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Pathways to early literacy: what can we learn from families?

Anne Kennedy
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education, Peninsula Campus, Monash University

In 2003, a research team from Monash University received a grant from the Commonwealth Government to map the pathways for literacy and numeracy and to provide interventions to support these areas of learning for a group of sixty five children in the year prior to school entry. The project was undertaken in the Westernport region of Victoria which is noted for its diversity of life styles, income levels, housing and children's life chances. This article will discuss some aspects of the project by asking:
  • What were the family and community literacy pathways for these children?
  • What can we learn about early literacy education from this project?

Family Literacy

The term 'family literacy' is used in different ways. Sometimes the term is used to describe educational programs for early literacy development and learning which are focused on the parent or family role with particular emphasis on those families deemed to be 'at risk'. These programs are often regarded as 'value-adding' and may be based on a deficit view of families and children. A different use of the term 'family literacy' comes from the position that family experiences are potentially rich sources for children as literacy learners and that these experiences need to be built on at school.

Literacy researchers such as Heath (1983), who adopt a socio-cultural approach to literacy development, uncover the way that literacy is woven into the fabric of everyday life for all families whatever their socio-cultural backgrounds. Australian studies undertaken in Indigenous communities, for example, have found that Indigenous children's literacy knowledge, skills and understandings are seldom recognised and affirmed in school settings (Williams-Kennedy, 2004).What these studies and the Westernport project confirm is that families who have been traditionally defined as 'literacy impoverished' do provide pathways to literacy development in diverse and worthwhile ways.


The Westernport Project

In order to ascertain the families' understandings of the nature of early literacy and numeracy, the participants were given a disposable camera and asked to record images of what they believed were literacy and numeracy events or experiences within their homes and community. The families were also asked to record on a response sheet why they had taken each photograph. These images were not contaminated by the researchers' perspectives as we did not provide the families with our views on the nature of early literacy. Analysis of the hundreds of images indicated that very few images were 'set up' for our benefit. While the focus in this article is on literacy, clearly it is difficult to separate early literacy and numeracy as the two learning areas are interrelated in many ways.


What were the pathways to literacy and numeracy that the families documented through the images and their responses?

In summary, we found that the children were engaged in literacy experiences of reading, writing/graphicacy, speaking, critical thinking, and viewing which were embedded in everyday family life:

  • Books, stories and other texts such as newspapers were shared with adults and siblings
  • Children had the chance to play with a variety of materials and often with family members. Much of this play provided opportunities to support or extend literacy or numeracy learning. For example, children classified, sorted and categorised their toy cars or the family video collection
  • Computers were used for games, finding out information, and for communicating by email with extended family members
  • Shopping provided experiences to use 'real' money and with reading signs, labels and packaging as well as with writing lists and memos
  • Cooking involved numeracy and literacy learning as children weighed ingredients, followed recipes and participated in sequencing or ordering and in conversations
  • Children's graphicacy skills were supported through access to drawing, painting and writing materials
  • Literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills were developed and extended through board games, word games and construction materials
  • The local library was used as an important community resource to support literacy learning
  • Driving in the car, children read the street directory, traffic signs and speed limits and reminded parents, 'Don't do 80 as it says 60 on that sign'
  • Walking in their neighbourhood, children counted the houses, or read the house numbers, street signs and other signage
  • Children engaged with musical literacy as they knew words to songs, danced, wrote and created their own music.

These literacy pathways were diverse, rich in authentic experiences and involved multiple forms and modes of literacy including: critical, technological, spatial, kinaesthetic, play, and musical literacies. Children collaborated with siblings and adults and were active in interpreting and making meaning across a range of contexts. In the images and parent responses the notion of literacy as social practice was evident as the children's experiences were situated within contexts that provided access to and apprenticeship into literacy events and practices beyond the 'traditional' reading and writing of written texts (Makin and Diaz, 2003).


What can early year's teachers and schools learn from the findings of this project?

The project found that family and community contexts for learning are not impoverished places even when family income is low. As researchers such as Marsh, 2000 argue, it may be the classroom rather than the home that is impoverished because of a lack of authentic and deep learning experiences which are connected to children's social and cultural worlds including popular and peer culture. Worksheets, rapid rotations involving highly structured teacher directed tasks, the lack of opportunity for play, and meaningful conversations with peers and adults are the opposite of the home and community based learning contexts for all the children in this study.

School-based literacy programs are challenged to recognise what many studies have identified, that families do provide valuable and diverse pathways to learning that can be built upon. Deficit views of families position children as failures before there is a chance to build bridges between home and school learning contexts. Instead of focusing on sending school-based literacy learning back into the home, which is sometimes a difficult task, we could focus on making school literacy learning more meaningful, and more deeply connected to children's family life, allowing for extended engagement in integrated learning experiences.

Building on family strengths and using the resources of the local community including intergenerational support are all worthwhile strategies for supporting literacy learning for young children. School age children participate in different social and cultural worlds of family, peers and the school. When curricula and teachers respond positively and authentically to these contexts, children's rights are respected, their life chances enhanced and their remarkable competence as learners is fostered.


References:

Heath, S. B. (1983) Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Makin, L. and Diaz. C. J. Literacies in Early Childhood: Changing Views, Challenging Practice, MacLennan & Petty, Sydney, NSW.

Marsh, J. (2000) 'Teletubby tales: popular culture in early years language and literacy curriculum', Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 1 (2), 119-33.

Williams-Kennedy, D. (2004) 'Building bridges between literacies'. In, A. Anning, J. Cullen & M. Fleer (Eds.) Early Childhood Education: Society and Culture, Sage Publications, London.

Key Learning Areas

English

Subject Headings

English language teaching
Family
Literacy
Parent and child