Why children succeed or fail in school is one of the most enduring questions for educational researchers. A salient finding from traditional research on both adult education and early childhood intervention programs is that the mother' s level of education is one of the most important factors influencing children's reading levels and other school achievements.
Generally, traditional research has revealed that more highly educated mothers have greater success in providing their children with the cognitive and language skills that contribute to early success in school (Sticht & McDonald, 1990). Also, children of mothers with high levels of education stay in school longer than children of mothers with low levels of education.
It is important for the reader to keep in mind that traditional studies focus on broad populations instead of the populations most likely to experience difficulties in acquiring basic literacy skills. There is evidence suggesting that correlational studies intended to provide information for literacy intervention have identified symptoms of the causal variables. The social and cultural precepts within the family are causal factors which must be addressed in programs designed to produce long-term changes in the lives of disadvantaged family members (Hayes, 1991; Gadsden, in press).
This report examines recent research and program developments designed to improve the education of children by improving the literacy skills of their parents (particularly their mothers) who did not graduate from high school.
However, another line of research has challenged the traditionalist view that one or a few variables can explain the influence of the home on low-income children's academic success. A growing body of research suggests that how parents raise their children may be more important than the parents' occupation, income, or educational level (Heath, 1983; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Teale, 1986; Snow, Barnes, Chandler, Goodman, & Hemphill, 1991) .
The Harvard Families and Literacy Study (Chall & Snow, 1982) investigated the home literacy practices of successful and unsuccessful low-income elementary school students to identify factors that contributed to the acquisition of literacy and children's achievement in school. The study found "no simple correlation between parents' literacy level, educational background, amount of time spent on literacy work with children, and overall achievement."
Auerbach's review of the ethnographic studies of family literacy found that a two-way support system (as opposed to simply parent-to-child literacy learning) characterized the literacy interactions of many low-income, minority and immigrant families.
One study of parental involvement based on a model of children reading to parents found that children who read to their parents on a regular basis made greater gains than children receiving an equivalent amount of extra reading instruction by reading specialists at school (Tizard, Schofield, & Hewison, 1982).
Auerbach's work also shows that "indirect factors including frequency of children's outings with adults, number of maternal outings, emotional climate of the home, amount of time spent interacting with adults, level of financial stress, enrichment activities, and parental involvement with the schools had a stronger effect on many aspects of reading and writing than did direct literacy activities, such as help with homework" (Auerbach, 1989).
Teale (1986) argues that a frequent shortcoming of research on the effects of family background is its correlational design. "Children are tested in, for example, various aspects of literacy development (usually referred to as reading readiness) and their achievement levels are then correlated with particular home background characteristics. Such research provides no direct evidence for cause-effect relations. Yet, frequently, these studies suggest implications for instruction or home intervention programs."
A growing number of researchers argue that naturalistic inquiry in which the researcher does not attempt to manipulate study setting and places no prior constraints on what the outcomes of the research will be (Patton, 1990) is particularly well-suited for gathering data on all of the contributors to literacy development.
One researcher has suggested a cycle of research that begins with an ethnographic examination of the context as a whole, is followed by case studies to focus carefully on a few individuals, continues with experimental research of new approaches, and ends with another ethnographic examination to see how the new procedures work in an entire context (Kamil, 1989).
During the last decade, educators and policy makers have become increasingly interested in the notion that educationally disadvantaged parents and children are a learning unit and that family and intergenerational literacy programs are a promising approach to supporting parents in their role as first teachers.
In the Kenan Trust Family Literacy Model, parents work on basic academic skills and parenting skills while their children attend a preschool class. Follow-up studies of preschool participants who were at risk of failure when they enrolled in the family literacy program showed that primary grade students performed above average on variables such as academic performance, motivation to learn, attendance, self confidence, and probable success in school. Ninety percent of the children were rated as "not considered at risk for school failure" by their current teachers.
There were also significant findings for the parents who participated in the Kenan Trust Family Literacy Model. Over 80 percent of the parents who enrolled in the program were unemployed, had not completed high school, and had an income of less than $7,000 per year, primarily from public assistance (Seaman, Popp & Darling, 1991; National Center For Family Literacy, 1993). After participating in the program--
The Intergenerational Literacy Action Research Project (ILAR), conducted by Wider Opportunities for Women (Fossen and Sticht, 1991), involved mothers participating in community-based programs that provide women with basic-skills instruction and job training. The study revealed that 65 percent of the children benefited from their mother's participation in the adult education and training programs.
Following their participation in the project, more than 90 percent of the mothers reported that they had become aware of the influence they had on their children's educational achievements. The mothers also stated that they would read to their children more often and make greater efforts to help them with their homework, take them to the library, and talk with them about school.
Two major implications from this research are:
All the stakeholders should come together to develop a research agenda for examining parent-child interactions and advancing family literacy as a field with appropriate frameworks and instructional approaches.
Richard W. Riley, Secretary of Education
Sharon P. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, OERI
Joseph C. Conaty, Acting Director, OR