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Home–School Literacy Connections: The Perceptions of African American and Immigrant ESL Parents in Two Urban Communities

by Curt Dudley-Marling - 2009

Background/Context: Educational reform has emphasized the importance of parent involvement. Perhaps the most common instantiations of parent involvement are various efforts to encourage particular reading practices in the home. Although there is some research supporting the efficacy of “family literacy” initiatives, these efforts have been criticized for their deficit orientation and cultural insensitivity. Some educators have attempted to create family literacy practices considerate of the cultural and material demands of families, but no one has investigated how parents actually experience these initiatives.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This research examined parent perceptions of school-to-home literacy initiatives intended to encourage particular literacy practices in the homes of families living in two predominantly poor urban communities served by underperforming schools; specifically, How do African American and immigrant ESL parents living in these two urban communities experience various school-to-home literacy initiatives? These groups of urban parents were interviewed because they and their children are especially likely to be targeted by family literacy initiatives. The study focused on school-to-home literacy practices that attempted to influence literacy in the home because these are the most common instantiations of family literacy.

Population/Participants/Subjects: The participants included 18 African American and 14 immigrant ESL parents living in two large urban centers in the northeastern United States. Research Design: Open-ended, qualitative interviews were conducted with the participants to elicit parents’ perceptions of school-to-home literacy practices. Interviews ranged from 30 to 60 minutes in length and were conducted by two doctoral students trained by the author.

Data Collection and Analysis: Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and, if necessary, translated into English. Based on multiple readings of the data, several core themes were identified that were the focus of the data analysis. Data were analyzed through a process called modified analytic induction to develop a “loose descriptive theory” of how these urban parents experienced school-to-home literacy initiatives.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The analysis of the data indicated that school-to-home literacy practices, as experienced by these parents, did not always fit well with family routines, cultural values, or expectations. The analysis also highlighted a one-way model of school-home communication that provided few opportunities for school-to-home literacy initiatives to respond to the needs of individual families. It was concluded that a model of family literacy considerate of families’ cultural and material needs depends on creating spaces for parents to share their needs, expectations, and values—and for school officials to listen.

A taken-for-granted assumption underlying current versions of educational reform is that there should be a close and intimate relationship . . . between home and school in order to achieve effective . . . schooling (David, 1993, p. 11). The U.S. Congress, for example, has passed legislation that aims to strengthen partnerships between parents and professionals in meeting the educational needs of children aged birth through 5 and the working relationship between home and school (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). Parent involvement also figures prominently in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

The desire for parent involvement in schools is based on the belief that parents interactions with their children contain elements of teaching that greatly influence [their] childs readiness for school (Lesar, Espinosa, & Diaz, 1997, p. 163). Therefore, children learn more when their parents take an active role in their schooling, and indeed, a body of research indicates a positive relationship between parent involvement and higher levels of school achievement, particularly in reading (Green, 1995; Lareau, 1989; Stevenson & Baker, 1987). It has achieved the level of common sense that effective instructional practices for promoting emergent and beginning literacy must include a home-school connection component that links the schools efforts with childrens home experiences and enlists parents in supporting their childrens academic development (Goldenberg, 2001, p. 215).

The family literacy movement, which seeks to influence literacy beliefs and textual practices within families (Powell, 2004), is one of the principal manifestations of the desire for parent involvement in support of childrens schooling. Family literacy initiatives have been criticized, however, for not being sufficiently considerate of the cultural and material needs of some families (de Carvalho, 2001; Gadsden, 1996). It has been asserted, for example, that family literacy practices, by affecting family dynamics, may strain family relationships and threaten cultural traditions (Powell). Many family literacy educators have responded to these criticisms by designing family literacy practices that attempt to account for the lived experiences of the families they serve (Gadsden; King, 1994; Shanahan, Mulhern, & Rodriguez-Brown, 1995). Still, these efforts have rarely considered how parents actually experience various family literacy initiativesthat is, the degree to which parents perceive family literacy initiatives as respectful of the cultural and material demands of their lives.

The purpose of this article is to report on a study that examined how African American and immigrant ESL parents residing in two urban communities served by chronically underperforming schools1 experienced various family literacy practices initiated by their childrens schools, particularly parents perceptions of the degree to which school-to-home literacy initiatives were sensitive to the cultural values, expectations, and material demands of their homes. This study provides a rare glimpse into how parents actually experience family literacy practicesin this case, parents perceptions of school-to-home literacy initiatives that seek to influence literacy beliefs and textual practices within families, arguably the most common instantiation of family literacy.

I begin by briefly reviewing literature examining the relationship between home literacy practices and early reading development. I then discuss two perspectives on literacy that inform the family literacy movement: a deficit-based gaze that emerges from a cognitive-psychological perspective on reading (Hall, 2003), and a sociocultural perspective that informs the theoretical framework that underpins this study. I then report on the study of urban parents perceptions of school-to-home literacy initiatives. Finally, I consider the implications of this study for how schools take up the issue of family literacy and the broader notion of parent involvement.


Children enter school with considerable knowledge of print (e.g., Durkin, 1966; Goodman & Altwerger, 1981; Heath, 1983; Purcell-Gates, 1993; Taylor, 1983), and an abundance of research indicates a strong positive relationship between childrens early literacy development and support for literacy learning in the home (see, for example, Goldenberg, 2001; McGee & Richgels, 2000; Morrow & Paratore, 1993; Morrow & Young, 1997; Paratore, Melzi, & Krol-Sinclair, 1999; Purcell-Gates; Wells, 1986). Home literacy practices such as joint parentchild reading, reading aloud to children, book ownership, the availability of a variety of print materials, library excursions, and promoting positive attitudes toward literacy have been found to impact young childrens literacy learning positively (Adams, 1990; Morrow & Paratore; Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994). Overall, parents influence how much experience children have with books and other reading materials, their familiarity with letters and sounds, the vocabulary they develop, and the reading and writing habits, opportunities, and experiences they have, in and out of school (Goldenberg, p. 211).

Among the various home literacy practices that have been linked to early literacy development, read aloud has been singled out as the family literacy practice par excellence (Pelligrini, 1991). The National Academy of Educations Commission on Reading has described read aloud as the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading (cited in Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994, p. 245). Reading aloud to children has been related to reading, writing, and oral language development; childrens interest in books; vocabulary development; familiarity with book language; and childrens sense of story structure (Morrow, 1997; Trelease, 1995). The strength of the correlation between oral reading and early literacy development has been questioned, however (Lonigan, 1994; Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994), and other research indicates that it is the quality of parentchild interactions around the book reading experience that is especially important (Burgess, Hecht, & Lonigan, 2002; Darling & Westberg, 2004; Sénéchal, LeFevre, & Daley, 1998). Bus (2001), for example, observed that the key factor in high-quality storybook reading may be the way in which adults mediate the reading experience in response to childrens interests, personal experiences, conceptions, and knowledge (p. 188).

Although children generally come to school in possession of considerable knowledge of literacy, not all children enter school with the same knowledge of literacy, nor are all families equally rich in literacy learning opportunities, suggesting for some educators and policy makers a causal link between literacy practices in the home and reading achievement at school (Carrington & Luke, 2003). How family literacy educators interpret the relationship between home literacy practices and school achievement is, however, a function of the theoretical perspective they take on reading and reading development.


The finding that a childs success in school literacy programs . . . depends on the experiences he or she has at home (Morrow & Young, 1997, p. 736) has led many family literacy educators and educational policy makers to conclude that the literacy skills of some children fail to develop adequately because their parents have not provided them with the same rich and diverse experiences with print that other parentsthose whose children are successful with school-based literacyprovide for their children. Darling (1988), for example, asserted that parents act as role models for the literacy behaviors of their children, and the children of those parents who are poor models find that each year they slip further behind in school (p. 3).

