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Supporting Literacy Within Families


Intergenerational Literacy Project (ILP)
John Silber Early Learning Center
99 Hawthorn Street
Chelsea, MA 02150
Tel: 617-889-2375; 617-353-2699


The Mission of the Intergenerational Literacy Project is three-fold: to help parents develop their own literacy, to support the practice of family literacy in the home, and to conduct research on the effectiveness of an intergenerational approach to literacy.


The Intergenerational Literacy Project (ILP) serves about 100 families annually through two morning classes. Children’s classes are offered in the morning and the evening as well. The classes are open to parents and other adults who are primary caregivers of at least one pre-school and school-age child. Nearly 80% of the participants are mothers, but fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and siblings also take part in classes.

Rationale and Background of the Practice

The Intergenerational Literacy Project (ILP) began offering literacy instruction to parents in 1989. The program was developed in collaboration with 17 community organizations, and is guided by an Advisory Board representing participating parents, the Chelsea Public Schools, Boston University, and community organizations. The program seeks to accomplish the general goal of supporting families in working with their children at home, both to foster literacy within the family and to strengthen children’s literacy development at school. To accomplish the larger goal, two sub-goals and objectives have been outlined: to improve the literacy skills of participating adults and to improve literacy knowledge among pre-school and school-aged children.

The Intergenerational Literacy Project was one of the first elements of the Boston University/Chelsea Public Schools Partnership. When it began, the ILP did not target any specific group of parents, but as immigration has expanded, almost all of the families participating in the ILP program have been immigrants. The constant flow of non-native speaking families entering the public school system in Chelsea created the need for additional support for parents and their children. Parents in Chelsea needed to feel connected and engaged in their children’s learning. They needed to learn how to navigate the American education system.

The Intergenerational Literacy Project’s design is based on practices firmly rooted in research on literacy acquisition, family literacy programs, and in teaching practices. Evidence consistently supports that there is a strong relationship between parents’ own reading and interest in books, parent-child story book reading, and parents’ general interactions with their children around print and children’s success in early reading. Research shows that family literacy classes can empower parents in several ways: increased interactions between parents and their children’s teachers, increased self-confidence of parents in helping their children with their schoolwork, and increased understanding of how they are able to support their children’s literacy learning.

Although the program has changed to meet the needs of shifting immigrant populations, the core mission of the program has remained the same. What has evolved is the level and manner in which student’s reflect on their learning in and out of the classroom. In the early years, students were asked to use a checklist to document home and/or school based parent/child literacy activities. Program staff learned that simply listing these activities did not help parents to reflect and implement the strategies they were learning in the class. They moved from checklists to literacy logs in which students write about how they are using literacy activities in their daily lives. While this practice is working better than checklists, ILP is constantly revising the way they collect information on how the parents are using literacy skills.

Description of the Practice

The emphasis in all ILP classes is on the acquisition of literacy strategies through reading and writing. Since classes are multi-lingual, English is the common language of all classes and texts; in most cases, English literacy is parents’ main goal for themselves and their children. While oral English development is not a direct goal of the class, it is a related outcome since students improve their spoken English through reading and writing and class discussions. Students can and do have the option to write and speak in their native language, but they are encouraged to try to write and speak in English when they are ready to do so. An effort is made to employ teachers and tutors who represent the languages and cultures of participating students.

During a typical week, about half of what parents read and write about is of adult interest relevant to their own lives and the other half is related to the practice of literacy within the family. Each adult class reads and discusses the same children’s book of the week that the children read in their classes. The content of the text is not considered as important as the reading strategies that are taught. The aim is for the parents to apply the strategies learned in class to literacy activities in the home. Literacy activities are taught to be embedded into the family’s daily routines through storybook reading, supporting children’s homework, and making connections with the children’s schools. This approach is sustainable and promotes learning outside of the classroom.

ILP’s instructional practices place a heavy emphasis on developing students’ meta-cognitive skills in acquiring and using literacy strategies. Parents are taught to use the same instructional language and strategies for negotiating text as their children are learning in school. The goal is that they can model and practice these strategies in supporting their children’s literacy at home. Knowing the strategies makes it possible for the parent to help their children with homework even if they do not fully understand the actual homework assignments or the language in which the homework is given.

The classroom design is based on a flexible grouping model to support learners at a variety of literacy levels. Within each two-hour class, learners work as a whole group, in small groups, in pairs, or independently. All ILP classes are multi-level and multi-lingual. Students come from many cultures; speak several different languages as their first language, and have a wide range of formal schooling, level of English proficiency, and length of time in the United States. Their children range in age from infants to adolescents. All of these characteristics are used to organize small groups.

