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Pat (pseudonym) is a reading specialist who works with K-2 children in a diverse community. An experienced teacher, Pat takes pride in her ability to motivate young readers, teach skills and strategies effectively, and collaborate with classroom teachers to enhance students' literacy development. Yet during the first night of a graduate seminar on adult reading instruction, Pat confided, "I just have to take this class for certification. I don't really understand why because I don't work with adults." As this first meeting continued, Pat explored the varied texts that would be used in the class, including texts on family literacy, adult beginning readers, and workplace literacy. She explained, "I do work with the children's parents, and I think some of them don't really read well themselves." As the seminar continued throughout the summer, Pat examined family literacy issues related to her own school and students, and she began to visit local adult literacy programs. Pat's position changed considerably throughout the course, as evidenced in one of her final comments:
I think all teachers need to take a class on adult literacy because they need to know about their students' parents. They also need to know that there are many adults who can't read and write well living in our communities. As teachers, I think we need to do something about it.
Why primary teachers must know about adult literacy
Primary-grade teachers have plenty of things to be concerned about, from episodes of student violence to the implementation and consequences of high-stakes testing. Given the increasing demands of their jobs, why should they "do something about" adult literacy? After all, primary teachers are not teaching adult learners, and they can't be held accountable if adults have failed to acquire the literacy skills needed to function effectively in society. Or can they?
While there is plenty of blame to go around, the perceived failings of public education are often attributed to classroom teachers. Because many adults who have limited literacy skills are products of public schools, critics of public education imply that blame for low literacy lies squarely in the laps of teachers and schools (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985).
Such blaming tactics, of course, conveniently ignore the fact that many low-literate adults in the United States are immigrants who could neither speak nor read English when they arrived (Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 1993). Some of these limited English proficient persons also could not read or write in their native language. Other adults have significant organic and learning disabilities, chronic illnesses, and other problems that impede their ability to acquire and use literacy (Vogel, 1998). Still other adults attended schools in poor and disadvantaged districts that were unable to provide the kinds of remedial services necessary to help them overcome their learning problems.
Primary teachers can fulfill several important roles in adult literacy. The first role is to help low-literate parents to understand how they are critical agents in their children's educational attainment and achievement. A second role is to help low-literate parents understand how schools work and what schools and teachers expect of them, so that they can learn to operate in conjunction with schools to the benefit of their children. Yet a third, and far less acknowledged, role is for teachers to complement and support adult educators who work directly with low-literate parents. Clearly, however, primary teachers must first become cognizant of the issues that are pertinent to adult literacy. As Pat the reading specialist learned, adult literacy is important to know about in her work as a primary-grade teacher.
This article describes three reasons why primary-grade educators must be knowledgeable about the current state of adult literacy. Several strategies that can be effective in creating closer connections between schools and parents, and teachers and parents, are then described. We will argue that schools need to (a) provide resources and services to low-literate parents and (b) develop stronger partnerships with community social services to assist these parents. We believe that teachers must become advocates for adult literacy by learning to recognize and help parents with their literacy problems.
Adults who struggle with literacy are likely to have children who will struggle with literacy. The authors of the U.S. report Becoming a Nation of Readers called upon parents to "monitor their children's progress in school, become involved in school programs, support homework, buy their children books or take them to libraries, [and] encourage reading as a free time activity" (Anderson et al., 1985, p. 117). This statement explicitly recognizes the importance that home and parenting factors have in influencing children's reading achievement (Baker, Sher, & Mackler, 1997; Hannon, 1995). Parents can be literacy role models for their children long before the children enter school by reading to them, reading themselves (and thereby demonstrating the importance of reading), and making literacy materials available (Hiebert, 1981; Lyytinen, Laakso, & Poikkeus, 1998; Neuman, 1996; Teale, 1986). It is well known, for example, that young children whose parents read to them tend to become better readers and do better in school (Anglum, Bell, & Roubinek, 1990; Bus, van IJzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Feitelson & Goldstein, 1986; Goldfield & Snow, 1984; Neuman, 1996). Once children enter school, their parents need to be involved and to communicate with them (and their teachers) about their school-work and activities to reinforce the skills and knowledge the children gain at school.
Evidence suggests, however, that whenever parents are unable to model and reinforce literacy practices in ways that are consistent with school expectations for literacy, their children often struggle to acquire school literacy. Fortunately, even adults with very poor reading, writing, and math skills are usually able to have some literacy-related interactions. Several ethnographic studies have shown these everyday encounters to be adaptive for particular aspects of literacy development (Heath, 1983; Taylor, 1985; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). When parents ask their children questions to get specific information, engage in storytelling to entertain, or discuss daily events and family routines, these activities provide important contexts for literacy acquisition (Voss, 1996). Thus, we shouldn't assume that children whose caregivers can't read, can't read well, or don't like to read are lacking in opportunities for literacy (Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988).
Some parents may not recognize the value of …