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date: 24 November 2017

Family and Home Literacy Across Time

Summary and Keywords

In 1982, Denny Taylor coined the term “family literacy” to reference the ways young children and their parents interact around texts. Since then, the term family literacy has generally been applied to the practices that occur in homes to support young children as they become readers and writers. However, 30 years later, this definition negates the full scope of possibilities that might inform our understandings of the literacy practices that occur within home spaces and among family members. These possibilities reflect two important trends increasingly recognized within literacy research communities. First, technological advances have affected the ways people read and write and the multimodal literacy practices that have come to define literacy in families and homes. These developments are often the focus of New Literacy Studies as defined by the New London Group and others. Second, while generally not addressed in terms of family literacy, a substantial and growing body of research has documented the out-of-school literacy practices of adolescents and youth. Many of these literacy practices are enacted and displayed in home settings. While connections between out-of-school literacy practices and family literacy are generally not explicit, homes and families provide significant social contexts that are critical to engaging in technological, peer-informed, and popular culture practices. In short, family literacy does not end once children learn to read. In contrast, family literacy assumes new forms and involves new modalities that both echo and extend the literacy practices found within families. This is significant, as it challenges conceptions of adolescent and youth literacy as being separate from the literacy practices of families.

To extend what is meant by family literacy, it is redefined as more than traditional activities that involve young children with texts. Instead, researchers are challenged to consider the full range of literacy practices that occur among family members and within homes across time. In doing this, family literacy and new literacy studies are brought together. Thus, the term family/home literacy is used to recognize not only the literacy practices that are enacted between children and parents, but the full range of literacy practices that occur among all family members—including siblings, extended family members, and friends. In short, family/home literacy practices are intertwined with home literacy affordances, which include the texts, opportunities, and technological resources that are available and used in homes. In order to explore family/home literacies over time, children’s literacy practices, including traditional and technological family/home literacy practices, are explored. Issues raised include parental mentoring of school-age children as they encounter new technologies at home, the adaptation of available resources by children as they move into and through adolescence, and transactions involving texts (both traditional and digital) among adolescents, young adults, and their parents.

Keywords: family literacy, longitudinal research, technological practices, literacy, families, schooling

In 1983, Denny Taylor wrote the book on “family literacy.” In that text, she described “literacy as a part of the very fabric of family life” (p. 87). Throughout the text, she presented children’s literacy learning as deeply connected to relationships with their parents and as embedded in the social organization of households. Taylor noted the texts children wrote, the books their parent read aloud, the television shows they watched, and the ways their parent spoke about literacy. Family literacy was understood as part of the daily functioning of families.

Over the past 35 years, family literacy has been taken up, and not taken up, in various ways. The pages that follow explore those directions while revealing a critical silence within the scholarly community. This silence is related to two important trends. First, technological advances have affected the ways people read and write and the multimodal literacy practices that have come to define literacy; these developments are often the focus of New Literacy Studies as defined by the New London Group (1996) and others (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008). Second, a substantial and growing body research has documented the out-of-school literacy practices of adolescents. In a commentary focused on New Literacies, Knobel and Lankshear (2014) rightly argue that “it is the world beyond school with which education is ultimately concerned” (p. 97); ironically, they focus on technological literacies, with little attention to other literacies occurring within homes. Although literacy practices are often engaged, enacted, and displayed in homes and many involve family members either directly or peripherally, these practices have rarely been situated in families. In general, family literacy scholars have failed to recognize the longitudinal nature of family literacy as well as the significant literate resources that operate in homes over time.

While connections between out-of-school literacy practices and family literacy are generally not made explicit, I argue that homes and families provide significant literacy experiences that are informed by technology, peers, and popular culture. In short, family literacy does not end once children learn to read; rather, it assumes new forms and involves new modalities that both echo and extend existing literacy practices. This stance challenges conceptions of adolescent literacy as separate from the literacy practices of families. Furthermore, this review illustrates how literacy practices emerge through ongoing intergenerational negotiations that accompany shifts in social practices, including those involving literacy. Across time, stories and pretend play shared by parents and young children morph into literate practices that support the use of technology and completing homework, and eventually into adult practices that entail completing insurance forms and reading parenting manuals. Thus, as the social demands placed on children and adults shift, so do the literate practices that emerge in response to these demands; families are critical spaces in which much of this literate work occurs.

This article redefines family literacy as more than activities and practices that involve young children with texts. It challenges researchers to consider the full range of literacy practices that occur among family members and within homes across time (Gadsden, 2000). Thus, it adopts the terms family literacy and home literacy to recognize not only the literacy practices that are enacted among children and family members but also the full scope of literacy practices that occur in homes over time. In short, family and home literacy practices are intertwined with home literacy affordances that include texts, opportunities, and technological resources that are available and used in homes.

