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Research to Practice: Family Literacy Programs: Getting Started

by Nancy Padak and Tim Rasinski

It makes sense to think of families as educational units. Mothers' educational levels are a powerful predictor of children's academic achievement. Parents' educational levels are also strongly related to children's physical health and persistence in school. When parents are involved in their children's learning, the children do more and better in school. Family literacy programs have the potential to benefit children.

Parents can also benefit from family literacy programs. Parents attend successful family literacy programs far longer than many other adult education programs; this higher retention rate means more opportunities to learn. Moreover, positive growth in reading and writing and even psychological and emotional benefits have been documented. Parents report feeling closer to their children, for example, and say that they are spending more time together as families.

Because of this potential, many groups have recently initiated family literacy programs. But because family literacy is a relatively new educational effort, those who begin programs have few models to follow and are often not aware of the "start-up" problems they may encounter. This is unfortunate, since many problems are typical and can be solved during planning, thusensuring a smoother beginning and a more enduring program.

We recently conducted a study (Rasinski & Padak, 1993) to learn about the initiation process for Even Start Programs in Ohio. These federally funded family literacy programs are located in urban, suburban, small city, and rural areas. All of the programs are relatively new; the oldest began in 1989. < P> We surveyed Program Directors for these Even Start programs to identify the difficulties they encountered during the beginning stages of their programs and the solutions they developed. Below we summarize the processes these programs used to get started. We also report the problems they encountered. Finally, we detail the suggestions or advice that personnel from these programs offer to others beginning family literacy programs.

We asked Project Directors to rate the ease they experienced in starting their projects, using a 1 (very easy) to 5 (very difficult) scale. The mean rating for the projects was 3.7, suggesting that, in general, Project Directors believed that they experienced significant challenges and difficulties in initiating their programs.

The challenging nature of program initiation was also evident when we asked Project Directors to describe the tasks and procedures they undertook to get their programs started. Some experienced more frustration than others, of course. But even though the programs differed in many ways, we found considerable overlap in the types of activities that were seen as essential to successful initiation. These included:

selecting, hiring, and training staff members; selecting and preparing sites; purchasing equipment and essential materials; coordinating and networking with other agencies; introducing the program to the community; defining responsibilities of the program, especially when there was potential overlap with other agencies; and identifying and recruiting families for the program.

These tasks were especially daunting because programs were not, in many cases, adequately staffed; if staff were in place, they were typically not trained to address these issues. The lack of previous experience or a model upon which the programs could base their own actions and decisions was a further complication.

We also asked about significant problems that the projects encountered as they initiated their programs and about how those problems were overcome. Overall, projects reported a variety of very practical problems, including site and staff selection; staff orientation and training; coordinating with and gaining the cooperation of related agencies, especially local school districts; finding appropriate materials, especially in the area of assessment; and recruitment and retention of parents, including provisions for transportation and child care.

When we compared these problems with the start-up tasks that the projects described, we noticed that nearly every task was perceived as problematic. This is another indication that getting a family literacy program started is a challenging endeavor.

The programs dealt with these problems, even those that they could not satisfactorily resolve, forcefully and with initiative and imagination. For example, trouble finding space led some programs to look elsewhere; some even changed the nature of program delivery so that families could be served in their homes. When site accessibility was a problem, programs sought ways to provide transportation. One of the most important solutions was to develop as early as possible a clear vision of what the program was about, who it served, and in what ways. Programs then organized themselves very quickly to realize that vision and to address problems in an informed and rational manner.

Finally, we asked the existing programs what advice they would offer to those just beginning their projects. The following summarizes their suggestions:

  • Collaborate with other family literacy projects and personnel.
  • Meet frequently to clarify expecta-tions and brainstorm solutions to problems.
  • Seek resources from other programs, state agencies, universities, etc.
  • Seek "mentors" among established programs.
  • Collaborate within your own program.
  • Meet frequently; work at creating a cohesive team; commit yourselves to functioning as a team.
  • Make communication among team members a priority; make sure every-one knows what everyone else is doing.
  • Organize staff; assign specific tasks and responsibilities.
  • Find resource people (e.g., social workers, school personnel) who can assist if needed.
  • Work together to find additional funding for family literacy efforts.
  • Collaborate within your community.
  • Decide with whom and how your program should collaborate. Convince these persons/agencies of the importance of family literacy programs, in general, and your particular project goals.
  • Invest time in establishing these collaborative relationships early in your project.
  • Work to make these relationships strong and flexible.
  • Communicate frequently with these agencies. Seek their advice.
  • Advertise your program to the local community through the media, flyers, talks, etc.
  • Be realistic about program goals.
  • Decide the number of families and the age range of children that can realistically be served.
  • Realize that delays and unanticipated problems are inevitable and that program start-up will take a great deal of time and energy, usually more than originally planned. Don't get discouraged. Develop a plan for addressing unanticipated concerns.
  • Hire staff as quickly as possible. Be aware of both formal and informal qualifications for staff.
  • Create a staff development plan that offers long-term support. Obtain help from others.
  • Develop goals and objectives to guide the program.
  • Develop a system to ensure that program goals are addressed. Continually review to be certain that progress is being made. Keep a "paper trail" documenting progress. Plan recruiting strategies carefully and early. Involve other agencies.

    Initiating a family literacy program is extremely challenging. It requires the completion of many diverse and seemingly unrelated tasks, often with a limited or insufficiently trained staff. Had the Even Start programs been able to anticipate more fully the various concerns and tasks that faced them, program initiation would have proceeded with significantly less frustration and anxiety. Those adult literacy programs planning to enhance or redirect their family literacy efforts are advised to consider the issues and heed the advice of these "trailblazing" programs.

    Establishing and nurturing connections within and among family literacy programs is one key to successful initiation. Vertical connections to the state for the purpose of support is vital. Similarly, establishing early and strong connections with potential families to be served can ensure that the program addresses family needs.

    Horizontal connections are also critical to successful program initiation. These include connections with well established family literacy programs and with related agencies in the community that can help with pragmatic needs and concerns.

    Family literacy programs have incredible potential for improving the educational development of adults and children. The time spent carefully planning the initial phases of these projects will help ensure the early and continuing success of these programs.


  • Rasinski, T., & Padak, N. (1993). Initiating Even Start Programs (Occasional Paper #1). Kent, OH: Kent State University.

    The research reported here was supported by a grant from the Ohio Department of Education, Division of Federal Assistance (Project #062976-EV-SD-94).

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