Good reasons to keep it real

13th February 2004 at 00:00
A family literacy scheme could have lessons for children in the foundation stage, writes Diane Hofkins. Below, Judith Butler describes how the project forged links between home and school

There is another side to the story that children from deprived families are not spoken or read to much at home. The work of family learning gurus Peter Hannon and Cathy Nutbrown of Sheffield university shows that there is quite a lot of literacy activity going on in these homes. The implication is that teachers should not presume that children do not look at books or recite rhymes at home.

As part of the Raising Early Achievement in Literacy (Real) project, which began in 1995, Hannon and Nutbrown talked to some 150 five-year-olds from schools in areas of economic and social disadvantage in a northern city.

They found that "all children reported some literacy activity at home. From their perspectives, reading and writing were common activities at home."

In the Journal of early childhood literacy, the researchers wrote: "The children in this study were attending schools in very deprived areas I where it would not be surprising to find low levels of literacy activity.

If deficit assumptions about such family literacy practices are held by some educators, it is perhaps because home literacy is not as clearly visible (in school contexts) as school literacyI "Family literacy practices are also sometimes different from school literacy, and so there is the possibility that such literacy is not always recognised and valuedI" Significantly, while nearly all the children read or wrote with their mothers, almost a quarter said their fathers wrote with them, and one-third said their fathers read with them.

So, although a key aim of the project was to involve fathers more in their children's literacy, dads actually take more interest in it than many teachers think.

Most children were able to name a favourite book - a predictor used by researchers for later literacy achievement. Also, despite concerns about reading being seen as unmacho, boys are involved in literacy at home. And despite the focus on the literacy hour in school, the children associated reading closely with home.

The project's main purpose was to develop ways to work with families in deprived neighbourhoods and boost their children's literacy by extending and adding to the activities already being done at home.

"This is a family literacy initiative which sees parents' and children's literacy as inextricably linked, and where adults have opportunities to develop their literacy and learning as well as that of their children," say the researchers.

Hannon and Nutbrown stress that family literacy programmes should start from "a positive position that they are building on existing knowledge and skills, not starting with 'blank slates'".

The project, partly funded by the Nuffield Foundation, supported parents'

engagement in children's literacy development through home visits by teachers, provision of resources, group activities and special events.

One teacher said: "It made me refocus on what family agendas are - which were in some ways quite separate to school agendas."

Below, Judith Butler, one of the teachers involved in the project, recalls her experiences.

Another voice 22

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