Considering the Current Scope of Family Literacy: Definitions and Dimensions

Shirley Brice Heath (1983), the most frequently cited researcher in the field of family literacy (Compton-Lilly, Rogers, & Lewis, 2012) and arguably the most influential, focused her classic work on families living in three Carolina communities. While she focused primarily on preschool children and their entry into formal schooling, she simultaneously attended to literacy practices shared among siblings, interactions among extended family members, and practices within friendship groups. The focus was not on child/parent dyads but on language and literacy across families and communities. Reflecting this broad ethnographic focus, Heath commented on the early learning experiences of preschool children alongside references to the experiences of adults and “high school freshmen who are judged poor in compositional and reading skills” (Heath, 1983, p. 54). Thus while she focuses primarily on young children and their parents, the children are situated within generational linguistic and literate communities.

Hendrix (1999) notes that too often family literacy research has been limited to explorations of home/school relationships, literacy practices involving young children and mothers, adult literacy for English learners, and interactions between parents and children involving books. Hendrix worries that family literacy initiatives, particularly those in low-income communities, are often designed as compensatory and are created to remediate the assumedly flawed practices that families from historically underserved backgrounds bring to their children’s literacy learning. These practices generally target one parent and one child—a parent/child dyad—and are generally short-term, lasting only through the first few years of formal schooling.

International scholar have both acclaimed and critiqued family literacy initiatives in the United States. In some cases, international communities have used US models to address literacy learning locally. For example, educators in the United Kingdom have drawn on Even Start and the Kenan Project to craft programs to serve British families (Hannon, 2000). While US-based initiatives, specifically those that correlate particular early literacy experiences with later outcomes, have influenced international initiatives around the globe, including those in Europe, Brazil, Iran, and Singapore (see Camilleri, Spiteri, & Wolfendale, 2005; Fuller et al., 1999; Park, 2008), the adoption of US practices has been critiqued (Bhola, 1996; Cairney, 2002; Camilleri, Spiteri, & Wolfendale, 2005; Fuller et al., 1999; Hannon & Bird, 2004; McNaughton, 2006; Taylor, 1995; Tett, 2001; Zhou & Salili, 2008). These critiques have generally argued for increased attention to local, cultural, and contextual literacy knowledge and practices.

Interestingly, when researchers cast their gaze beyond schools, a wider range of literacy practices become visible across time. For example, some literacy scholars have documented and examined family literacy practices related to religion (Baquedano-Lopez, 1997; Dickie & McDonald, 2011; Ek, 2008; Haight, 1998; Heath, 1989; McMillon & Edwards, 2004). The use of religious texts and literacy practices has been documented internationally (Dickie & McDonald, 2011; Duranti, Ochs, & Ta’ase, 1995) and in relation to both children and older students (i.e., Ek, 2008). Focusing on children in immigrant families, Gregory and her colleagues (2012) documented the mobile and emerging nature of literacy and language learning for children within four faith communities. Their work illustrated how “children actively combine, create, and recreate different narratives, using different languages and different cultural traditions” (p. 323).

As a cultural and generationally constructed space, religious literacy practices highlights what Gadsden (2000) refers to as “intergenerational literacy” (p. 871). She highlights a vast range of family strengths and values as well as the people who affect children as literacy learners, including fathers, grandparents, and siblings. Gadsden attends to relationships among family members, factors that affect family life, and the ways families collectively understand the role and significance of literacy in their lives. Recognizing that family literacy has generally focused on parent-child storybook reading and interactions around texts, she calls for more attention to intergenerational literacy practices that extend bidirectionally, with children affecting elders and elders affecting children. Thus, Gadsden challenges the idea that family literacy is only about helping children learn to read and write. Instead, she recognizes family literacy as developing over the life course as people engage in literacy practices at home and in communities. In contrast to static stages of literacy growth, Gadsden argues for the recognition of multiple experiences, transitions, events, and situations that invoke and involve literacy. Intergenerational literacy should be viewed as a historical tool that

complements all literacy studies in the potential it offers to understand the sources and derivations of practices, the ways in which they prepare children for learning, and the opportunities they lend for literacy access and reading success.

(Gadsden, 2000, p. 875)

In short, family literacy scholars often ignore the existence of home literacy practices. This is especially true once children become competent readers; scholars fail to treat children’s later experiences as significant or relevant. For example, while Even Start serves children between birth and age eight, Hendrix (1999) argues that adolescents could also benefit from these types of reading programs. Luke and Luke (2001) agree, arguing that the focus on early childhood is related to “moral panic over the emergence of an unruly, unpredictable and multimediated adolescence” which can only be contained “through a redoubled effort to restore sensibilities, codes and practices of print monoculture via early intervention programmes” (p. 106). This emphasis on early childhood is assumed to prevent the emergence of uncontrolled, digitally savvy adolescents.