A substantial body of evidence indicates that the literacy learning environments in the homes of many poor and minority childrenchildren who tend to achieve less well in the acquisition and development of literacy abilities (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2003)differ significantly from the literacy learning environments in middle-class homes (Purcell-Gates, 1993). When low-income children enter school, they appear to . . . have had less experience with books, writing, hearing stories, learning and reciting rhymes, and many other types of experiences that promote literacy learning (Goldenberg, 2001, p. 216). The literacy experiences of many poor children may be limited because, compared with middle-class children, they have had less access to books and other print materials in their homes and even in their communities (Neuman, 1996, 1999; Neuman & Celano, 2001). Perhaps because books and other print materials are less available in their homes, children living in economically disadvantaged homes are, on average, less likely to be read to by their parents or siblings (Adams, 1990; Come & Fredericks, 1995). And, when children in poor families are read to, their parents tend to interact with them differently around books compared with middle-class parents and their children (Vernon-Feagans, Hammer, Miccio, & Manlove, 2001). It has been reported, for example, that mothers in poor families, compared with middle-class mothers, are less likely to encourage their children to relate aspects of text to other nonpresent texts or to draw their childrens attention to grapheme-phoneme relations (Pelligrini, 1991). Similarly, compared with less well-educated mothers from lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups, well-educated middle-class mothers have been found to give more feedback and information to their children and ask more questions that orient the child to the specifics of the [literacy] task (Lesar et al., 1997, p. 164). In general, a significant body of literature indicates that both the quantity and quality of literacy interactions found in the homes of many poor and minority children do not resemble interactions around literacy found in middle-class homes or in school, to the detriment of poor and minority children. Lesar et al.s conclusion from their study of Hispanic mothers is typical:

Compared to parent-child interactions with the Hispanic mothers . . . parent-child interactions in . . . Anglo-American families resembled more closely the types of interactions that are expected to be found in the classroom. For Hispanic mothers, discrepancies may exist between how they teach at home and what their children are expected to do in the classroom. Therefore, children whose early maternal teaching environments are significantly different from what they encounter in school may experience academic disadvantages. (pp. 163164)

Arguably, the quantity and quality of literacy experiences of many poor and minority children put these students at a relative disadvantage when they enter school. Further, these early developmental differences in literacy ability become more pronounced as development proceeds (Leppä, Niemi, & Jari-Erik Nurma, 2004)Stanovichs Matthew Effect, in which the (academically) rich get richer (Stanovich, 1986).

The outlined deficit-oriented perspective links literacy failures in school to critical learning experiences that are deemed to be missing in some homes, particularly in the homes of poor and minority students who succeed less often in school. From this point of view, informed by a cognitive-psychological theory of reading that equates reading with a hierarchy of skills, lower levels of literacy among poor and minority students are conceived as a family problem; therefore, it is the family that must be fixed (Taylor, 1997, p. xvi) or re-socialized to compensate for its presumed deficiencies (King, 1994). The family literacy movement evolved to help (some) parents provide literacy experiences for their children that are believed to be crucial for success in school. Family literacy initiatives range from comprehensive community-based programs to school-to-home programs or projects including, for example, adult literacy programs (on the assumption that literate parents are better able to support their childrens literacy development [Purcell-Gates, 1993]); advice for parents on what and how to read with their children and why (e.g., Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Edwards, 1995; Morrow & Paratore, 1993; Purcell-Gates, LAllier, & Smith, 1995); teaching parents to label pictures and letters (Pelligrini, 1991); the use of family journals (Harding, 1996); reading incentive programs (Morrow & Paratore, 1993); book giveaways (Darling, 1992); school lending libraries (Come & Fredericks, 1995); tips on how to motivate children to read (Come & Fredericks); encouraging parents to watch television programs like Reading Rainbow, Sesame Street, and Between the Lions with their children (Purcell-Gates et al.); and book bag programs, in which books and supporting activities are sent home to parents in book bags by teachers (Cohen, 1997).

There is a body of research supporting the efficacy of some family literacy initiatives (e.g., Darling, 1992; Gamse, Conger, Elson, & McCarthy, 1997; Lesar et al., 1997; Neuman, 1996; Pelligrini, 1991; Shanahan et al., 1995), although the gains achieved by children who participate in these programs may be small (Purcell-Gates, 2000). In particular, intervention programs that target specific strategies for parents to use with their children around reading and writing have been found to be effective in improving childrens achievement in school in areas directly related to those strategies (Purcell-Gates). Relatively little attention, however, has been given to examining how parents experience family literacy, including the degree to which various family literacy initiatives are considerate of the cultural and material circumstances of the families to whom these programs are targeted (de Carvalho, 2001; Gadsden, 2000; Purcell-Gates).


An alternative to the deficit model that has dominated the family literacy movement positions non-middle-class families as differently literate rather than deficient in literacy skills. From a sociocultural perspective, literacy cannot be equated with a set of autonomous skills that people do or do not possess (i.e., are deficient in; Gee, 1996; Street, 1995). Instead, literacy is viewed as a set of social and cultural practices that involve specific ways of interacting with people, specific ways of using language (including written language), specific sets of values for various kinds of behaviors, and specific sets of interpretations for understanding and guiding behavior (Bloome, Harris, & Ludlum, 1991, p. 22). Put differently, literacy . . . involves facility in manipulating the symbols that codify and represent the values, beliefs, and norms of the culturethe same symbols that incorporate the cultures representation of reality (Ferdman, 1990, p. 187). Viewing literacy as a social practice, it becomes clear that people do not learn to read once and for all as much as they learn to read particular texts in particular ways appropriate to social and cultural contexts (Gee).

When dominant views of family literacy are premised on a particular normative view of the family (Carrington & Luke, 2003, p. 231), many poor and minority families may be portrayed as deficient in opportunities for literacy learning. However, a sociocultural gaze reveals that non-middle-class homes are frequently rich in literacy (e.g., Cairney & Ruge,1997; Duke & Purcell-Gates, 2003; Fishman, 1988; Goldenberg, 2001; Heath, 1983; Rogers, 2003; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988), refuting the notion that poor, minority, and immigrant families dont value or support literacy development (Auerbach, 1989, p. 170). Duke and Purcell-Gates, for example, identified a wide range of literacy genres in the homes of low-SES students (e.g., cookbooks, comics, catalogs), many of which overlapped with school literacy genres (e.g., magazines, letters, messages). Duke and Purcell-Gates also reported, however, that many of the literacy genres valued by schools (e.g., poems, worksheets, journals) were outside the experience of many low-SES children when they entered school.

Within a sociocultural framework, the issue is not that the homes of poor, minority, and immigrant families are lacking in literacy experiences. Deficit models do not sit comfortably with a sociocultural perspective. Rather, the literacy practices in many poor and minority families are seen as less readily valued by schools compared with the literacy practices of middle-class homes, which more closely resemble the range of literacy genres found in schools (Gee, 1996). Gee observed that many middle-class students dont so much learn literacy in school as practice literacies that they come to school already knowing.  A family literacy informed by a deficit-based notion of learning would be inclined to remediate, or fix, the literacy practices in differently literate non-middle-class families so that they align more closely with the literacy practices favored by schools. A sociocultural perspective suggests that schools acknowledge a wide range of literacy practices as a means of accommodating difference (Pelligrini, 1991). Literacy educators working from a sociocultural perspective endeavor to build on the knowledge of literacy that students bring with them to school as a means of helping students master literacy practices valued by schools (Auerbach, 1989; Duke & Purcell-Gates, 2003; Schleppegrell, 2004). In general, a sociocultural perspective to family literacy focuses on transforming the educational process to align it more closely with students cultural knowledge and their . . . ways of knowing, learning, and being (King, 1994, p. 27). As Orellana and Gutiérrez (2006) put it,

Rather than asking how members of non-dominant groups adapt to dominant culture schools and practice . . . we might ask how well schools and classrooms adapt to the presence of students from non-dominant groups, or how schools and classrooms can be transformed to better serve these students. This shifts the onus for adaptation from students to the institution. (p. 119)

From this perspective, the goal is not getting the child ready for school [but] rather getting the school ready to serve increasingly diverse children (Swadener, 1995, p. 18).

Viewing literacy as a set of social and cultural practices highlights the occasional disconnect between school-based literacy and home literacy practices that can make it difficult for some parents to integrate school-based literacy events into their childrens lives (Morrow & Paratore, 1993, p. 195). A sociocultural perspective on literacy alerts educators to the violence that can be done to peoples personal and cultural identities and family relationships when educators attempt to import middle-class cultural practices into differently literate non-middle-class families.

