Family literacy programmes can be a lifeline for disadvantaged parents and caregivers who are struggling to support their children’s learning during the pandemic, write Anna Kaiper-Marquez and Esther Prins
A recent New Yorker/ProPublica article chronicled the immense challenges facing children in poverty who are studying remotely during the pandemic. Shemar, a 12-year-old in Baltimore, Maryland (USA), lived with his grandmother. Having completed little schooling in then-segregated South Carolina, his grandmother was unable to get online or supervise Shemar’s online schoolwork. She is not alone: millions of caregivers – across all socio-economic strata – have struggled to monitor and guide their children’s education during the pandemic.
What if this grandmother and other caretakers had access to family literacy programmes where they could further their own education, such as digital or print literacy, while also learning how to support their children’s education? Family literacy programmes are not a panacea to fix poverty, racism, under-funded schools, the digital divide, and other causes of educational inequalities. Yet they do have great potential to serve as a community resource and educational safety net for families like Shemar’s.
Family literacy programmes are well positioned to help communities meet Sustainable Development Goal 4: ‘to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. They can do so by providing high-quality early childhood education and adult education, while helping caregivers navigate educational systems and learn new ways to nurture children’s learning and literacy in and out of school. Family literacy programmes often reach families who are invisible or stigmatized, including immigrants and refugees, families in poverty, early school leavers, and grandparents who are raising children.
As described in our IRE article for the forthcoming special issue on ‘Education in the age of COVID-19’, the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy’s Family Pathways programme in State College, Pennsylvania, has offered a lifeline to local families, particularly immigrant mothers, during the pandemic. The programme, taught by two instructors, has served over 10 immigrant families (mothers with children aged 1 to 8) from diverse countries during 2020. It draws on the four-component Kenan model of family literacy: adult education, parent education, early childhood education, and interactive literacy activities (ILAs). Before the pandemic, classes met twice weekly and featured integrated themes such as environmental and social justice, culturally relevant topics, and school engagement. PowerPoint slides, online videos and website activities were frequently used, and instructors organized a WhatsApp chat group to send information about classes and invite learners to share questions and resources.
As remote instruction began, instructors maintained responsiveness to families’ evolving needs and circumstances. For example, at the start of the pandemic, parents were stressed about overseeing both their children’s and their own education. In response, instructors organized fun lessons that related to their concerns and emphasized learning (e.g. exploring recommended family movies on Common Sense Media). Instructors also adjusted activities to accommodate families’ schedules. For instance, they videotaped the ILA classes so parents could watch them at any time and introduced distance learning tools (e.g. Khan Academy, USA Learns) to supplement reduced hours synchronous classes.
The move to remote instruction entailed some difficulties, including mothers’ digital challenges, instructors’ need to manage multiple class distractions, and sporadic attendance due to parents’ responsibilities overseeing children’s schoolwork. However, the mothers have found the programme to be vital in continuing their own learning, supporting their children’s learning, and providing social connections during the quarantine. For instance, as the pandemic has continued, online games and quizzes (e.g. Kahoot) have been integrated into class time so that mothers can have fun and instructors can informally assess topics related to class lessons. Children’s stories are read together during adult and parent education time to give mothers a chance to practice pronunciation and think of ways to discuss these stories with their children. Moreover, communication over WhatsApp has become a lifeline for mothers, who exchange photos, family activities and recipes.
Remote instruction has also enabled mothers to model lifelong learning for their children. Children often sit on their mother’s laps and watch them as they participate in English language classes. Additionally, families interact during Zoom class by greeting each other’s children and spouses. Families now connect with each other in ways that were not possible with face-to-face classes.
For families like Shemar’s, who grapple with inequitable schooling, unmet adult literacy needs, and inaccessible technology, supporting children’s learning during the pandemic has been exceptionally challenging. Parents’ experiences with the Family Pathways programme have revealed the critical need for family literacy programmes to support and provide emotional and educational resources for low-income and immigrant families. These comments by Mariko, a Family Pathways mother, underscore this point:
Before I joined this class, sometimes I felt lethargic. Because of COVID, I couldn’t meet my friends so [I had] nothing new. I saw [that] my daughter has grown, but I didn’t change at all. But after [I] joined class my life is changed. Sometimes it’s hard, but I’m so happy I can update myself and … see my teachers and classmates. So, this programme saved my life.
This article was written by Anna Kaiper-Marquez and Esther Prins, with contributions from Carol Clymer, Jungeun Lee, Beth Grinder McLean and Emily Wolfe
Anna Kaiper‑Marquez is Associate Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy (ISAL) and the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy at The Pennsylvania State University. Esther Prins is a Professor in the Lifelong Learning and Adult Education Program at Penn State, where she also serves as the Co-Director of ISAL and the Goodling Institute. Carol Clymer is Co-Director for ISAL and the Goodling Institute at Penn State University. Jungeun Lee is the Assistant Teaching Professor/Associate Co-Director at ISAL and the Goodling Institute at Penn State. Beth Grinder McLean is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the Goodling Institute at Penn State. Emily Wolfe is the Adult Education and Family Literacy Services Coordinator and Family Literacy Instructor at the Goodling Institute and the Family Pathways programme.