In short, the bulk of family literacy research, both in the United States and globally, attends to the literacy learning of young children and the instructional practices of their parents. While there has been an increased interest in children’s out-of-school literacies—including those associated with religion—there has been a pervasive silence on family literacy between the approximate age of seven and young adulthood. This does not appear to be because family literacy is absent from adolescent homes; rather, there has been an alternative framing of literacy for older children that emphasizes popular culture, peer literacy practices, and technology, while neglecting the roles played by families. In short, literacy practices are reported, but are not connected to families. The following sections review literacy research that has been conducted with families, specifically exploring conceptions of family literacy over time as young children become young adults. They move chronologically, reviewing research conducted with toddlers and young children, elementary school-age children, adolescents, and young adults. Space does not permit extending this conversation into middle-adulthood and old age.

In order to explore family/home literacies over time, illustrative data is presented from a longitudinal study (Compton-Lilly, 2017) that follows children from a low-income community from grade one through high school. These data open each section and focus on family literacy in relation to preschool children, school-aged children, adolescents, and adults.

Family Literacy during the Preschool Years

Ms. Horner: My grandmother told me (laughs), she told me when Peter was a little baby, she says you say the ABC’s to him and you count to him one to twenty every single day. And maybe even a couple of times a day so that as he gets older he will be up a little [advanced]. He’ll be familiar with the letters and the numbers. . . So that’s what I did with him.

Ms. Rodriguez: I play games with them. Well cause you know like, um, say like “book.” I say like this is a book—“b-o-o-k” so that’s how they know how to spell. . . . It’s simple but as they grow up they be looking at it like, “I learned how to read early.”

Ms. Johnson: Well, I talk with him [David]. . . he needs to be taught at home. Even when you’re out in the car showing him different things [signs, labels]. And you ask them what do you want to be when you grow up? What are your goals? . . . Of course he’s at the stage where it’s policemen [and] firemen.

Ms. Horner, Ms. Rodriguez, and Ms. Johnson describe the literacy activities they share with their young children. Their focus is on letters, spelling words, and attending to environmental print, and their goal is to prepare their children for school. Ms. Horner highlights the intergenerational literacy learning practices, referencing advice from Peter’s great-grandmother. Ms. Johnson reminds us that attending to written language is part of a larger fabric of familial activity related to future goals and dreams. Thus even in the early years, literacy learning is embedded in temporal lines of sense-making, as activities enacted in the present reflect not only familial histories but also conceptions of the children’s futures.

Since 1982, family literacy research that focuses on young children has taken different directions and has served different purposes. A substantial body of research has focused on early literacy practices as preparation for school (Hammer, Miccio, & Wagstaff, 2003; Tett, 2001; Wasik & Hendrickson, 2004). Other research has documented literacy practices in homes, particularly homes in diverse communities that have been historically underserved by US schools (Delgado-Gaitan, 1992; Gadsden, 2000; Lynch, 2008, 2009). These studies challenge deficit assumptions about families and suggest that teachers can build on home literacy practices to enhance school learning. Some scholars have looked beyond the parent/child dyad to recognize the roles played by siblings, grandparents, and other family members (Goin, Nordquist, & Twardosz, 2004; Gregory, Long, & Volk, 2004; Perry, Kay, & Brown, 2008). Finally, a growing number of scholars have documented the popular culture and technological practices that occur in families with young children (Kim & Anderson, 2008; Marsh, 2006; Marsh & Thompson, 2001).

Hammer, Miccio, and Wagstaff (2003) are among the scholars who focus directly on the potential of family literacy initiatives to positively affect young children’s reading and writing achievement. They describe “becoming literate as a multifaceted skill” (p. 20) and highlight the relationship between literacy and later school success. Specifically, Hammer, Miccio, and Wagstaff (2003) compare the literate abilities of Headstart children who spoke both Spanish and English from birth to Headstart children who spoke Spanish and then learned English in preschool. While Hammer and her colleagues found “comparable mean emergent reading scores for both groups” (p. 20), they note that both groups fell behind a broader sample of monolingual English-speaking children and recommend increased literacy exposure for bilingual Headstart students during their preschool years. This is one of many studies (e.g., Paratore, Krol-Sinclair, David, & Schick, 2010; Philliber, Spillman, & King, 1996) that reveal and explore causal relationships between early home literacy experiences and later literacy achievement.

Other researchers attend to the literacy practices occurring in children’s homes but with less attention to causality and more recognition of how home literacy practices might inform schooling. For example, Lynch (2008, 2009) examines how children in Head Start programs engage with print. Lynch challenges deficit notions of Head Start families by identifying and describing the literacy practices in children’s homes and documenting young children’s knowledge about print. While she notes that reading storybooks and reviewing the alphabet with children are the most commonly reported literacy activities, she also documents the meaningful writing activities occurring in homes and the dedication that many parents exhibit to their children’s literacy learning (Lynch, 2008). While her research is not explicitly causal, Lynch does suggest that Head Start programs and preschool family programs can play important roles in providing all children with literacy experiences that can have long-term effects while simultaneously arguing for consideration of how “social, linguistic, and geographical factors may intertwine to shape print literacy interactions of adults from low-income backgrounds” (Lynch, 2009, p. 518).