When there is a mismatch between the definition and significance of literacy as they are represented in a persons cultural identity and in the learning situation, the individual is faced with making a choice that has implications for his or her acquisition of reading and writing skills, as well as for his or her relationship to particular texts and the symbols they contain. The student must either adopt the perspective of the school, at the risk of developing a negative component to his or her cultural identity, or else resist these externally imposed activities and meanings, at the risk of becoming alienated from the school. (Ferdman, 1990, p. 195)

The same case can be made for families.   

Gadsden (1996) argued that work in family literacy must unravel assumptions and encourage strong learning contexts respectful of the lived experiences and goals of parents, children, and other family learners. Recognizing that family literacy programs serve populations differing in racial, cultural, and religious affiliation, sociopolitical histories and ethnic connectedness, socioeconomic backgrounds, and world views (Gadsden), many family literacy educators have begun to consider the sociocultural contexts of the families they serve (Carrington & Luke, 2003; Shanahan et al., 1995). In practice, however, there are differences in the degree to which various family literacy initiatives are considerate of the social, cultural, and material conditions of the families they serve. Some family literacy practices seem to merely gesture to cultural sensitivity, with statements about the importance of taking account of peoples background knowledge and experiences; other family literacy educators construct literacy experiences that draw and build on the stories and histories of the communities and families they serve (e.g., Ada, 1988; Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Viola, Gray, & Murphy, 1986). Whatever the intentions of family literacy educators and researchers, it is uncertain how family literacy initiatives are actually experienced by parents (Purcell-Gates, 2000). Ultimately, it is only the parents targeted by various family literacy initiatives who can tell us whether these practices are truly respectful of their cultural values and beliefs, and the material demands of their daily lives.

The research project reported here focused on school-based instantiations of family literacy. This study examined parent perceptions of school-to-home literacy initiatives intended to encourage particular literacy practices in the homes of families living in two predominantly poor urban communities served by underperforming schools. Specifically, this qualitative interview study asked, How do African American and immigrant ESL parents living in these two urban communities experience various school-to-home literacy initiatives? Urban African American and immigrant ESL families were interviewed because these parents and their children are especially likely to be targeted by family literacy initiatives. The study focused on school-to-home literacy practices that attempted to influence literacy in the home because these are arguably the most common instantiation of family literacy.


To address the question of how urban parents experienced school-to-home literacy initiatives, open-ended qualitative interviews (Weiss, 1995) were conducted with 18 African American and 14 immigrant ESL parents (in two instances, grandparents were interviewed) living in two large urban centers in the northeastern United States.2 The question protocol that guided the interviews (Weiss) is provided in the appendix. The purpose of the interviews was to elicit parents perceptions of school-to-home literacy initiatives and how well these initiatives fit with their values, beliefs, and domestic routines. The interviewers did not ask parents about their own school experiences or how well their children were doing in school. Because this study focused on the perceptions of parents, no effort was made to solicit the perspectives of teachers or other school personnel.

The interviewees included 28 mothers, 1 father, 2 grandmothers,3 and a couple (father and mother). The ESL parents had immigrated to the United States from Cape Verde (n = 7), Brazil (n = 6), or Hong Kong (n = 1). Four of these parents had immigrated to the United States more than 10 years earlier; the others had come to live in the United States within 10 years of the interviews. The Brazilian and Cape Verdean parents spoke either Portuguese or a Cape Verdean Creole as their first language. Eight of these parents still struggled with English, and these interviews were conducted in Portuguese or Creole. Approximately two thirds of the interviewees had children who were in the primary grades at the time of the interviews. The others had children in middle school; therefore, these interviews included parents recollections of school-to-home literacy practices during the elementary years. The children of the interviewees generally attended public schools in their communities; however, 3 interviewees had children who were bussed to suburban schools as part of a voluntary regional desegregation program. Although the interviewers did not specifically ask parents about how their children were doing in school, nearly two thirds of the parents indicated that their children had struggled in school, mostly with reading. Various characteristics of the interviewees and their families are summarized in Table 1. The findings of this study largely reflect the views of mothers, although mothers tend to assume primary responsibility for domestic work, including work related to childrens schooling (Baker & Stevenson, 1986; Smith, 1998).

Table 1. Characteristics of Interviewees

Interviewee Name(s)



racial group

Country of birth

(years in U.S.)

Primary Languages (language of Interview)




Guardians in home

Additional Notes

Abigail S.



Engl. (Engl.)

11, 19, 24

Mother, father

Child bussed to suburban desegregation program

Ashley L.



Engl. (Engl.)

5, 16

Mother, father

Mother takes classes in the evenings

Betty M.


Hong Kong (10 yrs.)

Engl./Cantonese (Engl.)

6, 10

Mother, father

Children are bilingual

Carrie L.


Cape Verde (20+)

****CVC (Engl.)

6, 14


Mother works as community liaison with Cape Verdean community

Carla R.


Brazil (3 yrs.)

Port. (Port.)

3, 8, 12

Mother father

Children struggling in school

Darla D.



Engl. (Engl.)

10, 13


Children in special ed.

Dolores L.


Cape Verde (5 yrs.)

CVC/Engl. (CVC)

7, 13

Mother, father


Doris A.


St. Thomas (20+ yrs.)

Engl. (Engl.)

6, 15, 18



Elizabeth B.


Brazil (10 yrs.)

Port./English (Port.)

10, 14, 15

Mother, father

10-year-old son is in third grade

Erin T.


Brazil (2 yrs.)

Port. (Port.)

8, 16, 18


Trained as speech therapist in Brazil

Janet S.



Engl. (Engl.)

10, 13, 17

Mother, father

Father briefly joined the interview

Joanne P.



Engl. (Engl.)

6, 10, 16


Unclear whether father in the home

Kris J.


Cape Verde (14 yrs.)

Port/Engl. (Engl.)

11, 22

Mother, father

Father Puerto Rican; mother completed fourth grade only

Leigh H.



Engl. (Engl.)



Child bussed to suburban desegregation program; mother works evenings

Lynn G.



English (Engl.)

8, 11

Mother, father

Children bussed to suburban desegregation program

Marcus F.


Cape Verde (10 yrs.)

Port/Engl (Engl)



Single father

Margaret W.



Engl. (Engl.)

7, 11, 14

Mother, father

Children struggle in school

Maria B.


Brazil (7 yrs.)

Port. (Port.)

8, 9, 13


Fathers status in the home unclear

Marilyn R.



Engl. (Engl.)

6, 7, 10, 12, 13



Marjorie M.


Brazil (9 yrs.)

Port. (Port.)


Mother, father

Parents run day care out of their home

Marta L.


(20 yrs.)

CVC/Engl. (Engl.)

3, 5

Mother, father

Speak only Cape Verdean Creole at home.

Monique M.



Engl. (Engl.)

4, 6, 8

Mother, father

Father is Nigerian

Peter & Julie S.


Brazil (4 yrs.)

Port. (Port.)


Mother, Father

Both parents participated in the interview

Roxanne T.



Engl. (Engl.)


Mother, father

Mother describes herself as being of West Indian heritage

Ruby S.



Engl. (Engl.)


Mother, father

Adoptive parents; child enrolled in a charter school

Sally R.



Engl. (Engl.)



Mother is a teacher

Sandra M.



Engl. (Engl.)



Mother taking college classes

Selma T.


Cape Verde (3 yrs.)



Mother, father


Sera M.


Cape Verde (20+ yrs.)

CVC/Engl. (Engl.)

1, 12


Oldest diagnosed ADHD

Sharon B.



Engl. (Engl.)

11, 12 + three adults

Mother, Father


Tammy C.



Engl. (Engl.)

9, 15

Mother, father

Parent liaison

Vicky E.



Engl. (Engl.)

4, 7, 9, 11

Grandmother mother

Grandmother, former teacher. Seems she is primary parent

Note: * African American. ** Chinese. ***Cape Verdean. ****Cape Verdean Creole. *****Brazilian.

