“Every child needs one adult that is crazy about them”.
Opening Vignette: A Tale of Two Teachers
Head Start teachers, Jane and Mallory, are attending a professional development workshop. The first session of the day, “Early Literacy and the Home Environment,” presents the attendees with strategies to support families’ home literacy environments. The presenters encourage the participants to utilize tools such as a home literacy screening inventory to determine which families might need additional support. During the discussion they highlight the value of literacy rich home environments where parents or caregivers regularly share books with children. The presenters conclude the workshop by emphasizing the implications of early home environment on a child’s language and literacy development.
After the workshop, both Jane and Mallory have time to reflect on the content and their own literacy experiences. Jane experienced a very traditional middle-class upbringing. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom and she has vivid memories of her mother and father sharing books with her. Their home was filled with literacy materials and her parents often read for pleasure. She even remembers the excitement of the day she got her first library card.
Mallory had a very different early literacy experience. Mallory spent most days with her grandmother. Their days were spent baking treats and tending to the garden. Mallory has memories of her grandmother telling her stories. The stories were sometimes based on their faith, and at other times they were full of magical creatures in far away lands. As a teenager Mallory learned that her grandmother could not read. This explained why her grandmother filled their days by telling stories, rather than reading books.
It is well-known that parents and caregivers, and the home literacy environment they create, directly impact a child’s emergent literacy development (Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006; Waldrep, 2005). Beginning at birth, children acquire language and emergent literacy skills within social contexts. The opening vignette demonstrates the beauty of language and literacy development in different homes and family environments. Emergent literacy skills are shaped by the home and preschool literacy environment (Saracho, 2017). Children enter school contexts with a wealth of language and literacy experiences from the home and community contexts they experience. It is important to use a strengths-based perspective when considering the differences in family literacy practices. In doing so, educators guard against deficit perspectives that may privilege some literacy experiences over others. In the opening vignette, it might be easy to conclude that Mallory entered school with vulnerabilities based on family structure and her grandmother’s literacy level. Yet, Mallory’s family’s rich oral storytelling practices supplied her with a wealth of knowledge about narrative styles including plot, theme, and character development. In addition, Mallory has learned a great deal about how to create dialogue in a way that captures a listener’s attention. Jane’s experiences in a book rich environment also provided her the opportunity to see reading as a source of pleasure. Although Jane and Mallory had very different early experiences, both children entered school with a love and eagerness for literacy. Both educators realized that the workshop had presented an incomplete view about how home environments can support children’s literacy development. Early childhood educators are tasked with the responsibility of celebrating the individuality and strengths of each child and their family. Partnering with families promotes a strong foundation for successful literacy learning. In order to do this, educators must recognize there are many contexts and methods in which families transmit and share in literacy experiences.
This chapter will explore the following questions:
What role does a child’s family play in literacy development?
How do families’ social contexts differ?
How can educators in early learning settings work with families to promote literacy?
Family Role in Literacy Development
Family literacy development refers to parents and their children using literacy practices and strategies together at home. These literacy experiences are usually informal and occur within the context of the normal family routine (Wasik, 2012). These experiences, compounded daily, support the influence of the family on a child’s literacy development. Many decades of research support the vital parental role in nurturing a child’s literacy development. Consider the literacy-rich moments illustrated in the exchange between Ava and her father getting ready to go to the store.
Vignette: Grocery Store Trip
Two year-old Ava is happily drawing a picture while her father is creating a list for the grocery store. Her father mentions that he is planning to buy grapes at the grocery store. Ava proceeds to scribble across the paper and exclaims, “I added grapes to my list, too.”
This scenario demonstrates the value of an everyday interaction that takes place in many homes. The daily conversations and interactions between children and adults in the home provide models of how people use reading, writing, and language to engage with the world. Every day parental interactions create opportunities for adults to model literacy skills. Early childhood educators have the responsibility to honor the language and literacy expressions present in families’ daily lives. When early educators focus on developing partnerships with families and champion the role of the family as a vital space for meaningful literacy interactions, they help promote family literacy.
