like the b in book, and when two words start with the same sound, like book and boat.
  5. Help their child hear words that rhyme, such as boy and toy.
  6. Talk to their child about the letters of the alphabet, teach their child the letter names, and help them find letters in a book.
  7. Ask their child what, where, and when questions about what the parent reads to the child.
  8. Encourage their child to pretend to read and write.
  9. Teach their child to recognize colors, numbers, and shapes.
  10. Take their child to a school and let them see what happens there.
  11. Talk to their child about school and what fun it is.

When a child is enrolled in school, parents should:

  1. When the child is home from school, ask about what the child did and learned.
  2. Continue to talk with their child and ask them questions.
  3. When reading with their child, ask the child to do some of the reading, if he or she is able.

Parents in an ABE program can learn how to do these activities with their children, practice the activities, and then discuss their successes and seek advice to overcome difficulties they find while doing these activities in their homes.
Several intergenerational interventions have some evidence of impact. These include:

  1. In a quasi-experimental study in Denver[4], Robin Waterman tested an intervention that integrated parent involvement knowledge and behaviors into instruction focused on helping Spanish-speaking mothers build oral and literacy skills in English. The study found that the treatment group had a statistically significant (p< 0.01) improvement on five behaviors: (1) Support of homework, (2) Home literacy support, (3) Communication with teachers, (4) Communications with principals, and (5) Awareness of school-based resources, compared to the control group. In addition, the women in the treatment group showed greater gains in oral and literacy skills than the control group.
  2. Using matched pre-post interviews, a study[5] of an 18-hour per week, six-week family literacy program in the US found parents reported increases in their direct teaching of literacy and the provision of literacy activities with their children increased significantly (p< 0.05) as a result of the program.
  3. In a quasi-experimental, small sample study,[6] a group of low-income parents were trained in effective storybook reading strategies to undertake with their children. The children of treatment group parents had higher scores at a level that was statistically significant (p<0.05).

Policy Implications
Providing parents or future parents with an opportunity to improve their English language, reading, and math skills or to acquire high school certification and enter a vocational or academic program can help their children do better in school. The investment in adults, therefore, pays a double dividend: parents do better in the workforce and children do better at school. Public and private funds invested in ABE programs, therefore, will be offset by higher taxes from higher incomes over at least two generations.  If ABE programs also include content that can help parents play a more supportive role in their children’s education, the return on investment will be even higher.
Authors of this paper are John P. Comings, EdD, World Education and David J. Rosen, EdD, Independent Consultant.