Souto-Manning (2010) considers family literacy practices as resources that can inform how teachers might refine their teaching and redesign curricula. Specifically, Souto-Manning engaged teachers in data collection in children’s home to learn about families’ literacy practices. She argues that responsive and respectful practices reflect a reconceptualization of early intervention—moving from a frame of “remediation to re-mediation” (p. 162). While notions of remediation focus on addressing the perceived learning needs of children, re-mediation involves the reorganization of curriculum and teaching with an orientation “towards new forms of collective activity and multimodal literacies” (p. 153). Souto-Manning highlights the power of drawing upon children’s and families’ existing literacy practices for teaching children from historically underserved communities.

Gregory, Long, and Volk (2004) worry that family literacy for preschool-aged children has overemphasized mother/child literacy practices. In contrast, they highlight children’s interactions with siblings as well as the roles grandparents and other family members play in children’s literacy lives. Perry, Kay, and Brown (2008) focus on how literacy practices engage multiple family members, including siblings, in literate activities that are informed by cultural values and practices. They note that Hispanic parents use literacy activities for enjoyment, to convey moral messages, and as means to engage in bilingual practices. Similarly, in a discussion of literacy learning processes for children with developmental delays, Goin, Nordquist, and Twardosz (2004) describe the role of siblings who help to “promote and maintain the engagement of the focal children” (p. 208). These studies expand discussions of family literacy beyond mother/child dyads to include siblings and other family members as participants in literacy practices that circulate through both nuclear and extended families.

An increasing number of scholars are exploring young children’s experiences with popular and digital media (Kim & Anderson, 2008; Marsh, 2006; Marsh & Thomson, 2001). Focusing specifically on children in a UK preschool, Marsh and Thomson (2001) document the media practices occurring within children’s homes and then collaborate with teachers and parents to create media boxes that highlight children’s popular media interests. They argue for the potential of building on children’s home media practices to inform school literacy instruction. Marsh (2006) draws on three studies of the home digital literacy practices of young children (ages 2.5–4 years). She notes that children’s online literacy practices are not separate from the social practices of the family and worry that these practices are not recognized at school.

As is evident in the voices of Ms. Horner, Ms. Rodriguez, and Ms. Johnson, discussions of family literacy involving preschool-aged children often focus on literacy experiences that are believed to support children with later school literacy learning. This scholarship has often focused on families in communities that have been historically underserved in schools, often challenging deficit views about families and communities. This research has documented the vast range of literacy and language experiences that operate in diverse homes and communities as well as the potential of these experiences to inform classroom instruction. More recently, scholars have attended to the roles played by various family members, including siblings and grandparents. Finally, home literacy practices related to popular culture and involving technology have been increasingly recognized.

Family Literacy during the Elementary School Years

Mr. Motley: We mean business. Get in there and read the book and say it with me and stuff and don’t play around. . . . You’re going to learn that and you’re going to understand it and you’re going to know why the pig did this to the man after he read the book. . . So he comprehend pretty good and see what’s going on with that [story].

Ms. Holt: We watch a lot of news. . . . [I] sit down and they just join me, and just sit there and watch current events when the news [is] on. Bradford’s [understandings of] current events are excellent.

Ms. Webster: I’m going to get a computer. She [Tiffany] wants a Barbie computer—$1,300, with all the accessories. $1,300 dollars. She gonna get it for her birthday. Her father’s going to buy it for her birthday. That’s what he told her. I guess I’m going to have to put half the money in. . . . that’s what she’s gonna get because I want her to learn. You know since I’m learning it [to use computers], I might as well start teaching her how to do it too.

While Mr. Motley focuses on school-based reading comprehension skills, Ms. Holt describes watching the news with Bradford and celebrates his understandings of current events. Although a Barbie computer is a huge investment for Tiffany’s low-income family, Ms. Webster wants Tiffany to learn to use a computer just as she is learning about computers in her life skills training class. By early elementary school, the range of literacy activities described by parents has broadened to include various types of technology alongside school-sanctioned literacy abilities.

A significant number of family literacy studies that focus on school-age children (i.e., kindergarten through grade five) explores either the transition from preschool into kindergarten (Paratore et al., 2010; Williams, 2004) or focuses on children in kindergarten rather than older students. While older students are included in longitudinal studies to document long-term outcomes (Purcell-Gates, 2001; Reese, Garnier, Gallimore, & Goldenberg, 2000), these studies rarely report or explore ongoing home literacy practices. Studies that have documented home literacy practices in the homes of elementary-aged children have challenged deficit assumptions about children from culturally diverse households and documented rich sets of literacy practices that extend beyond school and classroom spaces.

Like descriptions of the home literacy practices of preschool children, descriptions of the home literacy experiences of children in kindergarten often highlight activities and skills that support children as they learn to read. For example, Purcell-Gates (2001) follows students through kindergarten and into grade one. She argues that the effects of being read to by parents are apparent when comparing how children talk about their personal experiences with how they narrate wordless picture books. In short, children who have been read stories adopt written language patterns and practices that do not appear in their everyday accounts.