Home Literacy Environment
The home literacy environment is ordinarily defined as activities facilitated by family members at home that relate to literacy learning, and literacy resources in the home combined with parental attitudes towards literacy learning (Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006). Home literacy environments include practices such as shared picture book reading, storytelling, conversations and singing songs. Literacy contexts reflect multiple variables and include a child’s interests, library experiences, and how parents and children enact a variety of literacy practices in the home (Myrtil, Justice, & Jiang, 2019). Bronfenbrenner’s human ecological theory suggests that children must be understood in the context of their families and communities (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). The ecological environment is a set of nested structures, each couched inside the subsequent one, similar to a set of Russian dolls where each doll of decreasing size fits inside the next. The innermost setting would include the developing child and their immediate setting, likely home and classroom. Bronfenbrenner’s approach closely matches the nest model, where not only is the child considered, but also the immediate environment and the wider context.
More recently, the concept of funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) acknowledges the influence of the household and community. Funds of knowledge encompass families’ traditions, experiences, information, and practices. When educators and supportive adults establish a relationship founded on the common goal of successful and healthy development of the child, it supports the aims of cultural responsiveness, equity, and inclusion. For example, when a child shares their enthusiasm for a television program their family is watching together, it draws upon many of the child’s own funds of knowledge. While the child is drawing on a shared family and cultural experience in the show itself, the child is also engaging with notions of occupations and outings, values, chores and activities and vocabulary. A child’s experience shopping at the grocery story is another example of funds of knowledge. A child may learn about quantity, money, shopping practices, cultural norms around food, and patterns of interacting, all while learning and practicing signs and symbols. Drawing on socio-cultural perspectives, educators embrace the funds of knowledge children possess utilizing these resources and skills to build productive pedagogy. In this way, educators acknowledge that every child comes to school with previous experiences that influence their interactions with language and support their emerging literacies.
The home environment of each family is complex and personal, and includes economic, social, and cultural influences. The complexity of home and community environments explains the diversity we see amongst school readiness nationwide. The home literacy environment, parental expectations for their child’s literacy success, and parental characteristics are influencing factors in literacy development (Senechal & Lefevre, 2002). Ideally, prior to entering kindergarten, children have the developmental precursors for reading well-established. This includes skills children learn from shared book reading and oral storytelling experiences, exposure to rhyming structures, and opportunities exploring alphabet material. Literacy development is “rooted” in experiences young children have prior to formal schooling. These informal literacy experiences take place daily in the home environment and involve interactions with caregivers. Examples include caregivers reading to children and an emphasis on environmental print. The caregiver might point out a word or sign to the child. It could also sound like a family member singing a familiar song with a child, making up silly words that rhyme, or saying the letters in the child’s name.
Literacy Materials and Experiences
There are many ways families engage in early literacy experiences in the home. Research studies demonstrate the strong relationship between school success and early literacy exposure. Children who enter school with foundational literacy skills will likely have success in formal schooling. Children’s access to diverse literacy materials in the home encompass a range of resources that promote children’s interactions with print. Literacy materials include children’s access to print based materials such as books and magazines as well as access to a variety of writing and drawing materials that children can use to generate print. The influence of technology is also situated in this arena. Digital media offers children additional ways to interact with text and acquire literacy as they read, play, or otherwise explore words and sounds. Children’s interactions across a variety of literacy materials supports their emerging knowledge about literacy practices.
Reading aloud has long been touted as an important practice to encourage literacy development. Educators and parents have long known the positive impact of sharing books with children. Positive interactions between children and caregivers that include picture book reading promote language skills and vocabulary development (Wells, 1985). Additionally, research suggests the way in which children are read to is related to their language gain. If children are given opportunities to be actively involved in the reading experience, for example, asking questions about the pictures, children show greater gains than when an adult simply reads the book (Whitehurst, et al., 1988). While this finding is valuable for educators to consider, the mere value of reading to a child should not be understated or undervalued. Providing children opportunities to engage with books in various ways and settings, including school settings, encourages positive feelings related to literacy.
