Two out of five Canadian adults – nearly nine million people – can’t read well enough to perform everyday tasks. Reading difficulties start early. Children who aren’t reading well by the end of Grade 1 are never likely to read well. Reduced literacy puts these children at a disadvantage for the rest of their schooling – and the rest of their life.
So what can be done?
Research from a cross-section of disciplines – including education, medicine, nursing and psychology – suggests that parents are children’s first and most influential teachers. From temperament and personality, physical and mental health, to school achievement, literacy and more, the influence of parents and the environments in which children are raised is tremendous. As anyone with children can attest, the apple often doesn’t fall far from the tree.
But are we harnessing parental influence in a meaningful and positive way where literacy is concerned? Are we empowering Canadian parents with the information and tools they need to ensure their enduring influence on literacy is the best it can be?
In the early 1990s, the concept of family-centred care was introduced as a new health-care paradigm for children by the Association for the Care of Children’s Health. The approach integrates patients and their families into treatment processes, recognizing that while family is constant, health-care providers and systems change and fluctuate regularly. Fundamentally, the need to collaborate with families to ensure that they understand and support their child’s care plan, for the overall health of the child, is recognized and valued with this new approach.
According to many observers, the family-centred approach has revolutionized how children are cared for in the health system, improved outcomes and reduced costs.
A family-centred paradigm should be replicated in other social areas, including throughout Canadian education systems – specifically in the area of literacy.
Parent involvement in early literacy has been linked to children’s eventual reading success, as well as their overall academic achievement. Literacy programs that involve the family, often called family literacy initiatives, seek to empower parents by positioning them at the centre of children’s literacy education.
A key feature of family literacy initiatives is teaching parents about how children learn, and suggesting specific methods or activities that parents can engage their children with at home to support their development. While many Canadian parents have low literacy, most have the skills required to meaningfully support their preschooler or early elementary reader by reading simple story books together every day, pointing out letters in books and in the environment, and singing nursery rhymes.
A particularly innovative family literacy program from Stanford University researchers called Ready4K is an eight-month-long text messaging intervention for parents of preschoolers. It provides parents with research-based information and highly specific activities for parents to do with their children to foster literacy development. It does this by sending instructional text messages to parents three times a week. The results so far are positive, translating into statistically significant learning gains among parents and children.
And it’s scalable. This can’t be said for all family literacy programs, the majority of which are developed by schools or community organizations that then struggle to fund and sustain them.
We need a cultural shift among educators and schools that recognizes that a family-centred approach is key to successful literacy. To support an integrated, ongoing involvement of families in children’s literacy education, three actions are required:
- Before children enter school, parents be taught about the key language and literacy concepts their children should be acquiring in the early years.
- Parents learn to provide specific activities to promote children’s literacy. For example, pointing out letter names and sounds on food items in the grocery store.
- When children begin formal schooling, parents must continue to receive an overview of the skills being targeted and specifically what they can do to help at home.
Across all of these actions, educators must be specific and ensure all activity suggestions are rooted in the evidence.
Centring education on the child, but in the context of the family, is an idea whose time has come in literacy education. The family-centred approach dramatically changed pediatric health care and improved outcomes for children. Education and literacy outcomes would be similarly improved with more genuine valuing of the role of family in children’s lives.
Erin Schryer, PhD, is the executive director of Elementary Literacy Inc., a provincial non-profit organization in New Brunswick. She maintains a Facebook page and Youtube channel sharing research-based language and literacy information and tips for parents and caregivers of young children @DrErinSchryer. Nicole Letourneau is an expert adviser with EvidenceNetwork.ca and a professor in the Faculties of Nursing and Medicine. She also holds the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation Chair in Parent-Infant Mental Health at the University of Calgary.
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