Other researchers explicitly teach parents to implement particular reading practices to use with their school-age children. For example, Jiménez, Filippini, and Gerber (2006) taught parents to use “shared reading strategies” (p. 431) that involved asking questions, encouraging children to make connections with texts, and having children make predictions about stories. They documented changes in how parents engaged with their children around books and increases in the amount of child talk during book reading sessions.

A significant amount of research involving elementary-aged children challenges deficit assumptions about diverse families (Compton-Lilly, 2003; Delgado-Gaitan, 1992; Reese & Gallimore, 2000; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). Several studies document literacy practices observed in homes to illustrate the range and types of literacy practices occurring in diverse households. For example, Mui and Anderson (2008) document literacy practices in a bilingual Indo-Canadian family. This extended family includes six school-age children who engage in various literacy activities, including playing school, singing songs, completing school-like activities with purchased workbooks and flashcards, playing board and card games, and engaging in dramatic play (playing house, reenacting American Idol). While Mui and Anderson (2008) note a lack of traditional storybook-reading activities, they argue that adults play important and supportive roles by providing children with materials and activities that support them in school.

Family literacy research with school-aged children has revealed literacy practices that occur in religious and community spaces (Baumann & Thomas, 1997; Gregory et al., 2012; Gregory & Williams, 2000; McMillon & Edwards, 2004; Pahl, 2002). Gregory and Williams (2000) describe the literacy practices of Bangladeshi-British children (ages 5–11) living in Spitalfields, a community bordering the City of London. They focus on the rich matrix of activities and experiences that extend across the community as home, school, and community, past and present, are treated as deeply intersecting spaces that are both complementary and contradictory in how they inform children’s literacy practices and school achievement.

Volk and de Acosta (2003) extend their analysis of literacy beyond homes in a Puerto Rican community. They describe syncretism across home, school, and community spaces as kindergarteners, and their families reinvent cultural practices, including those associated with literacy. Focusing specifically on religious and school literacy practices, they highlight both tensions and consequences that emerge as children participate in literacy as activities and expectations from multiple contexts are adapted and adopted. They encourage teacher educators to prepare teachers to recognize and negotiate the syncretic literacy practices and accompanying tensions that children might bring to classrooms, arguing that “teachers need guidance in learning how to move beyond school-centered definitions of literacy and to work with families to identify their goals for their children, the resources and strategies they use, and the literacies they construct” (pp. 40–41; italics in the original).

Pahl (2002) extends conversations about literacy in families by situating children’s literacy practices within larger sets of communicative practices. She examines how three boys (ages five to eight) use texts, images, and found objects to make meanings that reflect and refract family narratives and histories within ever-changing landscapes of communicative practices. The children are observed using visual, textual, and artifactual resources as they participate in sense-making processes that integrate families’ pasts, presents, and possible futures. Moving beyond simple comparisons of home, school, and community, this research explores the meaning-making that occurs when established and historical ways of being intersect with novel resources and experiences. As Pahl (2002) reports, “if attention is paid to the construction and context of home text making, a deeper understanding of the construction of meaning can be gained” (p. 165), and educators can better understand the contributions made by children and adults.

The digital and technological experiences of school-age children in homes have also been explored. Perry and Moses (2011) explore the television viewing practices of kindergarten and first-grade children in Sudanese refugee families. Specifically, they noted that viewing African television programs helped children to maintain connections to their Sudanese culture, while their viewing of American television supported the children as English learners. Lewis (2011) is among a small number of family literacy scholars who directly explores the digital literacy practices of school-age children. She documents the intergenerational use of technology occurring in an African American home. She describes how technological literacy practices operate, noting that even when “participants are in the same room at the same time, sometimes without conversation or engagement . . . they are still a part of the same social practice” (2011, p. 441). Lewis (2011) notes how apprenticeship around literacy and technology operates reciprocally, as parents and older siblings support younger children while these same children provide support to their elders.

Like the parents quoted, some researchers continue to focus on how early literacy experiences affect later learning; over the elementary years we witness a broadening of the range of literacy practices and spaces considered in relation to school-age children. Ms. Holt talks about current events, while Ms. Webster references computer skills. In addition, home and school spaces are no longer treated as separate and unconnected. Instead, intersections across and among these and other spaces—including technological and digital spaces—are treated as contributing to larger inclusive networks where children actively negotiate who they are, what they read, and how they use literacy. These literacy negotiations occur in conversation with family practices and values while simultaneously attending to school expectations.

Family Literacy during Adolescence

Ms. Horner: Does she [the researcher] know about what’s his name? [The] Dan Brown’s books that you read? And I have his other book upstairs. What is it? (Peter provides the title, Deception Point). Have you started [reading] it? (Peter nods). See what happens? I get them [books] to read for myself and before I know it the book has disappeared.