Books offer children and families intentional and focused opportunities to share, discuss, and experience reading together. It is important to note the emotional connection that is facilitated by sharing a book with a child. This connection is valuable for development, but also for the pure joy of learning to love books and the experiences they create. Books are also used to teach young children skills and to provide understanding of topics that may be difficult to discuss. Shared storybook reading provides an avenue for language learning, offering exposure to new concepts, ideas, and vocabulary that might not be encountered in everyday conversation. This learning occurs both through the text and the talk that is facilitated around the text by the caregiver and child (Brannon & Dauksas, 2014).
Sharing books is not the only way to support literacy development for young children. People use stories to learn about curricular concepts, share life experiences, and capture the imagination. Culture and history are, in part, transmitted through story. Storytelling is frequently described as an oral language activity, but the presence of gestures and physical expression are also an important part of storytelling. Moreover, storytelling can also take place through the use of signing, gestures, picture cards or props, and assistive technology. Storytelling is an important expression of symbolic thought as children or adults use language to convey information beyond the present moment or situation. Additionally, it allows children to gain insight into the world of communicating ideas to an audience. Children’s response to stories is both social (Alexander & Levine, 2008) and cognitive (Lehne, et al, 2015). Speakers practice story concepts such as sequence and structure, dialogue, and vocabulary. Storytelling allows children to process emotions and find their voice.
In addition to reading aloud, sharing books, and storytelling, families can also build strong literacy experiences through everyday conversations. Chapter two introduced the idea of “serve and return” and the five steps in facilitating serve and return interactions with young children. Engaging with children regularly using these steps is an integral component of supporting language development. Children successfully acquire language through consistent experiences and opportunities with adults they love and trust. When a young child babbles and an adult responds appropriately, connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication. Much like a game of volleyball, the back and forth interaction is both rewarding and capacity building. Responsive caregivers provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences to build language and literacy knowledge and skills.
Pause and Consider: How Does Our Own Literacy Background Influence Us?
Our early literacy experiences influence how we think about children’s home literacy environments. This includes previous experiences with family members, teachers, friends, and how our time and physical space were structured. Whether it is conscious or not, we are accessing our own memories. Did you have a family member who was a great storyteller at family gatherings? Did you have access to books? Were you read to? What was your own pathway to reading like? Our personal literacy journey is shaped by these early and formative experiences. Take a moment to consider the following questions: What were your personal home literacy experiences? How do you think these experiences supported your literacy development? How do your previous experiences impact your perception of what you believe families should provide to the children you are educating today?
Working with Families to Promote Literacy
As described in Chapter 2, Bronfenbrenner’s model demonstrates the strong influence and implications of a child’s family and home environment. This is especially true when considering literacy development for young children. Early childhood educators have the opportunity to build relationships with families, support families, and engage families in their child’s early childhood experience.
Building trusting relationships with families happens over time and through a series of positive interactions. Trust, empathy, and time are necessary components of building positive relationships. When educators work to get to know families personally, culturally relevant and powerful funds of knowledge are revealed and can be used to enhance children’s literacy experiences. For example, an educator may discover in conversations with the family that a child frequently cooks with her grandmother and enjoys measuring ingredients and following the recipe. The grandmother reads the recipe and asks guiding prompts like, “Okay, let’s see what’s next.” This small insight into the child’s literacy experience allows the educator to draw the child into meaningful conversations, play experiences, and cooking experiences that build on the procedural literacy knowledge the child already knows about how recipes “work.”
Some children from vulnerable communities are less prepared for the academic language tasks of school (Rivalland, 2004). Research often associates low socio-economic status with poor school achievement, including literacy abilities (Garrett-Peters et al., 2016).