A single interview was conducted with each of the parents, and all interviews were conducted in parents homes. Interviews ranged from 30 to 60 minutes in length. All interviews were conducted by two doctoral students trained by the researcher. The training included meeting with the doctoral students to review and discuss pilot interviews, and ongoing meetings and discussions of the interview data with the students over the course of the research project. Doris,4 an African American woman, interviewed the African American parents. Doris lived and had been a classroom teacher in the city in which the parents she interviewed resided. Sonia, a Portuguese-speaking woman of Brazilian descent, interviewed the Brazilian and Cape Verdean parents, all of whom lived in the same city as Sonia. The hope was that parents would be more forthcoming if they were interviewed by people they recognized as members of their communities (Purcell-Gates, 1993). Still, given the interviewers status as middle-class doctoral students, it is unlikely that either interviewer achieved a status beyond what Kusow (2003) has called suspicious insiders (p. 594). This is not to say that the interviewers had no influence on the content or direction of the interviews. There is a long tradition in the social sciences in which interviews are seen co-constructed discourse events (Block, 2000, p. 758). In this tradition, interviews are always coconstructions that reflect the voices of interviewers and interviewees, each influencing and influenced by the other and the social and cultural context within which interviews occur. The gender, race, age, professional status, and personalities of the interviewers all affected the interview process, as they do in all interview research.   

All parents interviewed lived in one of the two urban communities targeted for this study and had children who attended, or recently attended, schools that actively encouraged parents to integrate specific literacy practices into their homes. These family literacy initiatives tended to be initiated locally but followed policies in the two school districts that encouraged teachers to involve parents in childrens literacy learning. Parents were recruited in the following ways: The researcher was given permission to recruit participants at a parents night sponsored by a Title I parents center; several school-based parent liaisons identified parents to interview; a few interviewees were recruited from an African American community church to which Doris belonged; one participant was recommended by the director of a community center serving ESL families; and snowball sampling. The largest number of African American participants were recruited through the Title I parent center, whereas most of the immigrant ESL parents were identified through school liaisons and snowball sampling.

This purposive sample included parents exhibiting a wide range of characteristics that potentially affected how they experienced school-to-home literacy initiatives (e.g., single- and two-parent families, working and stay-at-home mothers or grandmothers, high school dropouts and college-educated parents, poor and middle-class families, large families, at least one only child family, and parents who did and did not speak English). What the parents interviewed for this study had in common was that they all lived in predominantly poor urban communities served by underperforming schools; they were members of populations frequently designated minority (non-White, non-English-speaking); and they had recent experience with school-to-home literacy initiatives. Although purposive sampling broadened the range of perspectives on school-to-home literacy discussed by interviewees (Weiss, 1995), the experiences of parents interviewed for this study do not represent the experiences of all urban parents. It is unlikely, however, that the experiences of these parents are unique. At a minimum, the data from this study represent a range of experiences of urban parents with school-to-home literacy initiatives.

All interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and, if needed, translated into English. I read and reread transcriptions of the audiotaped interviews several times before attempting to generate categories that would account for the interview data. As I read and reread the data, I made extensive notes about possible categories for organizing the data and preliminary interpretive comments. Eventually, six categories emerged as core themes from parents accounts of their families responses to school-based literacy initiatives: parents commitment to their childrens education; talk about the nature of home literacy programs and parents perceptions of these programs; doubts about the efficacy of school-to-home literacy initiatives; homeschool communication; evidence of cultural conflict; and cultural capital. The designation of these categories was part of a process of bringing order, structure, and interpretation to the mass of collected data (Marshall & Rossman, 1999, p. 150) that provided a manageable way of describing the empirical complexities of summarizing hundreds of pages of interview transcriptions (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002, p. 33). Over time, these six categories were reduced to the three categories presented next: the meaning of school-to-home literacy practices in interviewees homes; homeschool communication; and parents commitment to their children and their childrens education. These themes did not emerge from any a priori categories or theoretical framework.

The data were then coded according to the core themes using HyperResearch (ResearchWare, 1999), a qualitative research software package that allows users to code and chunk large textual data sets into content and topical units and then sort and retrieve these data by codes across documents. The codes were applied to narrative chunks demarcated by new conversational turns signaled by questions from the interviewers or by shifts to new themes (different codes) within conversational turns. For example, Erin T., an immigrant ESL mother, responded in the following way to the interviewers question about how much independent reading the school expects.

They ask us to set aside 20 minutes every day for us to read to our daughter. My daughter enjoys it and I enjoy helping her. However, I would like to receive a list of books to read to her. I would also like to receive activity sheets related to language arts so I can help her. Unfortunately, I dont receive much. [The interviewer then asks another question]

The entire passage was coded the meaning of school-to-home literacy practices. Additionally, the bolded text was also coded homeschool communication.

The core themes were then used as the basis of an analysis of how these families experienced school-to-home literacy initiatives (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Weiss, 1995). Specifically, data were analyzed through a process that Bogdan and Biklen called modified analytic induction; that is, data were analyzed to develop a loose descriptive theory that encompassed all cases of the phenomena (p. 66)in this case, how urban parents experienced school-to-home literacy initiatives. Developing a broad or loose descriptive theory fit well with a research question (How do parents experience school-to-home literacy initiatives?) addressing an issue that has been underresearched and undertheorized.

The interpretive process by which the data were analyzed and a loose descriptive theory generated involved a process, modified analytic induction, that went beyond following a set of steps or procedures. Inevitably, the organization of the data into categories and the subsequent data analysis were influenced by the researchers autobiography, the existing research literature on parents and schooling, homeschool communication, and family literacy and the sociocultural perspective on literacy that underpins this study (Bloome, Carter, Christian, Otto, & Shuart-Faris, 2005; Clifford, 1986). For example, my interpretation of data from this study as illustrating parents commitments to their childrens schooling was influenced by research on parents by Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines (1988), Rogers (2003), Lareau (1989), and others, as well as my own research on parents (Dudley-Marling, 2000). Further, it was only by viewing the data through a sociocultural lens that it was possible to conceptualize particular instantiations of school-to-home literacy as cultural practices. Consider the following excerpt from the interview with parent Abigail S. When the interviewer asked Abigail if the school had asked her to read with her children at home, Abigail indicated that the school sent home a letter addressed to her child, saying please read at least 15 minutes or 30 minutes a day with your mom or one parent. She continued,

Sometimes I find that when my kids are doing . . . homework, its like the homework is an urgency. But I think that reading time, if I had a little more direction. . . . In terms of if theyre given a homework assignment so that it wouldnt be just reading, another 15 minutes . . . lets report on the book that was read.

This sentiment was common among the parents interviewed for this study, which led me to identify the practice of schools requiring or encouraging independent or shared reading at home as a core theme (just reading). But it was the theoretical (sociocultural) framework that enabled me to theorize about the meaning of school-to-home reading practices, like just reading, in different cultural settings for parents, teachers, and family literacy researchers and educators. In turn, the data from this study add texture to a sociocultural theory of literacy by illustrating how literacy activities like independent reading can take on different meanings in various cultural contexts.

The process by which I organized and analyzed the interview data for this study is described in Figure 1. Although the process described here is fairly typical among qualitative researchers, it is important to recognize that other researchers with different experiences informed by different research and theoretical frameworks would likely have organized and interpreted the data from this study differently.

Figure 1. Process of Data Collection, Organization, and Analysis of the Interview Data

click to enlarge

Finally, although I make occasional references to different tendencies among the African American and ESL parents, the qualitative methodology does not permit strong claims about differences between the two groups of parents. In any case, essentialist claims about African American or ESL parents are always problematic (Orellana & Gutiérrez, 2006).


The purpose of this study was to examine how African American and immigrant ESL parents in two urban communities served by chronically underperforming schools experienced school-to-home literacy practices initiated by their childrens schools. Toward this end, the interviewers asked parents (and grandparents) to identify and discuss their perceptions of various school-to-home literacy initiatives, particularly how well these initiatives fit with parents values, beliefs, and domestic routines. Parents were also asked to discuss what they knew about how reading was taught in their childrens schools, their relationships with schools, and their efforts to support childrens literacy development at home, among other topics. In the course of the interviews, parents identified a range of school-to-home literacy practices that came from their childrens schools. There were, however, two school-to-home literacy practices that dominated the experience of these parents: (1) various efforts to encourage parents to read with or to their children at home, and (2) different schemes to persuade parents to set aside blocks of time for children to read independently at home.

