Resources to train parents as much as pupils

9th February 1996 at 00:00
PAIRED READING, SPELLING AND WRITING: The handbook for teachers and parents. By Keith Topping. Cassell Pounds 16.99. Family Involvement in Literacy: Effective partnerships in education. Edited by Sheila Wolfendale and Keith Topping. Cassell Pounds 11.99.

Keith Topping and Sheila Wolfendale are well-known for their work in bringing schools and parents closer together in order to help children develop as readers and writers. The publication of these two books is timely as the educational community is taking a much wider interest in what is currently, and sometimes inaccurately, called "family literacy".

Keith Topping's book is essentially a summary of his work of many years on what started as "paired reading" but has now expanded to include spelling and writing. It is a manual for a tightly-defined process, organised to ensure that practitioners are consistent in applying the principles.

As a result, this book will help those who want to adopt Topping's methodology, but it may lose a wider audience of those with a more general interest in the subject. Nevertheless, it is clearly written, backed up with reviews of evidence and provides a range of resources for training parents.

Topping's book with Sheila Wolfendale is, for me, the more interesting. In the introduction, the editors embrace the notion of family literacy claiming that it "is often concerned with the needs of parents and carers as much as with the learning needs of children". Such a definition represents something of a hijacking of the term "family literacy"; once associated with understanding what families do, it now only seems to involve telling them what they ought to do.

One consequence of this shift is that far more is spent in the UK and USA on trying to change family literacy behaviour than is spent on finding out how families and communities actually use literacy in their lives. This imbalance is reflected in the book, as virtually all the chapters focus on procedures aimed at improving the literacy performance of children in school by changing the behaviour of parents at home. The one chapter which does offer some account of family literacy practices, Eve Gregory's report of her work in East London with families of Bangladeshi origin, shows how researchers' initial assumptions can obscure significant cultural differences where literacy is concerned.

Gregory's study is the only one reported in this book in which uncovering family and community literacy practices was a critical, and a priori, part of understanding the relationship between home and school. While other authors make passing reference to some of the current conceptual debates, they move quickly to explain the development, rationale and procedures of their own programmes.

In this respect, Family Involvement in Literacy is of great value. There are other books which offer surveys of family literacy programmes, but none with the depth and range of this book, which includes contributions from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The Resource Directory will be of particular help to people who want to develop their own strategies.

Readers who have already decided on the issues surrounding family literacy will find the book offers thoughtful accounts of a range of programmes. Readers with more fundamental questions about the assumptions built into many of these practices will need other sources.

* Nigel Hall is reader in literacy education at the School of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University

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