Children from vulnerable communities might need additional scaffolding to bridge their home literacy experiences to expected school literacy outcomes. Poverty can create stress for young children and their families. Conditions such as food insecurity, unemployment, community violence, and inconsistent access to healthcare can impact one’s capacity for attentive parenting (Manz et al., 2010). These variables potentially affect the health and well-being of the family and (the or a) parent’s ability to consistently provide enriching language opportunities. However, it is negligent to say that living in poverty equates to poorer academic outcomes. Parents who interact sensitively with their children positively impact language development (Raviv et al., 2004). Additionally, access to high-quality early learning experiences with strong family/educator relationships supports literacy development for this vulnerable population. Adults in early care settings nurture a child’s language development by engaging in verbally stimulating interactions (NICHD Early Care Network, 2000).
When a child’s early experiences with language are limited, educators may need to develop intentional interventions to mitigate literacy gaps that, if left unattended, might result in negative academic outcomes for the child in the future. Success in educational environments is connected to strong language and literacy in the early years (Hirsch-Pasek et al., 2015; Hoff, 2013; Huntsinger, Jose, & Luo, 2016).
For children who have not participated in rich language experiences, there are long-term implications related to language competency and overall school readiness (Merritt & Klein, 2015). For example, parents who are engaging in abusive or neglectful behaviors tend to speak less frequently to their children and do not draw out conversations (Christopholous et al., 1988; Eigsti & Ciccheti, 2004). This might result in a longer lead time for children to feel comfortable or competent in expressing themselves. Linguistic deprivation may also occur with children who are hearing-impaired and do not have adequate supports, and who lack access to methods of communication (Humphries et al., 2012). Deprivation of language creates other learning problems as children might not follow typical developmental trajectories in other areas, such as mathematical reasoning (Humphries et al., 2012) and memory tasks (Newport, 1990). Any hindrance to a child’s ability to communicate impacts the child’s literacy development.
More recently, the influence of technology has broadened the definition of the literacy environment and further diversified children’s literacy experiences. During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, this diversification became keenly apparent. The 2020 pandemic demonstrated how access to technology and use of technology influences the ability of children to acquire literacy concepts within virtual settings. Some teachers held synchronous video-conference sessions, reading a story to the students in their classroom. Certainly, a familiar face reading a story fosters a social connection, provides a forum for discussing books, and creates an opportunity for developing children’s literacy. Yet, accessibility to the literacy experience for children was not equitable. Some children may not have had the opportunity to participate in the synchronous sessions with their classmates and viewed recordings of the read aloud experience. Other students might not have access to an appropriate device or wifi. A family’s economic capacity to mitigate and successfully utilize technology varied greatly, and resulted in uneven access to educational opportunities throughout the pandemic. For example, some students may have access to a device, but might be sharing this access with siblings or other family members who also need them. Parents might be able to allow a child to use their cell phone for a portion of the day, but few adults can navigate a whole day without access to their own cell phone. The younger the age of the child, the less likely they might be to have access to their own device.
Even when children had full access to technological resources, the impact of Covid-19 greatly diminished children’s opportunities to develop their literacy understandings in collaboration with their peers in play-based spaces. While read-alouds can be done via video-conference, hands-on literacy activities cannot. In-person school contexts allow early educators to extend read alouds with sensory rich literacy activities to support literacy development; these same experiences are not readily transferable to online platforms. In attempts to replicate the sensory experience at home, educators sent families recipes to make playdough at home. However, a solitary literacy activity is not the same as a social literacy activity. In this particular example, educators’ efforts were further thwarted, as there was a flour shortage during the pandemic, making a key ingredient for playdough inaccessible. This brief discussion of some of the inequities experienced by families living through the pandemic provides an example of how the use of technology can certainly be a contributor to literacy development. But, it also provides an important illustration of how context is individual and connected to the people and materials a child has access to.