Alicia: [I read the book Black Girl Lost] like a couple months ago. I’ve read it twice already. . . My mom made me read it. She said, “I need you to read that book.” [It’s written by] Donald somebody. [Ms. Rodriguez says “Donald Goines.” He is Ms. Rodriguez’s favorite author.]

Ms. Burns: Well what the child can’t do [on a computer], I don’t know. She’s better than I am. She gets annoyed when I try to ask her a question and she’s “Ah, mom” (heavy sigh). . . it’s so easy. . . Photoshop, loading music to her iPod, um download, what else can you do, dear? [Angela adds “I can write on my tablet and it will do writing to text.”] [And there’s a] website. Dad helped [set up].

The sharing of texts—between adolescents and their parents—is rarely described in family literacy scholarship. The idea that books are circulating in and through low-income families is rarely recognized, operating as a deficit discourse that is equally as destructive as assumptions imposed on mothers of preschoolers. It was Angela’s father who provided her with a refurbished computer, taught her to use it, and helped her to set up a website. These family literacy practices are rarely discussed in the literature on adolescents and their online practices.

In short, the term family literacy is rarely used in conjunction with adolescents; however, there are two notable exceptions. First, there is research that focuses on adolescent parents, particularly mothers. Discussions of adolescent mothers generally highlight literacy practices intended to serve children, rather than parents’ own literacy practices. Due to this emphasis on parenting, this body of research will be discussed in the section Family Literacy in Early Adulthood.

Second, there is longitudinal research that tracks young children into adolescence to discern the long-term effects of early literacy experiences. For example, Reese et al. (2000) longitudinally track 91 five-year-old children into early adolescence through a combination of telephone interviews and home visits. They note that the children’s Spanish and English reading abilities at age 13 could in part be predicted by earlier family literacy practices. However, this study, like many others, does not explore the actual home literacy practices of adolescents, the home literate environments that surround and support adolescent practices, or interactions among family members that involve literacy.

This is not to say that literacy practices are not enacted, negotiated, and documented in the families. We argue that adolescent literacy practices are framed differently—generally associated with peer culture and affinity groups rather than families—and tend to be the focus of New Literacy scholars who focus on technological literacies (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008; New London Group, 1996). However, these ways of categorizing literacy practices obfuscate the fact that a significant number of adolescent literacy practices occur within homes, often with the support of family members.

Rogers (2002) and Wiseman (2009) are among the few scholars who explicitly situate the work with adolescents as “family literacy.” Rogers explores the literacy practices Vicky (aged 11–13) shared with her mother. Documenting various discourses related to schooling, mothering, and a special education meeting, Rogers identifies a broad range of literacy practices in Vicky’s home, including homework completion, a home library, drafting a petition, and reading and writing financial documents. These everyday literacy practices challenge school assessments of Vicky and her mother as disabled and minimally literate. Wiseman (2009) focuses on how adolescents “defined and affected family involvement within a poetry unit which was developed and funded as a way to involve the families in the school” (p. 133). Wiseman describes parent involvement with this school-sponsored project as dependent upon how closely school poetry-writing experiences resonated with participants’ home literacy practices. Eighth-grade students were more likely to tell their parents about the school poetry event and invite their parents to attend if they participated in similar activities at home.

Literacy practices involving adolescents are generally not situated within families. Instead, they are situated more diffusely in relation to other activities and practices. For example, while primarily focused on interpreting and translating in immigrant families, Dorner, Orellano, and Jiménez (2008) note that young adolescents (grades five though seven) mediate written texts for family members—including letters and bills, sibling homework assignments and storybooks, report cards, papers sent home from school, and forms. They note that these translation practices sometimes involve tensions as children negotiate messages that may be difficult for family members to hear or for children to translate, revealing significant roles that young adolescents play in family literacy practices.

Kinloch, Burkhard, and Penn (2017) suggest that the out-of-school literacies of children from historically underserved communities offer significant counternarratives that challenge the school-based “narratives of failure and disengagement” (p. 67). Focusing on the literacy practices of Appalachian youth, Gay (2010) describes the role family stories play in creating culturally responsive literacy classrooms. Specifically she cites the Foxfire project in which ninth- and tenth-grade adolescents created familial and communal ethnographies that legitimized the “family and community funds of knowledge of culturally diverse students” (p. 174). Gay argues that teachers should access the cultural literacies that adolescents bring to classrooms, thus valuing the stories and familial histories of culturally diverse students. Literacies, stories, and communal and family histories are recognized as literate resources rather than as deficits. While Gay’s work is presented in an edited book focused on home literacy, it focuses on how teachers can create culturally responsive classrooms rather than exploring the literacy practices in adolescents’ homes. Thus, while the existence of familial and cultural stories is recognized, the ways they stories are crafted, revised, and told in families are not discussed.

