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Adult Learning in Family Literacy Programs

I am often asked how family literacy got started.

What’s the story behind it?

Family literacy is woven into the fabric of family life itself. It’s based on a very simple assumption of intergenerational learning. Intergenerational learning practices are found in all cultures throughout the world as well as across all levels of income and education. These practices are not special events; they are embedded in everyday interactions among family members. In the broadest sense, they are about noticing, talking about and exploring the things that children and adults wonder about and experience in their everyday lives.

This is what the researcher Denny Taylor had in mind when she coined the term “family literacy” after conducting a study to describe the rich and diverse uses of literacy within homes and communities.

Those of us designing and teaching family literacy programs should always keep this basic assumption in mind.

Parents take family literacy programs both for the benefit of their children and themselves. The benefits of family literacy programs for children are well documented. Now the field of family literacy is turning its attention to the possible benefits for adults, parents, grandparents and other extended family members.

Learning in family literacy programs is easy to recognize in children – like, say, learning the alphabet while enjoying a picture book – but what does it look like in adults? Here are my thoughts.

Parents and other grown-ups responsible for children’s well-being are adult learners. They have big dreams for their children, for themselves and their families. Like all adult learners, they learn from their life’s situations and events. They learn from problems resolved and goals achieved, but also from mistakes or ordeals.

Adult learning in family literacy programs involves a diverse range of skills ranging from traditional literacy skills of reading and writing, essential skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking to “soft” skills such as confidence, curiosity, and motivation for learning.

“To learn, people need to think about and name what they already know and do within the context of what their peers do and know.” Vygotsky, one of the most influential learning theorists, described this process as the social construction of knowledge. To participate in the social construction of knowledge, adults need to talk, play, work and learn together. In family literacy programs, parents learn by interacting with their children, by listening to other parents’ stories, but telling their own, by trying new behaviours and paying attention to what happens and by experiencing the sort of learning that can be created within their own families.

So, what can adults learn in a family literacy program? I believe that the possibilities are endless:

  • Parenting and learning go hand in hand. People learn parenting skills in many ways: from their own parents, from observing others, from books, articles, books, media, experts and parenting programs. It doesn’t matter how parents learn. What matters is that they engage in continuous learning. Family literacy programs are one of the pathways parents may decide to take to enhance their parenting skills. This is a unique pathway because family literacy programs go beyond telling parents what to do and why. They have a parent child interactive element which can be viewed as an additional “on-the-job coaching” approach to learning. A simple way to explain this is to through a sports coaching analogy. The job of a sports coach involves teaching the rules of the game, providing diverse and multiple opportunities for players to practice their skills and providing feedback that encourages them to reflect on the game, stay motivated and not to give up. Parent-child activities in a family literacy program are based on the similar approach.
  • Reading is the key to all learning in adulthood. Children move from learning to read in their early childhood years to reading to learn in middle childhood years. In adult years, people who read well and who read every day are able to develop new knowledge and skills that allow them to be confident, adaptable, employable and engaged in their world. Reading parenting books /articles and critically thinking about the parenting information available on the internet are perfect opportunities for adults to engage in reading practices that help us think well, speak clearly, problem-solve, make decisions, use digital tools, regulate emotional well-being, etc. One easy way to help parents engage in deep reading is to introduce them to children’s books which tackle parenting dilemmas, highlight characteristics of typical child development and promote love of learning, persistence, empathy, learning from mistakes and other key growth mind ideas.
  • Writing helps adults find their voice and develop self-awareness. Many adults, even if they have achieved literacy, don’t acquire depth of understanding of writing is for, for themselves. It is just something they had to do at school. (For many of us, learning math has been a similar experience – we have mastered the basics, but we don’t really get it.) In a family literacy program, adults can play with writing, to make it their own, in hopes that they will do the same for their children. At the end of this blog you can find and download the journal used in CanLearn family literacy programs to encourage parents to articulate their thoughts and develop self-awareness through writing.
  • Emotions are important part of learning. The confidence or anxiety we hold towards learning can greatly influence if and how we engage in learning, what we learn and how we apply the knowledge and skills we learn in our everyday life. Too often, adults are hesitant to learn a new skill or pursue further education because they think they are not good at learning. They are afraid of speaking up because they are afraid of being wrong, they feel that their opinions don’t mater or that their prior experiences are not valid. In the hands of life circumstances, some adults forget to think positively. In a family literacy program, adults can start noticing, observing and reflecting on behaviour and emotions of children that have a positive impact on them. With the guidance of a family literacy facilitator, they may notice that young children tend to believe that they can be anything they want to be, that they will draw or paint even if the results are just squiggles and they will sing even if no one can understand the words. No matter how small the thing they achieve is, they will be proud of it and share it with people they trust. These are all important characteristics of growth-mindset which is the key to lifelong learning.

Are family literacy programs at their best when they make sure to identify clear adult learning goals and incorporate deliberate strategies to facilitate adult learning?

I believe they are. What is your opinion? Share with us on Facebook.

Written by: Nada Jerkovic


Download Our Family Journal. (PDF)