The following is a brief description of a typical two-hour class:

  • The class begins with students completing their literacy logs in which they report the reading and writing they have done with their children the day before.
  • The class then comes together as a group and the two co-teachers introduce the day’s reading selection. The texts are always authentic: a children’s book, newspaper or magazine articles or other materials relevant to learner interest.
  • The teacher writes the title of the reading on board and asks the class what they think the story/text might be about. Students respond in English or their first language with a teacher, tutor or classmate translating.
  • The teacher introduces a few key vocabulary words and builds a semantic map with students. An example of a semantic map is . . .
  • The whole class reads the text. Sometimes the text is projected onto a white board with an overhead projector.
  • Students then read the text alone, line by line, with the help of a tutor who helps them track their reading and may read it aloud.
  • The whole class comes back together to discuss the semantic map and add ideas.
  • Students are again broken into small groups or pairs based on their English proficiency levels. They re-read the text, some working independently, some with tutors.
  • The class comes together again to review the story, to review the semantic map and to choose books to bring home to read aloud with their children.

In the children’s program, teachers develop ten themes to address over the course of a year and select a focal book for each week of instruction. The children are grouped by age. As with the adult program, every effort is made to staff the children’s program with tutors and teachers who reflect the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the children.

See Appendix for an additional description of a promising practice.


Because the ILP trains graduate students as teachers, there is built-in turnover which does not build program capacity. This is a challenge, but in many ways also a strength of the program. It is essential that all of the training material is covered each year, and there is a lot of pressure on the trainers because they must start with new teachers every year.

Funding the program is an ongoing struggle. The ILP is a family literacy program that does not use the Even Start model. Even Start programs receive the bulk of family literacy funding. The ILP is constantly looking for ways to fund the program.

Evidence of Impact and Effectiveness

Over the years, the ILP has used a diverse collection of assessment practices to monitor and document learning gains and other outcomes. They have examined attendance and retention, students’ writing progress, parents' personal uses of reading and writing, parents' engagement in their children in literacy activities, and children's success in school. Documentation has included self-reported data, reading and writing samples, interviews with parents, teachers, and children, questionnaires completed by parents and teachers, and school records. The findings from the various data sources are summarized as follows:

1. The ILP has consistently achieved high rates of attendance and retention: in 2004-05 95 percent of the 98 families served completed at least one instructional cycle, indicating that the instructional practices are effective in maintaining parents' motivation to advance their own and their children's literacy skills.
2. Parents increased their use of reading and writing outside of class to achieve personal goals, thereby making print literacy a more frequent routine in their daily lives, as evidenced by their daily literacy logs analyzed by program staff.
3. Parents increased the frequency with which they engaged their children in the types of literacy events that have been found to prepare children for success in early reading, particularly, and in school, generally. By the end of program participation, parents consistently reported engaging their children in storybook reading at least once each week.

Cost & Staffing

The ILP is staffed by a program director, two teachers and three tutors per adult classroom, and a teacher supported by five tutors in each children’s class. The teachers are either graduate students of education at Boston University or (in evening classes) public school teachers. Tutors include both undergraduate and graduate students from Boston University and former students in the program.

The program’s general operating budget is approximately $250,000 a year. The cost of the program varies depending on the number of classes running each session. The major budget items are staff salaries and instructional materials. The Chelsea Public School system provides classroom space. Boston University provides office space and, through the America Reads program, covers the cost of the program tutors through the College Work-Study program. Given space and graduate students, one eight-hour a week class for 25 parents with an accompanying children’s class costs about $85,000 per year (42 weeks). This covers wages for two teachers and three tutors for the adult class and one teacher and five tutors for the children’s class.

Implications for Practice, Policy and Research

Replicating the program model requires space to house two concurrent classes, one for children and one for adults. The program needs access to a large library of children’s literature, with multiple copies of books, or access to. Ideally, teachers should have a strong background in literacy theory and experience working with adults. They should understand second language acquisition, speak a second language and have experience working with immigrants or come from a different culture. They need to be able to use flexible grouping to promote peer learning and communication. The tutors need to be willing to actively engage with adults. They need to be open to new approaches to classroom learning.

The ILP serves as an entry point for immigrant families and their children. For parents, the ILP introduces them to the American school system and culture and prepares them to enter into jobs, training programs, higher level ESOL classes or ABE & GED programs. Many of ILP former students are paraprofessionals in the Chelsea School System, Head Start teachers, or are licensed family daycare providers. Their children have become successful students.

The program has over 16 years of anecdotal data on program graduates. That data suggests children that attend the ILP do very well in school and have a high rate of participation in honors classes. A formal longitudinal study comparing our students to a similar cohort would help us understand the long-term effects and benefits of the model.

