What is Family Literacy?

Introduction to Family Literacy

In the past twenty-five years, family literacy has become an umbrella term to describe a wide variety of literacy intervention programs that designed and delivered in an inter-generational context. Family literacy programs typically emphasize the fact that parents should be encouraged and supported in their role as “their child’s first and most important teachers.” However, this message is also characteristic of other types of programs, such as early childhood education programs, parenting programs as well as (pre)school parent involvement initiatives. As family literacy programs operate at the intersection of adult literacy and early childhood education fields, questions arise:

  • What is family literacy?
  • How is it different from any other kind of literacy?
  • How can family literacy programs support parents as adult learners in the process of acquisition of literacy for family members?

In this article, we will attempt to tease out answers to these questions by considering history, learning goals, content, methodologies and anticipated outcomes of family literacy programs.


The term “family literacy” was coined by the researcher Denny Taylor.

For five years, from 1977 to 1982, Taylor observed six middle-classes, suburban families, each with children who were learning successfully to read and write. Her goal was to discover what parents in these families did to foster literacy. Much of her study describes how parents in these six families encouraged and participated in their children’s actual reading and writing experiences. The literacy experiences she described involved parents listening to children read materials they brought from school as well as other reading materials. Playing word games with their children, reading aloud, pointing out words in signs, and reading and talking about instructions for games and activities. As well, parents and children communicated through written messages such as notes, letters, signs, lists, memos and charts. Taylor also learned that reading aloud to children was an integral part of each family’s life. Through story sharing, parents introduced the art of reading by helping children see strategies for decoding as well as comprehending print. Young children experimented with reading, initiating the reading behaviours of adults and older siblings, and they told stories about their books after “reading the pictures.” Parents talk about pictures, played guessing games with pictures, and text, interchanged words for humorous effect, related events of the story to the everyday lives of the child, re-read favourite stories and continued to read aloud to older children.

30 years before the term “family literacy” was coined by Denny Taylor, Paulo Freire, one of the founding figures of the adult literacy field, wrote about his experiences of learning in his middle-class family:

“My father played an important role in my constant search for understanding. Being affectionate, intelligent, and open, he never refused to listen to us talk about our interests. He and my mother were a harmonious couple whose union did not lose them their individuality. They exemplified for us what it means to be understood and to understand, never showing any signs of intolerance. Although my mother was Catholic and my father was a spiritualist, they always respected each other’s religious opinions. From them, I learned early on the value of dialogue. I never was afraid to ask questions, and I do not recall ever being punished for disagreeing with them.

They taught me how to read my first words and then how to write them on the ground with a wooden stick under the shade of our mango tree. My first words and phrases were linked to my experiences and not my parents’. Instead of a boring primer or, worse, an “ABC Table” for memorizing the letters of the alphabet (as if students learn how to speak by sounding out letters), I had my backyard as my first primer, my first world, my first school. The ground, protected by tree leaves, was my blackboard and sticks were my chalk.”

He also described learning from his own experience of being a father and husband:

“I remember I learned a lot from being a father. And I learned a lot from watching how Elza was a mother. I remember at home, Elza and I never said no without explaining the reason why. Never. If I said no, I would have to have some reason. Look, I don’t want to give you the impression that I am a rationalist. No, it is not true, because I am a very strongly emotional being, full of feelings without any fear of expressing them. What I want to say is that behind no and yes there is argument and disagreement, and in every kind of argument and disagreement there are many things to be said. I just don’t say no because I love you; I say no because I have some reasons to say no. Why not teach kids to begin to look for the reasons, for the facts, for the events, because there always are reasons. I had to explain every time why it was not possible.

Secondly, every time it was possible for children, without risking their lives, to learn by doing, I preferred that they do this. And afterwards, I discussed it with them. In being a father and a mother, Elza and I were always, it’s very interesting, engaged in the process of reflecting with the kids. I hope that they didn’t ever get tired of our teaching. We always were teaching them.”

Freire’s time as a Director of the National Literacy Outreach Program at Recife University involved him going into schools and kindergartens to consider how the earliest years of education operated, and it was here that he started to think and discuss the education of young children with their parents. On one occasion, Freire talked to parents about the concepts of authority, discipline, punishment and reward in education. He based his presentation on a study by Piaget – he quoted Piaget on the subject and explained the nature of a dialogical, loving relationship between parents and children in place of corporal punishments.

“When I concluded, a man of about forty, still rather young, but already worn out an exhausted, raised his hand and gave me the clearest and most bruising lesson I have ever received in my life as an educator. He raised his hand and gave a talk that I have never been able to forget. It seared my soul for good and all. It has exerted an enormous influence on me. Nearly always, in academic ceremonies in which I have had an honorary doctorate conferred to me by some university, I acknowledge how much I owe to persons like the one of whom I am now speaking, and not only to scholars – other thinkers who have taught me too. In almost every academic ceremony in which I am honoured, I see him standing in one of the big aisles of that auditorium of so long ago, head erect, eyes blazing, speaking in a loud, clear voice, sure of himself, speaking his lucid speech.