Lam (2000) describes the case of Almon, who uses the family computer to engage in a rich set of literacy and language practices involving a transnational group of peers. However, Lam does not explicitly attend to the home and familial context. Significantly, the existence of the computer in Almon’s household, as well as his propensity to use the computer to interact with Asian heritage peers, is not addressed. It is likely that Almon’s status as a member of a Chinese immigrant family is related to his commitment to create a personal website related to Japanese popular culture that attracts a transnational group of Asian peers.

These examples treat family literacy tangentially. They describe literacy practices as parts of larger processes—translating for family members, designing culturally responsive literacy classrooms, and creating websites. The focus is on activities rather than the ways literate practices are situated and operationalized within families. Leander (2008) points to this troubling silence. He notes that some Internet scholars (e.g., Holloway & Valentine, 2001) fail to recognize relationships between online and offline literacy practices. In contrast, Leander quotes Lam, who in a “personal communication” recognizes that digital literacy practices are situated within homes and families. She notes that the “local situation predisposed them, in a way, in their approach to online practices and how these online practices in turn effected their view of themselves in the local situation” (cited in Leander, 2008, p. 49). Leander notes the significance of connections between online and offline practices, arguing that “the Internet has sometimes been constructed by researchers as a disembodied site for research, where physical boundaries and locations of participants are irrelevant” (Leander & McKim, 2003, p. 214). He challenges researchers to take seriously the relationships between online and offline literacies, arguing that “online technologies extend rather than replace offline relationships” (p. 219, emphasis in the original). In addition, Leander and McKim note that “the Internet is not opposed to traditional forms of relationship, and especially to kinship” (p. 220), noting that other scholars have revealed the ways immigrant families and communities use the Internet to connect with family members around the globe (Compton-Lilly, Kim, Quast, & Tran, in press; Miller & Slater, 2000).

Offline and online literacy practices that occur in homes must be examined as potential family literacy practices. While adolescent online literacy practices may involve popular culture and peers, they also take place in homes. Technological devices, and the expectations that accompany the use of those devices, are generally purchased and maintained by parents. In addition, adolescents—like Angela, who is quoted crediting her father with helping her to set up her website—often draw upon and extend the online literacy introduced and modeled by parents. In short, the ways family members interact and collaborate around technology has not been recognized and presents a notable gap in current understandings of family literacy across time.

Family Literacy in Early Adulthood

Ms. Johnson: Umm I like [reading] love stories. I like the magazines that come through the mail. I like Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, and United States history is my favorite. . . . [I read] all about all the wars. You know certain dates, presidents, all that kind of stuff. Yeah. I love that stuff.

Ms. Holt: I still read. I read recipes. I give him a good homework [assignment] and [I have Bradford] read off the recipes. And I read on the internet, on the books [and] I make up my own recipes.

Ms. Rodriguez: All of my friends are good readers, all of them. . . We like to trade [books]. [Ms. Rodriguez recreates the conversation] “Got a good novel?” “Did you read so and so, so and so.” “No?” “You got it?” “Yeah. You should check it out.” “Send it by so and so or I [will] come and get it.” You know stuff like that. Yeah we trade books.

Ms. Johnson, Ms. Holt, and Ms. Rodriguez are not discussing literacy activities to help their children. Instead, they are describing themselves as literate—revealing another critical silence. As demonstrated in the preceding section, what parents read can influence adolescents’ literacy practices. However, the literate practices of young parents extend beyond the use of parenting texts. Notably, the texts preferred by Ms. Johnson, Ms. Holt, and Ms. Rodriguez are different. Magazines, historical texts, recipes, and novels are all represented and presumably contribute differently to the familial literacy practices in each household.

As has been described, attention to literacy practices of adults has often been limited to practices that are assumed to help young children learn to read and write. When family literacy is explicitly mentioned, parents, and particularly mothers, are often treated as mechanisms for helping children learn to read rather than as literate individuals in their own right. Thus research exploring the literacy practices of adults is often limited to explorations of literacy practices that are assumed to directly serve children (Hammer, Miccio, & Wagstaff, 2003; Tett, 2001; Wasik & Hendrickson, 2004).

While researchers have yet to fully explore interactions around texts among adults and with older students, attention has been paid to the types of adult literacy practices that occur in homes (Barton & Hamilton, 1998 [2012]; Gregory & Williams, 2000; Heath, 1983; Lynch, 2009; Purcell-Gates, 1996). Based on an extensive ethnographic study conducted in England, Barton and Hamilton (1998 [2012]) documented the local and everyday literacies that accompany adult life. Their goal was to document the literacy practices of adults to identify literacy practices that should be taught to children. In their 2012 edition, they note significant changes in literacy practices that can be traced to technological advances, changing immigration patterns, the widespread use of mobile phones, and social media.

