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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Educating parents: partnerships for literacy success

Debbie Martens
Kelly Hannett

Debbie Martens and Kelly Hannett are Literacy Advisors for U-CAN READ: Literacy Intervention Years 310

is a literacy intervention for struggling readers in Years 3–10 that is run in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The program aims to provide parents with the strategies and knowledge they need to advance their children's literacy development now and in the future.

Approximately 100 families participate in U-CAN READ annually. The children in the program have all been identified by their schools as performing two years or more below the reading achievement levels of their peers.

The program has had significant success in improving students' literacy outcomes, in increasing students' desire to read, and in reducing the anxiety parents have felt while helping with their children's reading.

The program is a collaboration between the ACT Department of Education and Training and the National Capital Centre for Literacy Research (NCCLR) at the University of Canberra. The NCCLR's involvement includes monitoring international research on best practices and theory in parent education, and literacy teaching and learning; this research is then integrated with the ongoing collection of Australian data obtained from pre- and post-assessments on students, and from attitudinal surveys and parent questionnaires. The ACT Department of Education and Training, which has collaborated with the University to provide parent education since 1983, provides funding for three literacy advisors who help to lead and conduct the program.

The literacy context

Despite ongoing attention to benchmarking and to monitoring performance over the past decade the literacy levels of Australian children have not improved (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2008). Assessments undertaken by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have found that the reading performance of Australian 15-year-olds declined between 2003 and 2006, both in absolute terms and relative to results from other participating countries. While Australian students' performance remains significantly better than the average reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the PISA results point to a 'long tail' of struggling students.

Parents can help to address this problem. The potential for parents to improve their children's literacy has a very strong research base (see, for example, Darling & Westberg, 2004; Gilliam, Gerla & Wright, 2004; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman & Hemphill, 1991; Gilliam et al., 2004; and Purcell-Gates, 2000). The role of parents is also demonstrated through the success of initiatives such as ROAR (Reach Out and Read) in the USA, which supports struggling readers in disadvantaged communities.

Research indicates that programs that help parents improve their children's reading skills also improved parents' own literacy (Darling & Westburg, 2004). Reading programs improve relationships between parents and children, particularly with children who are struggling to read. Such programs can also provide support and networking opportunities for families that are alienated from the school community, and whose children's reading problems may be a source of guilt or shame (Neuman, Caperelli & Kee, 1998).

U-CAN READ: literacy intervention Years 310

The U-CAN READ program aims to improve parents' understanding of the reading and writing process and develop their confidence in providing effective support at home. It introduces parents and children to a wide selection of age-appropriate, authentic, high-interest and motivating texts. It also seeks to develop collaboration between NCCLR staff, teachers and families to support existing classroom practice and link it to the strategies that parents use at home.

The program informs parents about a range of reading strategies, which are integrated with ways to improve spelling and writing, across a range of text types. Some of the reading strategies to which parents are introduced include:

1. Choice. Giving children choice about what they read, while introducing children to a variety of books is a powerful motivation for engaging children in reading.

2. Book Orientation. This may include looking at a book's blurb together, flicking through the book to look at the pictures, talking about vocabulary that is specific to the book or topic or that is difficult for the child. It may also include reading the first chapter of a book to orient them to the story. The process ensures children do not struggle with unfamiliar words or phrases during the reading and enables them to build confidence and fluency.

3. Paired Reading. The parent models reading so that the child has an opportunity to listen to fluent reading. This encourages the child to adopt specific reading strategies when it is their turn to read, allowing them to maintain meaning and fluency. Paired reading strengthens the relationship between parent and child and makes reading more enjoyable and less stressful for both. Its value is supported by a range of research studies (for example, Topping & Lindsay, 1992; Bus, van Ijzendorn & Pellegrini, 1995; and Senior, 2008).

4. Echo Reading. The parent reads the text, modelling fluent reading, while the child 'echoes' what is being read. Children often respond well to echo reading, which helps them build confidence and fluency by reading aloud.

The design and implementation of the U-CAN READ program caters to students' individual needs, interests and existing strengths. At the same time, the program encourages respectful relationships within the family. The program also values the knowledge, experience and diverse literacy backgrounds and experiences of both parents and children.

Parents initially attend a seminar series of five two-hour sessions that are presented by one of the literacy advisors. The seminars are offered twice a week during day or evening time slots. A reflective session is conducted approximately five weeks after the final seminar.