We have just heard some nice words from Dr. Paulo Freire. Fine words in fact. Well spoken. Some of them were even simple enough for people to understand easily. Others were more complicated. But I think I understood the most important things that all the words together say. Now I’d like to ask the doctor a couple of things.

So he asked, ‘Dr. Paulo, Sir, I have never been to your house. But I’d like to describe it for you, sir. How many children do you have?’


‘Boys or girls?’

‘Three girls and two boys.’

‘Well, doctor your house must be the only house on the lot, a house with a yard.’

‘There must be a room just for you and your wife, sir.’

Another bit room that is for the three girls.

And another room for the two boys.

A bathroom with running water.

A kitchen with nice appliances.

A little garden with a front lawn.

You must also have a room where you toss your books – a study, a library. I can tell by the way you talk that you have done a lot of reading sir and you’ve got a good memory.

Now Doctor, look at the difference.

You come home from work tired. You may even have a headache. Thinking, reading, writing, giving these kinds of talks that you are giving now can be tiring.

But sir it is one thing to come home even tired and find the kids all bathed, clean, well fed, not hungry and another thing to come home and find your kids hungry, crying, and making noise. And people have to get up in the morning at four and start it all over again, hurting, sad, hopeless. If people hit their kids, it is not because people don’t love their kids. No, it is because life is so hard; they don’t have much of a choice.”

Family Literacy Programs

It is important to keep in mind that the goal of Taylor’s research and Freire’s thoughts was not to build a program nor advocate for a particular method or practice, but rather to describe literacy practices in families. They help us understand the concept of family literacy that “occurs naturally during the routines of daily living and helps adults and children “get things done” and “may reflect the ethnic or cultural heritage of the families involved” (Thomas, 1999).

On the other hand, family literacy programs are programs that promote literacy development in families. All family literacy programs are based on a shared understanding that literacy learning is best accomplished when it takes place within the social relationships of the family. However, they have different focuses and use different approaches. They fall in four distinct categories:

  1. Direct adult, direct children – these programs focus on both adults and children. Adults and children participate in the program together. The goal is to improve the literacy skills of both adults and children.
  2. Direct adult, indirect children – these programs focus on helping adults improve their skills in the belief that the adults will, in turn, help improve the literacy skills of children.
  3. Indirect adult, direct children – these programs focus on literacy skills for children and encourage, but do not explicitly facilitate literacy development for adults.
  4. Indirect adult, indirect children – families participate together in literacy activities such as read-aloud sessions at public libraries.

Another way to categorize family literacy programs according to the target group on which the program is focused on is:

  • A. Adult-focused programs
  • B. Child-directed programs

Adult-focused programs have the goal of helping parents. Basic skills such as reading, writing, numeracy, problem-solving and critical thinking are embedded in activities. Some adult-focused family literacy programs provide direct, explicit instruction to parents (for example, an English Language Learning Program for Parents), while other programs use implicit instruction and are based on a parent-child interactive approach.

Using a parent-child interactive approach, a practitioner will plan activities that are based on regular family routines and will often use materials that are commonly available in all households. The practitioner may model the activity with the child but then shift the focus towards guiding the parent to identify ways to enjoy the activity with the child, observe and interpret the child’s cues and respond the child’s needs interests and emerging skills.

The parent-child interactive programs are based on what parents can do rather what they cannot do. This enables parents to experience immediate success, which boosts their own learner identity and motivation for learning. Often parents start attending the program for the benefit of their children, but by the end of the program, they are developing their own learning goals.

In child-oriented programs, a practitioner plans and provides learning activities similar to the kinds of learning activities that would be offered in an early childhood classroom setting. The practitioner then does these activities directly with the children. The role of the parent is typically that of an observer who is expected to learn through imitation and, later, to do similar activities with the child. Child-oriented programs have a limited impact on families where parents themselves experience literacy challenges. If the parent does not engage in learning with the child between the sessions, then the learning activities happen only when the practitioner can interact with the child and are not likely to have much impact on either child development or the development of parent’s skills and confidence. Parents with limited literacy skills may lack confidence as to how these literacy suggestions should be applied in everyday life because they may lack the skills of reading a story with excitement, encouraging drawing or spending time interacting with their children through play. A more serious disadvantage of the child-focused program model is that it can undermine learning identity of the parent. A parent with limited literacy skills may be sensitive about not being able to read and write well and may feel intimidated. This implicit message may actually discourage them from trying similar activities with their children or taking an interest in their own learning.

Designing Your Family Literacy Program

When planning and your family literacy program, it is useful to consider the following questions:

  • Why is a family literacy program needed in your community?
  • Who needs it?
  • Should your program be child-oriented or parent-focused?
  • What would attract potential participants to enroll in your program?
  • What are the characteristics of families you want to work with?
  • What are your aspirations for the family members as learners and as people?
  • What do you think they need to know now and in the future?


Family literacy programs at CanLearn are parent-focused. However, we value all types of family literacy programs, all parent involvement and early childhood programs as valuable learning opportunities for families.