The findings are organized around three core themes that emerged from the analysis of the interview data: (1) parents commitment to their children and their childrens education, particularly their childrens development as readers (My job is to teach my son); (2) the relationship of school-to-home literacy initiatives to the values, expectations, and material demands of the home (just reading); and (3) communication between parents and schools (Decisions are made for us). I use representative excerpts from the interview data to illustrate the three core themes. I begin by discussing parents commitment to their childrens schooling,  which was the dominant theme emerging from the data analysis.


Asked how she felt about having to help her son every night with his schoolwork (including school-to-home literacy initiatives), Marilyn R. observed,

As a parent Im supposed to do that. Thats how I feel, not . . . trying to take the teachers place or anything. Its something that most parents should do. . . . You know, you gotta teach them. You gotta start at home . . . before you send them to school. You gotta teach them how to tie their shoes just like your gotta teach them how to write their name and their ABCs.

Roxanne T.s comments echoed Marilyns. Supporting childrens schooling is a parents job, she said. Were supposed to feed them, put a roof over their heads, and educate them. Sandra M. commented, My job is to teach my son. . . . Whatever is done in class I need to continue at home. That is my responsibility. Ruby S. expressed indignation that the charter school her son attended required her to sign a form indicating she would be involved in her sons schooling. To me, its like a given, she said. Of course Im going to be involved. Abigail S. likely spoke for all of the parents interviewed for this study when she said, School comes first.

The dominant theme that emerged from the analysis of the interview data from this study, accounting for a significant majority of the coded data,5 was parents strong commitment to their children and their childrens education. Overwhelmingly, parents identified education, particularly learning to read well, as the key to their childrens success in life. Many parents expressed the hope that their children would do better vocationally and educationally than they had. Although few parents said much about their own school experiences, many of the ESL parents volunteered that they had immigrated to the United States so that their children could get a good education and do better than they had. Marta L.s sentiments were shared by many of the immigrant parents. We came to work [in the United States] to see if we could have a better life than we had in Brazil, for my son to go to better schools, Marta said. Sera M. commented, I came here to give my son a better future so I have to be very involved in his education.

Parents were generally well informed about what went on in their childrens classrooms. A few parents volunteered in their childrens schools, including one mother who spearheaded a family literacy project in her role as parent liaison at her sons school. Parents supported their childrens literacy development by stocking their homes with a variety of literacy materials (e.g., story books, nonfiction books, magazines, encyclopedias, the Bible, even old law books), making trips to the library, and generally doing whatever they could to support their childrens schooling even if this involved after-school or summer programs. Asked how she felt about the school pushing her to read with her daughter every night, Doris L. expressed a view echoed by many parents. To me, Doris explained, I see [that] the school want[s] him to be excellent . . . but they dont want to do it by themselves.

The most common support that parents provided for their childrens educationso the school wouldnt have to do it by themselveswas helping children with their homework. All parents talked about monitoring childrens homeworklooking over their homework, making sure when they come home, you know after dinner, sit down and do homework study and no TV, as one mother told us. More often, parents talked about doing more than just monitoring their childrens homework. Marjorie M., an ESL mother, commented on her homework experiences with her children, saying,

[it takes] a long, long time. It takes hours to complete any little homework. We get so tired, both my daughter and I because we have to translate everything. It is difficult, very difficult. . . .  [But] I have to do it . . . because I am responsible for my daughter and I dont want her to stay back a year. My concern is not to make any mistakes because I dont want my daughter to feel embarrassed because she didnt do her homework right. For me, it is a very difficult task, very difficult.

Marjorie rechecked her daughters homework in the morning just to be sure it was done right. This stancedoing whatever they could to support their childrens schoolworkwas common among the parents interviewed for this study.

In addition to helping with homework, most of the parents interviewed, particularly African American parents, talked about taking an active role in teaching their children to read. Doris L.s description of how she worked with her children was typical:

We have a chalkboard. I write different words and stuff, let him do the same, you know, let him sound it out and let him read it off to me. Every day Im trying to do a different word just to see how it will work, as far as him reading, cause I know he need more help with reading. . . . I been trying to get different activities with him, like I would read the friend books with him all the time.

Doris also tried to teach her son vocabulary: In the back of the book, theres words there. Like different stories that he has. Theres different words that he should know or he could work on. Just get simple little ones, you know, but theyre usually in the back of storybooks.

Elizabeth B., an ESL mother who has been in the United States for more than 20 years, used flash cards for teaching her daughter sight words. I started teaching her some sounds. I did games with her, like dominoes to learn the alphabet. Now that she is more advanced, we do other kinds of games such as word searches. Nearly all the parents talked about explicitly teaching reading to their children. Parents who had computers in their homes typically purchased software that they hoped would teach their children reading skills, usually phonics. However, non-English-speaking parents were not always able to offer much support for their childrens reading development using English texts from school. Dolores L., an ESL mother, told the interviewer, let me tell you, I help him a lot. I help him with the letters and we do games together. . . . If they send work home, Ill help my son. If I can, Ill do it. But because she did not read or write in English, she often relied on a niece who lived upstairs to help her son with homework.

The parents who chose to have their children bussed to suburban school districts assumed a particularly heavy burden for themselves and their children. Lynn G., a single African American mother, expressed the burdens of bussing her son to Lexford each day.

Going out to Lexford is different because youre in a completely different community. You dont see the kids outside of school there. It means, if youre in a community where you live, at least you have some sense of belonging. So it is very challenging, even the bus trip [at 6:30 A.M.] for the kids to go out.

Still, Lynn G. indicated that the sacrifices she made to support her sons education were worth it.

In 2003, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney proposed full-day kindergarten for students in underperforming school districts contingent on parents agreement to attend classes in which they would learn ways to help their children in school. The governor put it this way: "I want parents in troubled districts to understand how they need to be partners in the education process with the teachers, with the administration, and with their child (Phillips, 2003, p. A1). This sense that poor academic performance of students in troubled (usually urban) school districts is linked to parents who are insufficiently committed to their childrens education or who lack the skills to support their childrens schooling animates much of the discussion among educational reformers. This assumption also underpins deficit models of family literacy. Yet, the dominant narrative that emerged from my analysis of the interview data from this study was parents strong commitment to their childrens education. This finding reinforces other research indicating that it is a rare parent who does not care deeply about his or her childrens schooling, regardless of socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, or racial background (e.g., Dudley-Marling, 2000; Lareau, 1989; Purcell-Gates, 1995; Rogers, 2003; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Valdes, 1996). As Peter S. put it, In my opinion, everything that is done to help the student is very well accepted, and the parents we interviewed welcomed any assistanceafter-school programs, summer school, tutoring or special education, even long bus rides to suburban school districtsif they thought it might help their children. Parents did not, however, have equal access to cultural and economic capital or material resources to support their childrens schooling (Dudley-Marling, 2000; Lareau; Rogers), a point illustrated by parents experience with school-to-home literacy initiatives, the topic of the next section.


The parents interviewed for this study identified a wide range of school-to-home literacy practices initiated by their childrens schools, including summer book lists (and book reports); reading incentive programs through which children received various rewards (e.g., pizzas, toys, tickets to sporting events) for reading a specified number of books; and book bag programs, which included a book, directions, activity sheets, games, and even scissors for art activities. The most common school-to-home literacy initiatives cited by parents were various efforts to persuade parents to require that children read at home, either independently or with parents. Sometimes this persuasion took the form of advice included in newsletters sent from the school, which encouraged parents to have their children read for at least 30 minutes a day, a recommendation often reinforced in one-to-one meetings with teachers and, occasionally, schoolwide parents nights. Typically, schools attempted to monitor independent or shared reading (i.e., interactive parentchild reading; see Holdaway, 1984) by asking parents and children to complete weekly reading logs documenting students reading at home.

According to the parents we interviewed, all the schools that their children attended strongly encouraged at-home reading but differed in the degree to which they provided explicit support for independent or shared reading at home. Most parents indicated that teachers sent home specific books for children to read independently or with their parents. Less often, teachers merely sent home lists of suggested book titles, leaving it to parents to find the books. In a few instances, identifying and locating appropriate reading material was left completely to parents and students. Few parents indicated that they were offered specific guidance on how to interact with their children around books, however. A notable exception was a parent-initiated family literacy program mentioned by one mother, which included a book lending library, a newsletter urging parents to read with their children, and meetings where parents were given specific guidance on how to read with their children.