After attending the seminars, parents and their child meet with the literacy advisor to prepare an Individual Assistance Program (IAP). The IAP is tailored to the student's individual needs. The parents, child and advisor then meet on a weekly basis, during which the literacy advisor models reading strategies, and fosters learning between the child and parents. Up to 12 individual sessions of IAP are available.

Evaluation of the program

Student assessment data

At the initial and final IAP sessions children are given a variety of assessments to determine their areas of need and to provide a means for tracking their progress. One key measure is the PM Benchmark (Smith et al, 2008) which places students on 30 levels over the course of the primary years. Children are also assessed using the DART comprehension test (1997), the Westwood South Australian spelling assessment (Westwood, 2005), and the Dolch Word Recognition (Dolch, 1948) test of high frequency words. Writing samples are also collected.

Of all the children who took part in U-CAN READ during 2009, 57% gained more than five reading levels on the PM Benchmark, 33% gained more than seven reading levels, and 18% gained nine or more reading levels, during the 17 weeks of the program.

Although the focus of the program is on reading, 83% of children who participated in U-CAN READ in 2009 gained six months or more in spelling age using a standardised spelling test, and 44% gained more than 10 months. Eight per cent of children gained more than 20 months in spelling age.

Parent survey data

At the commencement of the parent seminars, parents complete a survey to determine their expectations of the program, establish their attitudes to reading, and describe their children's needs and reading history. At the conclusion of the seminars, and again at the end of the series of IAP sessions, parents complete a second survey recording changes that have occurred in their children's reading routines, habits, expectations and attitudes. They are also asked to identify the benefits of the program and strategies they found most useful.

The change they mention most often is their children's increased enjoyment of and confidence about reading at home, and the development of a relaxed attitude towards reading within the family. Reading often becomes 'special family time' where all family members enjoy reading together. Parents have also noted that their children sometimes spontaneously adopt some of the reading strategies taught to them during the IAP meetings, or bring a book to the parent and ask to read it with them.

Children survey data

Children are surveyed at the beginning and the end of the IAP program. At the end of the IAP program, 99% of children stated that they found reading easier or more enjoyable or that they were more confident to read. Similarly, 80% of children considered themselves to be good, very good or improved readers after completing the program. 

Teacher survey data

Teachers were also asked to complete surveys at the conclusion of the program. Response data showed that 75% of teachers noticed significant changes in attitudes towards reading and writing after their students completed U-CAN READ. Teachers commented on children's increased confidence, eagerness to read and improved assessment results in reading.


Programs that help parents to assist their children with reading can support and complement classroom instruction. Parents involved in U-CAN READ in 2009 concluded that when given quality strategies to assist them in working with their children, their children experience literacy success. This is evident in the assessment data collected from the students. Parents supporting their children in using reading strategies such as paired or echo reading and in finding the fun and enjoyment in reading contribute greatly to this success. U-CAN READ provides effective strategies for parents to use at home to support children to discover the passion of curling up with a book of their choosing.


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Darling, S., & Hayes, A.E. (1996). The Power of Family Literacy. Louiseville, KY: National Center for Family Literacy.

Darling, S., & Westbury, I. (2004). 'Parent involvement in children's acquisition of reading'. The Reading Teacher, 57, 774–776.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2008). Literacy and Numeracy in Australia. Retrieved 12/08/2009.

Dolch, E. (1948). Dolch Sight Word List. Retrieved 26 May, 2009 (K–3 Teacher Resources).

Gilliam, B., Gerla, J.P., & Wright, G. (2004). 'Providing minority parents with relevant literacy activities for their children'. Reading Improvement, 4194, 226–234.

Neuman, S. Caperelli, B. J. & Kee, C. (1998). 'Literacy learning, a family matter'. The Reading Teacher, 52(3), 244–252.

Purcell-Gates, V. (2000). 'Family literacy: a research review'. in Handbook of Reading Research. vol 3. New York: NY: Erlbaum.

Smith, A., Nelley, E. & Croft, D. (2008). PM Benchmark 1: Reading Assessment Resource. Victoria: Australia: Nelson Cengage Learning.

Snow, C. E. Barnes, W. Chandler, J. Goodman, I. F. & Hemphill, L. (1991). Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.

Wasik, B. H. (2004). Handbook of Family Literacy. Mahwah: NJ: Erlbaum.

Westwood, P. (2005). Approaches to Spelling and Assessment. Camberwell: ACER Press.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Reading difficulties
Primary education
Child development