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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Family Literacy: Can It Work for E-Learning?

A distance literacy program delivered via television developed in England in the 1990s focused on family literacy. The program incorporated an interactive literacy pedagogy that asked family members to get involved in literacy-building activities (Pitt, 2000). The goal was to improve the reading and writing skills of the students in the program, generally ages 5 – 10, as well as to find a way to have a curriculum that was constantly up-to-date and which effectively created learning communities.

Click here for audio / podcast.

Television-based distance learning was an effective technique in the 1990s, but perhaps less so now. A more effective approach now might be to include multiple forms of access: television, books, podcasts, audio books, synchronous webinars, asynchronous online learning, etc.

Procedures and practices included
* Separate work with parents
* Separate work with children
* Joint activities

Underlying concepts:

* Situate learning by incorporating real-life context(s)
* Keep language and literacy instruction tied in a relevant way to actual practice in
o Home and family
o School and education
o Workplace
* Constructivist approach to learning and literacy
* Bilingual, multi-cultural accommodation to foster positive self-concept

Family Literacy Strategies Applied to Online Learning

While the program was originally delivered via television, in today’s environment new learning technologies – online and mobile learning – make it possible to revisit this program and consider adapting it for today’s students.

Online- The following applications to family learning could be employed in the following ways:

*Synchronous instruction via webinars and voice-over telephony.

*Asynchronous instruction via course website, lessons, quizzes and other activities, recorded audio and video, recorded webinars, discussions, journals, e-mail.

Mobile - Family literacy strategies could be incorporated in mobile learning in the following ways:

*Synchronous instruction via text-messaging, voice, instant messaging with video / audio, responding to prompts by text-messaging to a bulletin board or blog.

*Asynchronous via via podcasts for audio, syndicated video casts for video, reading lectures, posting to discussion board, bringing the lessons into the environment that makes the content come alive. For example, a reading assignment about algae formation in ponds could be incorporated into a visit to a pond, where the student takes photos and a journal, and records an audio file to post to a place (a blog, or a forum), where all participants have a chance to read and listen to each other’s work and to respond.

*Activities should be structured to take to the real world, with the overall purpose of asking questions, observing phenomena, describing them, reading and listening to how they are described, and map out connections between the world, the reading, and one’s personal experience with both.

However, before any of the "family literacy" approaches can be effectively incorporated in today's context, it's important to look at a few key cultural and social issues:

* Must redefine “family” – is it a birth family, or simply a community of interest and shared purpose?

* How can distance learning actually help with the formation of a “family” – which could be, for the purposes of education, a “learning community”?

* Home school as the embodiment of family literacy. This seems to be a perfect fit.

Collaborative e-Learning and Mobile Learning Activities:

Reading Together:
Share articles and links to blogs.
Read comments
Post comments
Enter information in wikis.
Encourage social networking, especially if people are posting portfolios and photos to rehumanize the learning space.

Writing Together:

Activities could focus on describing items in the world of phenomena (the world outside the textbook or the course materials), and could include journals, diaries, and logs of observations and experiences that could be shared with others.

Activities could also include how the “family” creates bonds (given that the “family” could simply be a learning community), and could include a family diary, an exploration of relationships, and a gradual evolution of a mission, vision, and overarching sense of purpose.


Comprehension is more than simply understanding the literal meaning of the words. If the context is taken into consideration, other items, such as cultural meanings and values, will enter. Cultural literacy is as much a part of this as regular “reading and writing” literacy.


Outcomes expectations are clearly stated. Students have the opportunity to rewrite, regroup, revise, and resubmit.


Specific programs in reading, writing, and communication could lend themselves
Specific programs:

* Reading
* Writing
*Listening (comprehension) and speech (communication)
* Performance (assessment and evaluation)

Aspects with positive implications for today’s contexts and challenges:
* Cross-lingual (Urdu and English in the original program in England; other languages applicable now)
* Requires time and involvement with parents or "family" (whether or virtual or real).

There are presuppositions in the original program that may need adjusting. For example, the notion that everyone has a television and that they're used to watching programming that comes on at a certain time is not really the typical mode of operation in today's just-in-time and on-demand, 24-7 access world. Further, it is a stretch to expect everyone to have a television or computer. It may be more appropriate to make the content available in multiple modes (asynchronous e-learning, downloadable content to mobile devices, smartphone, CD-ROM / DVD, etc.).

Further, the presupposition that "family" learning must incorporate the birth family is perhaps a bit narrow for today's times, where homeschooling occurs with individuals from multiple households, etc. What must be present is a cultural-appropriate, cross-cultural set of motivations / motivational strategies, as well as a deep-seated desire to work in a collaborative environment.


Basic Skills Agency (1995a) Developing Family Literacy: TV programmes for teachers, and leaflet. London: Basic Skills Unit.

Hamilton, M. (1996) “Literacy and adult basic education” in R. Fieldhouse (ed.) A History of Modern Adult Education, London: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

Hamilton, M. (1998) “Keeping Alive Alternative Visions”, RaPAL 36: 4-14.

New London Group (1996) “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures.” Harvard Educational Review 66(1): 60-92.

Pitt, K. (2000) Family literacy: A pedagogy for the future? Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context. London: Routledge: 108-124.

Vincent, C. and Tomlinson, S. (1997) “Home-School Relationships: “The Swarming of Disciplinary Mechanisms”?”, British Educational Research Association 23(3): 361-77.

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