Although parents received varying levels of assistance from schools to support independent and shared book reading in their homes, nearly all the parents reported that they were expected to document childrens reading at home, usually by completing reading logs. Janet S. told the interviewer,     

Parents have to sign [the reading log]how many minutes they have read that night. I have to sign it at night, what hes read in that book and how many minutes he read. And thats kept as a log in school and they get points in a little book.

The goal of this study was to elicit urban parents perceptions of the degree to which school-to-home literacy initiatives were considerate of their cultural and material lives. Based on critical assessments that emphasize the intrusiveness and cultural insensitivity of family literacy initiatives (see, for example, Taylor, 1997), I expected to hear stories of resistance and conflict from parents. Certainly, a few parents expressed a desire for school reading curricula that better reflected their cultural traditions. One Brazilian mother, for example, complained that the books her son brought home for independent reading had nothing to do with his daily life, what he's used to at home, our lifestyles, our culture. It has nothing to do with him . . . to him it's just a story. Several African American parents also told the interviewer that they wanted their children to read culturally appropriate books, particularly books featuring African American characters. But these African American parents also felt that it was their responsibility to locate culturally appropriate books for their sons and daughters. Evidence of explicit cultural conflict was rare, although a few Brazilian parents were offended by reading materials and other school activities surrounding Halloween, a holiday one mother described as a satanic cult . . . that is not part of our culture. But this was an uncommon response among the parents interviewed for this study.

There was also little evidence from the interviews that many parents found the demands imposed by school-to-home literacy initiatives excessive, although a few parents complained that they had difficulty balancing the competing demands of school and work. Erin T., who had moved to the United States from Brazil, observed, It is hard in this country. You have to work to survive. I have to find time to date, go out, be with my children. . . . My life is so busy. I dont have time [to follow through on the literacy activities sent home from school].

More often, parents emphasized their desire to support childrens literacy development at home. Parents told the interviewers that they were anxious to comply with teachers requests that their sons or daughters read every night, for example. Most agreed with Lee H., who said, I just try to see if we can make sure we can get half hour in the day. Even on the weekends we try to get the half hour in a day. Still, as will be seen, parents were not always able to follow through on school-to-home literacy practices.

Parents willingness to set aside time for children to read at home exemplified their apparent openness to expanding literacy learning opportunities in their homes. However, as parents talked more to the interviewers about independent and shared reading practices, a subtle conflict between the values, expectations, and beliefs of the parents and the values, expectations, and beliefs of the school emerged. When pressed, many African American and immigrant ESL parents indicated that, although they tried, it was often difficult to find the time for independent reading or to read with their children. Sandra M. complained that it was always a fight to get her son to read. Several mothers expressed disappointment that the daily reading encouraged by the school failed to inspire much enthusiasm for reading in their children. Selma T., for example, worried that her son rarely read beyond the 20 minutes suggested by the school, a sentiment echoed by Darla D. You know hes more concerned . . . when he has to read so many pages or read for half hour, hes more concerned with reading what hes supposed to do than making sure that he comprehends what it is hes read, she told the interviewer. Other parents wanted more specific advice from teachers on how to read with their children. These parents wanted a role beyond surveilling their children and documenting their reading at home. At least one mother wanted the school to send home more challenging books for her child to read.

Parents most common complaint about school-initiated read-at-home programs, however, was how well these initiatives fit into nightly homework routines. Indeed, over half of the parents interviewed distinguished just reading, as one mother called it, from homework. Selma T., for example, echoed the concerns of many parents when she complained that demanding that her son read every night interfered with his homework. It does interfere, she told the interviewer, because he has five or six homework handouts to do, plus 20 minutes to read. . . . The teacher should either assign reading or the homework, but not both. Sandra M. explained that she wasnt always able to get her son to read 20 minutes each night, especially as the weather gets warmer, but, in any case, reading was usually done after homework.

For many parents, just reading was entertainment reading to be completed after [children] finished homework. Janet S. confessed that she didnt always read with her son or complete his reading log because she didnt see it as something that [she] was obligated to do, cause hes in kindergarten and he didnt tell me it was homework. There wasnt an urgency to send it back. Ashley L. shared a similar story. They sent home a letter, you know, that you would read [every night] with your child . . . but I didnt really see the importance of it. . . . I didnt see it as homework. Ashley cited the lack of follow-up activities as a particular problem with just reading. For Ashley and several other parents interviewed, the presence of accompanying activities (e.g., worksheets, book reports) made shared and independent reading recognizable as homework. When teachers explained the purpose of just reading, Janet and Ashley indicated that they were more diligent about having their children read at home. They were, however, the only parents who told us that school officials had made any effort to be explicit about the value of independent or shared reading at home.

Research evidence indicates that parents will use [reading] materials and interact with their children in ways consistent with their understanding of what it means to learn to read and how best to help children learn to read (Goldenberg, 2001, p. 222). For most of the parents interviewed for this study, just reading fit with neither their definition of homework nor their beliefs about reading instruction. Parents expressed a desire to comply with teachers requests to encourage their children to read, but reading at homewhether in the form of shared reading or independent readingwas generally not seen as important as homework or explicit reading instruction instantiated in worksheets or other reading activities. Parents did not see the instructional value of just reading.

Parents uncertainties about the value of just reading reveal subtle but significant differences in the (cultural) meaning that at least some of the parents attached to school-to-home literacy practices such as shared and independent reading, and the meaning attached to those practices in school settings. From a sociocultural perspective, reading is a social practice involving specific values, beliefs, goals, props, ways of interacting, and so on (Gee, 1996; Street, 1995) that, in the case of school literacy, promulgate the culture of schooling (Bloome et al., 2005, p. 53). Doing reading groups (Bloome et al.), for example, involves a whole set of behaviors independent of reading words in the text. The practice of round-robin reading includes giving the appearance of listening to other students as they read; following along in the text; being prepared to take your turn; reading fluently when its your turn to read out loud; and so on. Other school reading practicesindependent reading, literature sharing groups, whole-class literature discussions, completing worksheetsalso involve particular interactions and values inextricably tied to the culture of schooling (Bloome, 1987; Schleppegrell, 2004). But a classroom literacy practice does not have to occur in a classroom per se. .  . . At home, parents and children can enact classroom literacy practices, turning their kitchens and dining rooms into classrooms (Bloome et al., p. 54). However, school literacy practices like shared and independent reading may have very different meanings when they find their way into childrens homes, particularly the homes of poor and minority families who may be differently literate (Gee). School-to-home literacy practices like independent and shared reading, stripped of the cultural meanings they have acquired in school, become just reading. In the case of many of the parents interviewed for this study, just reading comported with neither their pedagogical beliefs nor their cultural values. This is much more than mere disagreement over reading pedagogy.

Viewing literacy as a set of social and cultural practices highlights the potential tensions between school-based literacy and home literacy practices that can make it difficult for some parents to integrate school-based literacy events into their childrens lives (Morrow & Paratore, 1993, p. 195).  Arguably, just reading is a literacy practice that fits more easily with some homes than others, an example of cultural capital (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Rogers, 2003) that advantages middle-class families compared with differently literate parents and children from nondominant cultural or linguistic groups. To the degree that reading at home contributes to reading developmentand there is evidence of a positive relationship between the amount of reading children do and their development as readers (Allington, 2000)children from nondominant cultural and linguistic groups may be at a relative disadvantage compared with middle-class children for whom just reading is a natural cultural practice (de Carvalho, 2001; Gee, 1996). Among the parents we interviewed for this study, exhortations to read with their children or to require children to read independently were often insufficient. Parents needed to be persuaded of the value of just reading at home, and even then, shared and independent reading at home may not have had the same meaning for some parents and children that these practices have at school.

Effecting substantive changes in home literacy environments considerate of the values, beliefs, and domestic routines of families from nondominant groups will always be difficult (Vernon-Feagans et al., 2001). The degree to which family literacy initiatives are successful will also depend, to some degree, on the quality of communication between schools and families. In the case of the parents interviewed for this study, communication between schools and families was frequently problematic.


