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Family Involvement and Children's Literacy

A longitudinal study highlights family involvement as a key to literacy performance
boy and girl reading

Heather Weiss and her Harvard Family Research Project colleagues examined low-income mothers' involvement in their children's education. Dr. Weiss talked about the findings of this research and its implications for education policy and practice.

Can you describe some of the research you've done on family involvement?

Over the past 10 years, my colleagues and I have been working on the School Transition Study (STS). This is a longitudinal investigation of 390 low-income, ethnically diverse children and the school, family, and community factors that promote their successful development. The study followed the children from kindergarten through fifth grade.

In our research, we are particularly interested in how family involvement from kindergarten through fifth grade is associated with children's literacy performance and how involvement matters for low-income children and mothers with varying levels of education. We measured different family involvement processes—including involvement at home, in school, in the neighborhood and community, and through home–school communication.

What are some of your research findings?

Overall, five main findings emerge from our research. The first is that family involvement relates to low-income elementary children's literacy outcomes over time. For the sample studied, high levels of family involvement from kindergarten through fifth grade—including attending parent–teacher conferences; visiting the classroom; attending school performances, social events, and field trips; and volunteering, on average, predicted children's gains in literacy.

The second finding is that involvement is a dynamic process. It's becoming increasingly apparent that involvement levels change within families over time. Our research showed that such changes in individual families' involvement over time were associated with changes in children's literacy performance. For example, in this study when individual parents became increasingly involved in their children's education from kindergarten to fifth grade, children's literacy performance increased as well, on average.

A third important finding is that family involvement might have an added reward for low-income children who are at risk of school failure by virtue of their parents' low levels of formal education. For example, we found that high levels of family involvement were more strongly associated with average literacy performance between kindergarten and fifth grade for children whose mothers had less than a high school education compared with children whose mothers had relatively higher levels of education.

A fourth finding from our work is about the pathways through which family involvement influences children's literacy performance. The STS found that family involvement increases children's positive feelings about literacy, which in turn improves their literacy performance. In other words, children start feeling better about literacy and like literacy more when their parents are involved in their education.

Finally, we found that school context predicts family involvement, which in turn predicts children's literacy achievement. An overall positive school context — including child and family strengths, school supports and services, staff investment, and teacher outreach — predicted higher levels of family involvement, which in turn predicted higher literacy levels for students.

What do these findings then mean in the context of family involvement?

Our work reminds researchers, policymakers, and practitioners that family involvement is important for children's achievement. Specifically, our work shows that family involvement can promote children's literacy, which is important because we know that there are a series of problems associated with poor literacy skills, including dropping out of school and juvenile delinquency.

Moreover, because our research is longitudinal it demonstrates that family involvement makes a difference over time, so that family involvement is not just important at one period of development. Rather it is important throughout the entire developmental continuum.

And because our sample is diverse in terms of family demographics, we can also show that family involvement can matter for all children but that at the same time, the ways in which it matters and the type of involvement and the meaningfulness of involvement can vary from child to child.

Finally, our research suggests that it is never too late for families to get involved. Family involvement is dynamic; families can change in terms of their involvement and schools have an important role to play in helping families become more involved.

How can schools reach out to low-income families?

Results of our work strongly suggest that family involvement should be a central aim of practices and policy solutions to reduce the achievement gap between children from families with higher and lower levels of parental education. Policymakers and school leaders need to think more about how to integrate family involvement into the instructional strategy, rather than simply treating this as an "add on" to school activities.

To do this, schools can create policies that develop a school climate that welcomes parents and develop school-wide infrastructure that supports teacher and family communication, such as parent resource centers and family–school coordinator positions. Moreover, schools can dedicate in-service hours toward training teachers to become aware of the value of family involvement and to develop the skills necessary to outreach effectively to families.

Moreover, because family involvement is so dynamic, schools can create a sense of community and mechanisms for reinforcing it. Family involvement efforts can create opportunities for parent networking and extend the opportunities for involvement in the school and community through organized meetings and leadership development.

To learn more:

Dearing, E. McCartney, K., Weiss, H. B., Kreider, H. & Simpkins, S. (2004). The promotive effects of family educational involvement for low-income children's literacy. Journal of School Psychology, 42(6), 445-460.

Weiss, H., Dearing, E., Mayer, E., Kreider, H. & McCartney, K. (2005). Family educational involvement: Who can afford it and what does it afford? In C.R. Cooper, C. T. García Coll, W. T. Bartko, H. M. Davis & C. Chatman (Eds.). Developmental pathways through middle childhood: Rethinking context and diversity as resources. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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