The Power of Families: Working Collaboratively to Support Literacy Instruction

The impact of the past two years has challenged educators in a way that many say they have not experienced before.  Loss of instructional time has been a common concern among school leaders and staff as they think creatively about how to support gaps in learning opportunities while helping students, staff, and families to heal mentally from the variety of stressors they have experienced over this time.   Some would argue that there is a powerful resource available that is widely underused – deliberate and purposeful family support.  How can we improve our efforts to include and engage families in a way that will not only help to fill in some of the gaps, but can ultimately change the trajectory of students’ academic experiences?  This is not a discussion about homework.  Instead, it is a process by which educators can offer fun, easy, and engaging ideas to families in support of targeted literacy skill progress.  This might be as simple as offering ideas regarding the use of intentional conversations in the grocery store about beginning, middle, or ending sounds of the names of vegetables (supporting phonological awareness), or as fun as making words with paper letter tiles on the kitchen table (in support of phonics).  It might be about encouraging students to elaborate or increase vocabulary use in conversations (in support of building vocabulary and background knowledge), or to simply spend time reading and writing together (in support of comprehension and fluency skills).  There are some useful planning resources available for districts and schools as they strive to support improvements in this work.  Because we know that many of our students have suffered loss of learning opportunities in recent years, it is imperative that we effectively explore all pathways of potentially helpful opportunities for students in a strategic and thoughtful manner.

Step One:  Identify Critical Needs

As districts and schools begin the work of improving systems to promote increased family involvement in supporting various components of literacy instruction, they should analyze current data that indicates not only the levels of family involvement, but also takes a deeper look into involvement within different grade levels, neighborhoods, and demographics, as well as the types of involvement that are more or less common.  For example, districts should seek out information by asking questions such as: “Is there a higher level of attendance at sporting events or musical performances than academic conferences?”, or “Is there a higher level of involvement during conferences after 6:00 p.m. than during the normal school day?”, and so on.  This information can be used to learn about and increase opportunities to make valuable connections with families. In addition, it is important to consider the communication needs and/or preferences of families in order to increase our chances of successfully including them in our efforts to support literacy instruction.  The Ohio Department of Education offers this additional guidance when thinking through family engagement.   When considering the critical area of early literacy, here is a helpful rubric to help districts and schools conduct an analysis about current strategies to support family engagement.  Additional questions that districts/schools may use as a reflection activity when determining needs might be:

  • Do we adequately provide families with information about instructional practices at school and home?

  • Do we encourage families to have fun discussing content at home?

  • Do we create roles for parents in the school that support literacy?

  • Do we learn from families about children’s culture, skills, and interests, and use that information to support lesson planning?

  • Do we take opportunities to provide families with books and other resources?

  • Do we assist families in understanding their children’s progress?

  • Do we provide special supports for non-native English-speaking families?

  • Do we provide special supports for families with children who have special needs?

  • Do we have high, positive expectations of families’ desires and abilities to contribute to their children’s development, and view differences as assets?

  • Do we prioritize relationship-building with families?

Partnerships for Literacy – Family Engagement is a resource that also contains useful information as you reflect on your current system and strive to make improvements.

Step Two:  Research and Select Evidence-Based Strategies

Once you have identified the critical needs in your district or school regarding successfully including all families in supporting continuous improvement, it is time to select appropriate strategies to more effectively meet these needs.   If you are interested in digging into research on family engagement, you will find some interesting resources on this site, but when specifically discussing literacy strategies, it is critical that we align the information and resources we provide to families with reading science. Many parents do not have background in concepts such as the “reading brain”.  It is not their responsibility to become experts here, but it is the responsibility of educators to provide them with accurate, evidence-based, and thoughtful guidance as to how to best become a partner in supporting the individual needs of each child (as reflected in various data points).  Some educators begin by using resources such as those found on the site “Reading Tips for Families” to begin to strengthen literacy support at home.  Some educators rely on trusted sites to access high quality printable activities and video models to support evidence-based at-home activities.  Recommended activities should always be individualized based on student need.  The Florida Center for Reading Research provides these free printable activities in connection with key literacy skills.  They have also created companion videos that use parent modeling to support family implementation in their homes.  Another resource to consider when thinking through the use of evidence-based instruction at home would be the  “Supporting your Child’s Reading at Home” videos.   Teachers can use resources such as these to increase much needed targeted support.  Of course, if videos are not an effective resource for specific families, schools should consider other ways to connect and model these strategies (ie:  literacy event or conference).  As families increase engagement in effective academic practices, the positive impact on individual students (and possibly siblings and/or other family members) has the potential to be felt for a lifetime.

Step Three – Plan for Implementation

Creating a plan is vital to the success of a school or district’s system to support family engagement.  As we strive to improve our MTSS within the walls of our school buildings, we also need to consistently extend our thinking to our students’ home environments.  When pairing the identified critical needs (based on engagement and literacy data) with evidence-based strategies that can be effectively modeled for families to use as supports at home, educators can benefit from the use of this resource to guide thinking through a tiered approach to engagement.  It is vital to consider individual family situations and current capacity to support without making assumptions about perspective or willingness.  Conversations should be planned with specific questions in mind such as “if I demonstrate for you how to use a literacy game, would you have time to practice at home?” or “if I provide letter sound games for you to play in the car, would you mind trying them out and letting me know how it goes?” can open the door to increased literacy skill practice and academic bonding between adults and children at home.  So how do we support ALL students in this way within different tiers of potential need?  Taking the time to talk through and design strategy based on relevant data will help to guide an intentional plan that holds a higher potential for increased student success.

Steps Four and Five:  Implement and Monitor, Examine and Adjust

As educators support families through providing and modeling tiered and targeted evidence-based strategies (in alignment with data-based student need), it is important to strive to maintain open communication in order to identify and address additional barriers or opportunities as time goes on.  Achieving a positive and supportive home-school relationship for every student and family should be an ongoing priority throughout this process.  These positive and communicative relationships will guide educators as they assess and monitor family engagement plans to support literacy and ultimately increase academic success for their students.

Mary Williams

I am a School Improvement Consultant who previously spent twelve years teaching and five as a Literacy Coach. I also serve as the Regional Early Literacy Specialist for State Support Team 13. I love animals and music along with spending time outdoors. My current favorite quote is: "Always do your best. What you plant now, you will harvest later." - Og Mandino