Parent involvement is a leitmotif of educational reform. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mentions parents over 240 times, and there are many provisions [in the act] for parents . . . to be involved with the school district in decision making [and] partnering (National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, 2006). In practice, however, parent involvement is often a one-way affair. Parents typically assume some of the curricular responsibilities of schooling but without meaningful input into curricular decision making. De Carvalho (2001), for example, observed that a significant trend of the educational literature  . . . is that it is natural and desirable that families (parents) do the school curriculum at home, according to the school and teachers requests (p. 21). The data from this study support this characterization of parent involvement. The parents we interviewed explained that they were anxious to comply with teachers requests to support their childrens learning at home. The interviews also indicate, however, that parents experienced involvementinstantiated through school-to-home literacy initiativesas something less than full partners.

The interviews revealed parents overall satisfaction with the flow of information from the school to their homes. Parents said that they were generally well informed about their childrens reading programs and the schoolwork that came home with their children each night. Their children, parentteacher conferences, and school newsletters were the primary means by which teachers communicated general information, expectations, and advice to parents. Parents also pointed to school Web sites and homework hotlines that helped them keep track of their childrens homework.

Several parents found the school newsletters, which offered advice and information, especially helpful. Dolores L. commented, I really like the newsletters a lot and I have been using their suggestions in many ways. She cited the following example to show how the newsletters had been helpful to her.

At first, when my daughter brought home a low grade in a test or school paper, I would yell at her. After reading an article in the newsletter, I started understanding my mistake and I changed my way of dealing with the situation. Instead of putting her down, I try to help her by encouraging her to put forth more effort to learn. I try to be more positive [and] I see things getting better.

Other parents were troubled by the tone of the newsletters, which they found disrespectful. Marjorie M., a Portuguese-speaking mother, complained,

[teachers] tell us how kids should help at home doing things like setting the table, cleaning the floor, cleaning the yard. . . . Those are things that should really be up to the parents. I don't think the school should interfere in the home life. . . . They probably assume that the parents aren't committed to the children.

The feeling that schools were not always respectful of parents and children was common among the parents we interviewed, especially the ESL parents. Peter S. offered the following account of his effort to talk with school officials about trouble his son was having at school.

I went to the school to talk to the principal [who] treated me very disrespectfully. My son was suspended from school and I had to go to the school to find out what happened. I brought my son with me to translate [because] I dont speak English. When the principal saw my son she shouted, What are you doing here? You are suspended. You cant be on school grounds! I tried to explain that I needed my son to translate for me. . . . I think for someone who has such a high position at the school, she should be more polite. . . . We were used to different people in Brazil. My son came from an environment where teachers are kind, gentle and, all of a sudden, they are confronted with this radical change, where teachers are really strict. That demoralizes the student and even the family. They are cold. They treat us coldly. ,

In Peters opinion, school officials only tell [him] unpleasant things about his son. The only times he and his wife ever heard from their sons teachers were if something bad happens and at parent conferencesand then for only 10 minutes.

Several other parents indicated that they had generally positive relations with their childrens teachers. Selma T., a Cape Verdean mother, told us, [Whenever there is any] little problem in school with my son either [the teacher] calls me or she asks the translator to call me. The reading teacher calls, too. Language was often a barrier to good parentteacher communication, so it was not surprising when Selma T. enthused, Let me tell you, I like my sons teacher because she speaks Creole like me.

Respectful or not, the relationship of parents and teachers among the parents we interviewed was characterized by a one-way model of communication. In terms of school-to-home literacy practices, teachers shared expectations for reading at home with parents, and parents did their best to comply. It is likely that teachers believed that encouraging parents to be more involved in their childrens literacy development would be beneficial to children and parents. But, although teachers regularly communicated their expectations for home literacy through various formal and informal channels, no parents indicated that anyone from the school ever asked them how they felt about these expectations. Nor did any parents indicate that they had ever been asked by school officials what kind of help they wanted to support their childrens schooling. Yet, many parents told us that school-to-home activities like just reading did not meet their childrens needs, at least as they saw them.

Joanne P., for example, told the interviewer, My son has a big problem in writing [and] I dont know how to help him. Whenever she asked the teacher for help with her sons writing, the teacher, Joanne said, suggested that he needed to read more books&. So every day I just forced him to read. But he doesnt like to read and he never writes. When Joanne asked the principal for assistance, Joanne said that she was again told, hes not reading enough.6 Other parents also expressed their desire for support beyond just reading. Tammy C. and Roxanne T. wanted advice from teachers about how to help their children with handwriting. Sharon L. thought that her son was already a good reader and would have welcomed help with his math. Marjorie M. told us that homework was usually too hard for her son, and she wanted more guidance from the school for supporting him. Doris A. wanted homework on weekends for her child; another mother wanted her son to read more challenging books. We also heard from  several parents who worried that just reading was interfering with their childrens love of reading. Lizzie B. wanted the schools to offer a forum where parents and teachers could have an open exchange about how best to help parents work with their kids. She specifically suggested an evening school for parents so they can help their children and allow them to communicate directly with teachers. Tammy C. offered a perspective heard from many of the parents: Everything is reading. They want the kids to read and thats good. But they already know how to read, I think. They need to do something else. . . . But they have to, you know, stop sometime. Because there is, like, math. There is other stuff they teach the kids.

When interviewers asked parents if they had shared their concerns with school officials, many, like Joanne P., felt that they had but were not listened to. More than half the parents interviewed indicated, however, that they hadnt even tried. These parents told the interviewers that they were intimidated by the prospect of talking back to school officials. Monique M. explained her reluctance to talk to school officials by confessing, Im chicken. Communicating with schools was even more problematic for immigrant ESL parents. A well-educated Brazilian mother told us that she was reluctant to speak to her childs teacher, saying, I dont like to speak nonsense, which is how she felt her English sounded. Another Portuguese-speaking parent told us that she couldnt even speak to the bilingual teacher because, as she said, the teacher was Spanish. She tried to speak Portuguese but we couldnt understand her because she spoke Spanishwith some Portuguese words mixed in.

The parents interviewed for this study described a one-way flow of information from the school to the home. Only rarely were parents afforded opportunities to talk back to the schoolat least thats how the parents saw it. Roxanne T. observed that in the school district in which she lived, a lot of decisions are made for us, not by us. One-size-fits-all school-to-home literacy practices were frequently inconsiderate of the needs, values, and expectations of these families. Parents were generally unable to share their sense that just reading didnt always fit well with family routines or family culture, for example. Nor were there opportunities for parents to indicate needs beyond reading. Worse, no school officials ever asked the parents interviewed for this study what kind of support they needed or how they felt about school literacy practices that found their way into parents homes. Nor were there any indications, at least from the parents, that school officials even considered the possibility that they could learn something from parents. When Joanne P. asked school officials what she could do to help her son with his writing, she was told to keep doing what the school had asked her to do (just reading). This seemed to be the meaning of parent involvement for nearly all the parents interviewed for this study.


Educational researchers, teachers, administrators, and policy makers have come to view home environments as a likely source of experiences that can enhance the development of [childrens] oral and written language (Sénéchal et al., 1998, p. 96). The potential richness of home environments is a resource that many educators are anxious to mine. Nearly 150 articles have been published on parent involvement since 2000. Many of these articles have focused on the potential of family literacy as a means of nurturing literacy development in the homes of poor and minority children, children whose home language and literacy experiences have often been deemed inadequate for future school success. But, although there are data supporting the efficacy of some family literacy initiatives (e.g., Purcell-Gates, 2000), little is known about how parents actually experience family literacy practices, particularly parents perceptions of the degree to which family initiatives are considerate of the cultural values, beliefs, and routines of their homes. Nor is much known about how parents experience parent involvement more generally. The study reported here focused on African American and immigrant ESL parents living in urban communities served by low-performing schools on the assumption that these parents are most often targeted by family literacy initiatives, a particular form of parent involvement. This study offers a rare glimpse into urban parents experiences with school-to-home literacy initiatives, arguably the most common instantiation of family literacy. Although the relatively small sample size limits claims about the generalizability of the findings, it is doubtful that the experiences of the parents interviewed for this study are unique. Many other urban parents will have similar perceptions about school-to-home literacy practices. Further research will be needed, however, to determine how common these experiences are among urban families.