As early childhood educators interact with families, they have the opportunity to make profound impacts. Children and families might have past experiences or current situations that complicate development; the educator has the opportunity to partner with the family and work towards a successful future. In order for the child to reach their optimal development, they need strong social relationships and interactions that enhance their emotional well-being. This in turn, prepares the child to grow cognitively, and enhances language development. Families benefit from community support as they engage in these tasks. Positive and consistent interactions with their child’s teacher provide an avenue of support for families. In this way, early learning settings play a vital role as community assets and resources to the family; and, they have a direct impact on children. As a greater goal, early childhood programs should work to build adult capabilities and strengthen families as they support the needs of their children.
Strategies for Promoting Diversity and Equity in Language Learning
Working with families is an integral part of being a quality early childhood educator. The profession requires us to approach families in an unbiased manner. It is important to understand what a bias is and our own “lens” or perspective from which we make decisions and draw conclusions. Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes, and categories that affect behavior and understanding (Chin, 2020). Some examples of implicit bias that might be relevant to language and literacy are the teacher discounting the language used in the home environment or the expectation to make eye contact when speaking. Both of these examples are a result of cultural bias and are sometimes prevalent in early childhood classrooms. No one is immune from a bias; however, as a professional, there are many resources available for exploring possible bias.
Being aware of our own biases can ensure that we approach all families from a strengths-based posture and restrain from judging situations and environments that are different from our own experiences. This is an important first step in creating a climate that promotes equity and diversity. Further work should always center on continually seeking to understand how others are different and valuing differences as they relate to supporting language and literacy development. The key to promoting equity and diversity in early childhood spaces is to appreciate and respect children’s home languages, cultures, and traditions. See the figure below for additional strategies to support families.
Strategies to Ensure Linguistic and Cultural Diversity
- Involve families in your classroom
- Educate families on the benefits of mastering more than one language
- Honor family’s values and norms
- Assist families to ensure children stay connected to their home language
- Support the home language
- Provide children with many ways to demonstrate mastered skills
Early childhood educators have an integral role to play in recognizing and celebrating the value in children’s home contexts when making intentional decisions, while being sure to capitalize on the strengths for each child and family. In recommending the integration of a culturally responsive stance, we return to Gay’s (2010) definition which explains that when students’ cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles influence our everyday instructional practices and the selection of learning materials, we are responding more effectively to learners’ needs.
Supporting families in a strength-based and culturally sensitive way is critical for creating an inclusive classroom environment and building strength-based relationships with families. The role of the family in a child’s language and literacy development is critical and individual. Early childhood educators have the opportunity to build relationships with families, and partner with them, to recognize the influential role they already play in developing their children’s literacy expressions. Celebrating the individuality of families allows educators to leverage equitable practices and nurtures each child’s unique linguistic pathway. It is imperative that we understand the diversity of families and work to build on their strengths, while being aware of our own perspectives and implicit biases. The bird in the nest model cannot survive without the support of the nest in the tree. This illustrates the vital role of families in young children’s language and literacy development.
Appalachian Englishes in the 21st Century: https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/appalachian-englishes-21st-century
Becoming Upended: Teaching and Learning about Race and Racism in the Early Childhood Classroom: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2018/teaching-learning-race-and-racism
Black English Matters: https://daily.jstor.org/black-english-matters/
Building Adult Capacities to Improve Child Outcomes: (https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/building-adult-capabilities-to-improve-child-outcomes-a-theory-of-change/)
Colorín Colorado: https://www.cal.org/
The Dialect of the Appalachian People: http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh30-2.html
Ebonic Need Not Be English: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43025634?mag=black-english-matters&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Funds of Knowledge: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/video/funds-knowledge-video
Implicit Bias: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
Strategies to Ensure Linguistic and Cultural Diversity: https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/diversity.pdf
National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Equity Resources: https://www.naeyc.org/equity/resources
National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education Position Statement: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/equity
Teacher Tips: Storytelling: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/teacher-tips-storytelling/
What is Ebonics (African American English)? https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/what-ebonics-african-american-english