Literacy for Empowerment: The Role of Parents in Children's Education
reviewed by Virginia Richardson - 1991
Title: Literacy for Empowerment: The Role of Parents in Children's Education
Author(s): Concha Delgado-Gaitan
Publisher: Falmer Press, London
ISBN: 1850006636, Pages: , Year: 1990
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Literacy for Empowerment, by Concha Delgado-Gaitan, is an ethnography of the homes and classrooms of twenty grade 2 and 3 Spanish-speaking Mexican students. It is based on a theoretical framework that suggests that because literacy is socially constructed and students are involved in literacy learning in the home as well as the school, an empowered interaction among parents and school personnel will refocus and make coherent literacy education in both settings, and thus increase student achievement. The group of students and parents with whom Delgado-Gaitan worked had characteristics that would suggest that few of them would do well in school; and yet some did. These students were from immigrant, Spanish-speaking, working-class families, few members of which spoke English. This provided Delgado-Gaitan an opportunity to examine differences in the way parents worked with their children and with the schools in relation to how the students did in schoolspecifically, whether they were placed in novice or experienced reading groups.
The author observed literacy instruction in the classrooms of the twenty students over a period of five months. She also observed in the homes of these students. Believing strongly in triangulation, she shared her data and analyses with her informants and the results of these analyses with the community. This latter action moved her beyond the typical descriptive ethnography to a conscious intervention in the process of parent involvement. Thus her work combines descriptive and action research.
Delgado-Gaitans findings confirm those of a number of studies of parents of culturally different and low-socioeconomic-status students that indicate that these parents do have high aspirations for their children and wish to be supportive, but often do not have the skills to do so. At the same time, these students teachers are convinced that their academic problems may be traced to poor attitudes on the part of the parents toward school, thus indicating a lack of communication between home and school.1 Delgado-Gaitan goes further, however, to provide examples of differences in the ways parents of similar background help their children. She found relationships between these helping behaviors and the reading group in which the children were placed at school; and between whether the children had been in a Spanish-only preschool program that actively involved parents as co-teachers, and more effective parental helping behaviors in the home. She concluded that her data illustrate that the path to students learning must be a two-way street, with teachers acknowledging students home culture and parents participating in their childrens schooling by learning about student activities in the classroom (p. 117).
Unfortunately, the author does not present sufficient data in the book to warrant this conclusion. While her theory suggests a two-way interaction between home and school, except for one small example in the action research component, the data she presents suggest a one-way interaction. Parents who successfully helped their children seemed adept at school literacy (e.g., finding the main idea in a reading passage). However, the descriptions of reading instruction in the classrooms of these students suggested that the teachers seemed unaffected by the culture of literacy in the students homes. In fact, these descriptions suggest that switching the classroom language to the home language of the student does not necessarily move reading instruction away from the dismal, disconnected-from-life, basal- and worksheet-oriented teaching practices so often complained about in the literature.
To uncover and present data that support a social constructivist, two-way, interactive view of literacy instruction and learning is a difficult challenge, even within an ethnographic framework. Such information, data, and illustrative examples may be more forthcoming in Delgado-Gaitans action research component, which seemed truncated in the book. This book does, however, provide excellent grounding in the literacy and empowerment literature and theory, and provides wonderful and useful descriptions of home literacy in immigrant, working-class Mexican households. Most important, the book elucidates the importance of both parents knowledge of and ability to help their students in school literacy, and of constant contact between home and school for all students, but particularly for students with cultural and linguistic backgrounds dissimilar from those of their teachers.