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Intergenerational Literacy Programs for Incarcerated Parents and Their Families: A Review of the Literature (page 4)
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Characteristics of Family Literacy Programs (in General)

In this section, selected findings from a wide range of family literacy studies are summarized. Most findings do not specifically pertain to incarcerated parents or their children. Of course, almost all studies had some relevance to prison-based family literacy programs. Findings presented here represent select themes that offered insights or raised questions related to programs for families separated by prison. The findings do not represent a comprehensive review.

Trust. Numerous studies cited the need for building trust between schools and families (Bermudez, 1994; Feiler, 2005; Miller, 2005; Padak & Sapin, 2001; Smith & Elish-Piper, 2002; Tice, 2000). For example, Bermudez (1994) cited the importance of involving Latino/a parents in mutual goal setting in order to gain their trust. Miller (2005) emphasized the need to help teachers develop the awareness and skills they need to understand the cultural, linguistic, and psychological barriers experienced by some Even Start parents as they strove to become advocates for their children's education. Others (National Center for Family Literacy, 2001; Tice, 2000) have noted the need for buy-in at all levels and the advantages of including families in program design and operation decisions.

Trust and culture issues often undermine even well meaning prison programs (Muth, 2004; Warner, 1998). Prison staff are warned to be wary of the manipulative language games that inmates play (Allen & Bosta, 1981). Yet the need for a level of trust in prison classrooms may be no less necessary than in the community.

Respect. A second theme, related to trust, addressed the need for practitioners to respect the cultures, languages, and other strengths of the families and not regard them primarily as deficient. Delpit (1988) noted the way the dominant culture silences the voices of those without power, and how those in power are the least aware of power structures. Nevertheless, others have described ways that curricula were co-constructed with the clients and reflected the learners' strengths and interests (Crowther & Tett, 1997; Feiler, 2005; Pahl & Kelly, 2005; Powell & D'Angelo, 2000; Schwartz, 1999). For example, Hannon (1998) trained parents to be program facilitators; Hutchinson (2000) empowered mothers to become action researchers so that they could investigate the power structures in their communities; Delgado-Gaitan (1990) described ways Mexican parents taught each other advocacy skills. MacCleod (2004) argued that children, as well as parents, are capable of accurately interpreting their own experiences.

Recent studies found that prison literacy programs often embodied top-down classrooms where prisoners' personal interests (Muth, 2004) funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll & Amanti, 2005) and voice (Wright, 2001) were uninvited (Duguid, 2000; Gehring, 2000). Yet, classroom cultures that respect student discourses and learners' funds of knowledge may be as important in prison-based family literacy programs as they are elsewhere.

Adult reading components. A third theme emerged from studies of reading and reading instruction. Based on studies of children and adults, a growing understanding of reading difficulties, reading assessment, and effective reading instruction for adult literacy learners is emerging (Kruidenier, 2002). Strucker (1997) found that silent reading comprehension tests alone do not provide sufficient diagnostic information for literacy teachers and can result in vague and misleading ideas about the underlying reading abilities and needs of the adult learners. The National Center for Family Literacy (McShane, 2005) prepared a synthesis of research related to adult reading components.

While the first two themes above-- trust and respect -- embody social-constructivist concerns about the context of literacy learning, the reading components literature reflects key insights about teaching reading to adults from a cognitive psychology perspective. While some have debated the utility of one stance over the other, Gadsden (2002) suggested an integrated way to approach both:

    Although the two stances are associated with distinctive research camps, they do not represent all-or-nothing commitments in actual practice. In short, it is likely that most family literacy services are developed with some combination of the two stances and use approaches that draw upon both. (p. 252)

These two approaches to thinking about family literacy may have great impact on correctional educators and policy makers. The rich range of qualitative and quantitative measures used to evaluate family literacy programs reflect Gadsden's argument for an integrated/inclusive approach (Benjamin & Lord, 1996; National Center for ESL Literacy in Education; 2002) and support the need for bi-cultural designs for prison-based literacy programs (Muth, 2004).

Role of fathers. Consistently, researchers found that fathers mattered (Bernal et al., 2000; Caddell, 1996; Green, 2003; Hairston, 2001; Karther, 2002; Stile & Ortiz, 1999). Bernal et al. (2000) reported on an extensive dialogue with Hispanic fathers and urged service providers to continue to engage this population in family literacy program design. Karther (2002) noted that even fathers with lower literacy ability valued and tried to support their children's schooling. Green (2003) found that a four-week self-guided program increased the amount and quality of father-child reading together time; it also raised fathers' perceptions of their relationships with their children.

Children and families of prisoners are at-risk for becoming hardened to the incarcerated father's absence (Gadsden et al., 2005). The findings in this section suggest that we should not exclude incarcerated fathers from parenting and family literacy initiatives.

Role of mothers. Family literacy programs for incarcerated mothers and their children may be even more urgently needed than father-child programs. Some studies of incarcerated females (Covington, 2001; Gonnerman, 2004) found that the extent of harm to children who have lost mothers to prison tended to be immediate and severe, since these mothers were often single parents. Incarcerated mothers were often perceived as bad mothers; however, the pain of separation from children may be much greater for mothers than fathers (Covington, 2001). Despite the unique and intense needs of incarcerated mothers, prison policies tend to be heavily male-oriented. Covington warned that these policies can relegate female prisoners to a lower -- or even invisible -- status and stressed that programs for mothers must not be cloned from programs designed for male prisoners. She argued that the problem of the invisibility extended from the incarcerated mother to her children:

    The invisibility of women in the criminal justice system often extends to their children. The situation of these children is exacerbated by the fact that there are few, if any, sources of data about offenders' children. However, one study by Johnston (1995) identified three factors--parent-child separation, enduring traumatic stress, and an inadequate quality of care--that were consistently present in the lives of children of incarcerated parents. The impact of these factors on children's ability to successfully progress through the various developmental stages can be profound. (p. 7)

Intergenerational learning. The distinction between family literacy and intergenerational literacy emerged as another theme with implications for prison-based family literacy programs. Gadsden (2002) described intergenerational literacy as a specific "strand of inquiry that focuses on the transmission of knowledge and behavior from one generation to the next" (p. 259). She noted that intergenerational learning is bi-directional and includes the way the young assist their elders as well as the more typical transmission from parent to child. Weinstein (1998) described younger English language learners that both supported and challenged their elders and the established family culture. Geraci (2000) found that youthful offenders in a family literacy program wrote letters of apologies to their parents. Because literacy learners in prison strive to remain connected with spouses, parents, siblings, cousins and friends, as well as children (Muth, 2004), family literacy programs may be more effectively designed as bi-directional, intergenerational programs.

Conclusion. A wide range of studies from social-constructivist, cognitive psychology, and other perspectives have described the characteristics of successful family literacy programs. These include the need for trust and respect among clients and practitioners, the use of research-supported insights for teaching reading, the inclusion of fathers as well as mothers, and the distinctions between family literacy and intergenerational literacy frameworks. Most of the findings were derived from studies of family literacy programs in the community. Many of the same characteristics identified as necessary for successful community-based programs may hold for prison-based programs as well. Despite this knowledge base, families divided by prison, and the practitioners who strive to serve them, face unique challenges that must be addressed separately.


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