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Joining Together in Literacy Learning: Teenage Mothers and Children

Authors: Susan G. Neuman & Phyllis Gallagher

Participants: Six mothers, all Caucasian, who had been teenagers at the time of giving birth, and their children.

Purpose: The purposes of this study were to 1) enhance the caregiving environment for young children using developmentally appropriate materials in culturally familiar social contexts (mailing letters and grocery shopping); and 2) help teenage mothers build on the knowledge and skills that children might have already developed.

Method: A non-profit organization that offered childbirth classes to pregnant teens provided a list of teen mothers who had participated in the program. Mothers whose children were between the ages of 3 and 4 1/2 years were selected to participate in a home-based project for 12 weeks. In order to be eligible for the program, the mothers agreed to set aside 10 minutes per day to read and play with their children while being audiotaped and observed on a regular basis. Before the study began, the mothers did not read regularly to their children.

The literacy materials developed for this study focused on the social interactions between parent and child that would encourage reading and pretend play. The materials were transportable and compact so they could be moved about crowded living areas with ease; they "reflect[ed] a real-world context for involvement" (p. 386). Two prop boxes were created: a post office and a grocery store. Both contained books to assist with the children's ability to label objects, as well as literacy-related props to be used for play. For example, the post office prop box contained a postal worker's hat and shirt, a mailbag and mailbox, paper, pencils, envelopes, stationery, etc.

Individual coaching sessions for each mother took place at home, and three strategies were introduced: labeling, scaffolding, and contingent responsitivity. Labeling -- asking what and where questions -- encouraged the mothers to identify words and objects by drawing their children's attention the items at hand. Scaffolding -- asking open-ended questions -- encouraged the mothers to create situations in which their children's skills and knowledge would be extended to a "higher level of competence" (p. 387). Contingent responsitivity -- being sensitive to cues and needs in literacy play -- encouraged the mothers to respond to their children's expressions.

Results: Results of the study indicate that changes occurred in mother and child interactions. The mothers showed greater use of labeling, scaffolding, and contingent responsitivity than before the intervention sessions. They talked with their children rather than talking to them. Changes also were observed in the children: their literacy-related play grew more active as they wrote letters, cut coupons, and asked questions. A pattern emerged from the study: "...increased responsitivity from mothers was associated with increased initiative in literacy and cognitive growth on the part of the children" (p.398). The form, dialect, or frequency of the mothers' speech did not matter as much as their responsiveness to children's communication.

Implications: There are several implications for family literacy providers.

Condensed by: Sarah Nixon-Ponder
Source: Reading Research Quarterly, Oct/Nov/Dec, 1994, Volume 29, No. 4, pp. 383-401.

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