Several studies focus on adult literacy to explicitly challenge deficit assumptions about parents (Auerbach, 1995; Baumann & Thomas, 1997; Compton-Lilly, 2004; Phillips & Sample, 2005; Purcell-Gates, 1993). Challenging accounts of uncaring and uninterested parents, Baumann and Thomas (1997) document the commitment of one African American mother to her child’s literacy learning. This research features this mother’s words as she describes the barriers she encountered, her efforts to support her child at home, and her collaboration with her daughter’s school. Similarly, Phillips and Sample (2005) draw on the voices of parents participating in a family literacy program targeting low-income rural and urban families. These parents express recognition of the significance of literacy learning and convey a deep desire to provide their children with activities and experiences that will support them in becoming capable readers and writers. Similarly, Purcell-Gates (1993) revealed the deep commitment of an Appalachian woman expressed in relation to her learning to read and write. Although Jenny brought different experiences and language practices to her adult literacy classroom, she was able to obtain basic, yet significant, levels of literacy achievement when she encountered texts that were useful in her everyday life. More recent studies have highlighted the importance of adults being involved in shared decision-making and leadership for family literacy programs (Toso, Prins, Drayton, Gnanadass, & Gungor, 2009) and the significance of adults being supported in developing a sense of empowerment and agency (Zacharakis, Steichen, Diaz de Sabates, & Glass, 2011). These accounts highlight the abilities of parents to act on their own behalf and honor the perspectives and knowledge that parents bring to their children’s literacy learning. Belzer and Pickard (2015) analyze depictions of adult learners that operate within academic literature, including adults who are depicted as “competent comrades” and treated as research participants rather than subjects as they participate in “knowledge generation to help the field understand their experiences and more effectively meet their needs” (p. 12).

Accounts that challenge deficit discourses about low-income parents and households reveal that literacy practices are common and that being able to read and write is highly valued. However, the richness of literate interactions in these spaces has been under-recognized. Ms. Holt’s recipe books and Ms. Rodriguez’s book-sharing practices are neither recognized nor connected to the ongoing literate development of their children. Exploring family literacy longitudinally will reveal more complete portraits of literacy practices over time and has the potential to show how young people are supported with literacy over time.


Quigley (2005) argues for attention to “literacy across the lifespan” (p. 333). He asks “why researchers, practitioners, and policymakers cannot cooperate to develop a more comprehensive, accessible, meaningful path for literacy learners—irrespective of age—in our so-called ‘learning society?’” He notes the fragmentation that separates young literacy learners from older literacy learners, creating schisms and complications that deny the social nature of literacy practices and complicate literacy learning for both children and adults, and posits that family literacy could serve as a shared “meeting ground” (p. 332) that can be used as a lens for considering literacy practices across a lifetime.

Likewise, Gadsden (2000) argues that “intergenerational literacy complements all literacy studies in the potential it offers to understand the sources and derivations of beliefs and practices, the ways in which they prepare children for learning, and the opportunities they lend for literacy access and reading success” (p. 875). These perspectives direct attention away from individuals to families—particularly during the adolescent years. However, the contributions of families have generally been invisible, as literacy practices have been attributed to and relegated to discussions of peers and popular culture. As Luke and Luke (2001) argue, attention to the experiences of adolescents talks back to an ongoing focus on “intersubjective deficits of learners’ families, homes and parents” (p. 102), highlighting the significant literate contribution made by families. This omission silences the ongoing literate contributions of family members who provide texts and technological tools, model practices, and nurture familial communities of support. Rowsell and Pahl (2007) argue that literacy researchers and educators must view “texts as a part of a wider social process that is active, creative and infused with identities in practice” (p. 402). In a digital age where even young children find themselves introducing their parents to literacy practices and technological tools (Holloway & Valentine, 2001), the bidirectional and intergenerational nature of literacy practices is highly significant.

Across time, literacy practices shared among parents and young children emerge and shift alongside accompanying shifts in social demands and practices. Storybook reading, rhyming games, and computerized toys that invite children to practice letter/sound relationships morph into video games, popular culture websites, and the texts entailed in completing homework. Shifts occur as young adults engage in the literate demands of banking, taxes, and insurance, but also the reading of websites, magazines, and parenting manuals. In short, the ways family members interact, collaborate, and reciprocally learn and practice literacy across time is significant and has the potential to inform how we think about family literacy and the role literacy plays in people lives across time.

This recognition of literacy as a longitudinal venture highlights the significance of the stories of children presented in this article. Parents who aspire to prepare their children for school while engaging them with new technologies, young adults who exchange books with their parents, and parents who celebrate their own rich literate lives are all part of an under-recognized intergenerational literacy story. As Gadsden (2000) argues, “Longitudinal studies offer us the most important information to understand the nature of outcomes and enable us to focus on problems, not symptoms” (p. 884). The need is to capture the contributions made by family members over time as children move through school, into adulthood and beyond.

While the longitudinal data presented here reveals patterns related to documenting causal relationship, recognizing a vast range of literacy practices, extending family literacy beyond the parent child dyad, and challenging deficit assumptions about diverse families, it has also revealed omissions and frames that have obfuscated many contributions made by families to children’s literacy learning over time.


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