Analysis of the parent interviews revealed a range of perspectives and experiences with school-to-home literacy practices, reinforcing Orellana and Gutiérrezs (2006) caution to teachers, researchers, and educational policy makers about the dangers of essentializing the experiences of members of nondominant groups. Overall, the parents interviewed for this study appeared to care deeply about their children and their childrens education, evidenced by parents eagerness to comply with teachers requests to make space in their family routines for shared and independent reading. The analysis of the data revealed, however, that the school-to-home literacy practices referred to in this article as just reading did not always fit comfortably with parents values, beliefs, and domestic routines. Sociocultural models of literacy indicate that reading events are social practices infused with the values, beliefs, and normative behaviors of specific cultural groups (Bloome et al., 1991; Gee, 1996). Transported to cultural and linguistic contexts with different values, beliefs, and norms, school literacy practices like shared and independent reading, stripped of their cultural meanings they acquired in school, become just reading.

Just reading signifies the unpredictability of exporting the cultural practices of schooling in the guise of family literacy. How parents and children experience school literacy practices imported into the infinitely complex cultural spaces of families and communities can never be anticipated with any certainty (see Davis and Samaras 2006 discussion of complexity theory). It is likely, however, that differently literate parents from nondominant cultural and linguistic backgrounds will always have difficulty integrating literacy practices into their homes that are infused with somebody elses values, beliefs, and expectations (Goldenberg, 2001; Morrow & Paratore, 1993). Reading independently, for example, reflects the value that the dominant culture places on individualism but may fit less well in cultural settings in which community needs are emphasized. In the latter context, solitary reading practices may signal social distance and a rejection of family values. Yet, parents from nondominant cultural and linguistic groups who do not readily embrace school literacy practices like just reading risk being unfairly judged as unsupportive of their childrens schooling. Through the deficit lens that dominates educational reform, urban parents are blamed for low levels of academic achievement in urban schools. But even when parents from nondominant groups are able to make space for school-based literacy practices in their homes, parents and children may perform these practices in ways that resemble school literacy only superficially. Shared and independent reading are cultural practices, involving specific values, beliefs, goals, and ways of interacting and specific sets of interpretations for understanding and guiding behavior (Bloome et al., 1991, p. 22).  Literacy practices cannot be reduced to scripts that can be enacted in any sociocultural setting. From a sociocultural perspective, just reading, removed from the cultural context of schooling and imported into the cultural contexts of differently literate families from nondominant cultural and linguistic groups, is transformed into a qualitatively different literacy practice that may not generalize back to school settings. The question for family literacy educators, educational policy makers, and classroom teachers is not how to motivate or persuade parents from nondominant groups to mimic school-based cultural practices more effectively, but how to gain a clearer understanding of the complex relationship between home and school literacy practices. A family literacy considerate of the cultural and material lives of families and committed to the academic achievement of all students must seek better understanding of home literacy practices and how to build on those practices in support of school learning (e.g., Schleppegrell, 2004).

The present study complicates the meaning of popular school-to-home literacy practices, like shared and independent reading, imported into the homes of (some) urban African American and immigrant ESL parents. As the present research illustrates, literacy events are inextricably tied to a familys cultural belief system; therefore, making changes in the home environment may be difficult (Vernon-Feagans et al., 2001, p. 201). It is not surprising that gaps and misconceptions emerge when school-based cultural practices like just reading are decontextualized and then asked to be recontextualized by families without explanation about the cultural values and beliefs underlying these practices. Moreover, asking families from nondominant cultural and linguistic groups to take on the cultural values and beliefs implicit in school-based literacy is disrespectful and inappropriate (Vernon-Feagans et al.). If certain literacy experienceslike shared and independent reading, for exampleare deemed to be critical to school success, schools should assume responsibility for providing those experiences. Morrow and Smith (1990), for example, demonstrated the feasibilityand efficacyof storybook reading (read aloud) in small groups in classroom settings. Ironically, the school-based reading practice (just reading) that many of the parents interviewed for this study struggled to embrace is increasingly devalued in a culture of scientifically based research that dominates reading instruction in many schools.

School-to-home literacy practices considerate of the cultural and material lives of families must be informed by the experiences and perceptions of parents. The parents we interviewed described a unidirectional model of parent involvement in which parents are available to do the schools bidding. This one-way communication model is unlikely to respond to the cultural and linguistic diversity present in many classrooms, nor is it likely that one-size-fits-all approaches to family literacy, like just reading, will address the needs of individual families, especially parents and children from nondominant groups. An approach to family literacy that is sensitive to cultural and material needs of parents of varied backgrounds must create opportunities for parents to talk back to schoolsand for schools to listen. Educational policy makers should be open to an alternative vision of parent involvement. De Carvalho (2001), for example, suggested that the ideal family-school partnership might pose the school mission in terms of embracing cultural diversity and, thus, learning from families, in which case the formula would be teacher involvement with families and school-community partnership (pp. 45). From this perspective, the key to parent involvement, including support for school-based literacy practices, is two-way communication in which schools consider the diverse needs of families by replacing directives to parents (e.g., Heres what you need to do) with open-ended questions like, What kind of support do you need? What are you able to do? or How can we work together? Foregrounding the cultural and linguistic needs, values, and expectations of parents will reduce the conflict, blame, and dysfunction that characterize the frequently tense relationships between families and schools (Goldenberg, 2001, p. 221). Meaningful dialogue between school officials is also a crucial to the larger project of creating inclusive classrooms that affirm diversity and seek to accommodate the culture and experiences of all students through transformative practices, including changing school-based repertoires of what counts as success (Nieto, 2003).

Finally, effective communication between parents and schools depends on mutual respect, and the parents we interviewed often did not feel that schools were respectful of them, their children, or their communities. Parent involvement initiatives like family literacy that aim to fix poor and minority families are inherently disrespectful and, therefore, doomed to failure. Regrettably, deficit perspectives continue to dominate the relationships of schools and parents in poor and minority communities (Dudley-Marling, 2007).


1. Based on state achievement test data, both districts consistently rank among the lowest 5% in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

2. Fewer ESL parents were interviewed largely because it was more difficult to recruit these parents to be interviewed, and these interviews, because they usually also required translation, were much more costly.

3. Although two of the interviewees were grandmothers, one of whom was the primary caregiver, I refer to interviewees as parents and not parents and guardians throughout for stylistic reasons.

4. Pseudonyms are used for interviewers and the interviewees.

5. Note that multiple codes were often assigned to segments of interview data.

6. At the conclusion of the interview, the interviewer, a former teacher, spent some time talking to the mother about how she might support her sons writing development at home.


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Describe research project. Ask to sign informed consent form.

Can you tell me about yourself and your cultural/racial background? (in the case of immigrant ESL families, How long have you been in the USA? and What language(s) do you speak at home?)

Can you tell me about your children (how many, where they go to school, other schools theyve attended)?

What do you know about the reading program at your child (or childrens) school(s)?

Does the school ask your son or daughter to do any kind of reading activities at home? Whats your role in these activities?

Are there other ways the school talks to you about reading at home with your children (e.g., teacherparent conferences, special school programs, newsletters, etc.)?

How do you feel when the school asks you to help with your childrens reading? Do they ever ask you or your children to do reading activities you object to or that dont fit into your family routines?

What kind of relationship do you have with your childrens school/teachers?

Do you do (or did you do) anything to help your son or daughter with learning to read? What kind of reading materials do you have around the house?

Is there anything else about your childrens schooling youd like to talk about?

Note: The interviewers were encouraged to address these questions but not to ask each question in turn. In some cases, it was sufficient to ask parents to merely talk about their childrens reading. More often, interviewers had to ask more probing questions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 7, 2009, p. 1713-1752
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15307, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 1:09:09 PM

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About the Author
  • Curt Dudley-Marling
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    CURT DUDLEY-MARLING is a professor in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, where his teaching and research focus on struggling readers and writers. Recent publications include “Return of the Deficit," Journal of Educational Controversy, 2007, and A Classroom Teacher’s Guide to Struggling Writers (with Pat Paugh; Heinemann, 2007).
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