Krol-Sinclair, B., Hindin, A., Emig, J. M., & McClure, K. A. (2003). Using Family Literacy Portfolios as a Context for Parent-Teacher Communication in A. DeBruin-Parecki, & B. Krol-Sinclair (Eds.), Family Literacy (pp. 266-281). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Promising Practice: Supporting Families’ Writing at Home

The Intergenerational Literacy Program’s (ILP) instructional approaches are informed by following research findings:

  1. Parents at all levels of oral and written language proficiency are capable of writing at home and of engaging their children in family writing activities.
  2. Writing occurs most frequently in families where there are established writing routines. Explicit explanation of such routines may be helpful to parents who are developing as writers.
  3. Involving their children in writing is a powerful motivator for parents. Writing tasks that require parent-child collaboration have the potential to increase writing frequency for both adults and children in the household.
  4. In some families, homework provides the context for family writing. Homework assignments that engage parents and children in writing tasks that are both extended and require critical thinking have the potential to increase the frequency and quality of home writing.
  5. Girls are more likely than boys to self-initiate writing. Family writing tasks that are framed with attention to content and context that will engage young and adolescent boys as well as girls have the potential to mediate this finding.

ILP staff adopted three strategies to implement these research findings. First, at the start of the academic term, teachers began by asking families to introduce themselves to staff and to each other by creating a poster. Each family was given a kit that included a piece of poster board; several sheets of loose leaf, first grade lined, and blank copying paper; a pencil; and a small box of crayons. Staff then asked students to work at home with all of their family members to create a poster or series of letters that introduced their family members to the class. To account for learners’ range of English language and literacy proficiency and their children’s ages and literacy development, classes brainstormed several ways to approach the task, such as: writing in either English or their first language; cutting out pictures from magazines and writing words that provided captions; having each member of the family write a paragraph about him/herself or another family member; captioning photographs; and responding to open-ended sentences, such as “When I have free time, I like to …” Parents were encouraged to work with their children to support each other in describing themselves. To provide models and to build the classroom sense of community, teachers and tutors in the class engaged in the same activity with their own families and brought them in to share with the class.

Over the following week, learners flooded the classroom with posters; some consisted mostly of captioned pictures, while others were covered by pages of loose leaf paper with parents’ and children’s elaborate introductions. In addition to letting all of us know a little more about the families with whom we collaborate, these posters served as the backdrop for instruction throughout the cycle. When we discussed and read about ways to prevent teenage drinking, for example, we looked to the posters to give us more information about the interests and goals of our learners’ teenagers as we brainstormed approaches for building on their children’s interests and keeping them away from dangerous activities.

While the posters were successful, staff also realized that using the classroom to support embedded writing in the home required a more sustained effort. The second strategy related to the dialogue journals that had long been a staple of the ILP classroom. Parents write in their journals once a week and their writing partners (a teacher or tutor) respond to the learners’ thoughts, extending the dialogue by sharing their own related experiences, and asking learners to clarify or expand what they’d written. Parents write in their dialogue journals in class, and they had seldom been asked to engage in extended writing at home.

Staff decided to expand the dialogue journal routine to include a second at-home component that would build on parents’ interest in more systematic and routine opportunities to write at home, strategies for involving their children in their writing, and tasks that linked what they had read, written about, and discussed in class with writing at home. The program purchased composition books for at-home dialogue journals to allow ample space for both parents and children to write. Teachers first introduced the concept of the journals near the end of a class day in which parents had read an article about parent-child activities in our local community. After learners had discussed the article in small groups, we gave them the composition books, wrote on the chalkboard, “What activities would you like to share with your family?” and asked them to head the first page of their books with the question and to write their own suggestions for family-friendly activities that weren’t mentioned in the article. Teachers then reunited the whole class to allow parents to share their suggestions and asked parents to take the books home and invite their children to add to their parent’s list. Teacher encouraged parents to work with their children in brainstorming activities that they might like to do, in addition to excursions they had already shared. Staff also emphasized involving all members of the family and suggested that parents invite young children to draw pictures, which parents could annotate; older children could write lists of words, sentences, or descriptive paragraphs. Teachers were careful to explicitly mention that, while this opportunity provided parents with an opportunity to practice writing in English, they (and their children) should write in the language of their choosing. To make sure that the learners with the most limited literacy felt comfortable with the task, their teachers also suggested that parents might want to take home the day’s reading to help them come up with words to use and reminded the class that their responses could be lists of words, sentences, or paragraphs.

The next day, parents eagerly shared their families’ comments with teachers, tutors, and each other. Teachers asked the learners to share orally new suggestions that they had brainstormed with their families and wrote them on the board, thereby providing a model of ‘correct’ writing and spelling without directly pointing out learners’ errors.

Although nearly all learners responded enthusiastically to their first at-home journal writing opportunity, staff realized that the task could become burdensome if parents felt obligated to add a writing assignment to their and their children’s long days. Further, some of the topics read and discussed in class were not as clearly relevant to family writing. At the same time, staff were also aware that several learners were already engaging in writing to support their own learning at home and to reflect on their lives. Teachers decided to provide parents with a question at the end of each class day, which they wrote on the board. They then asked learners to take their journals home to share the writing prompt with their families, but were careful to let parents know that this was a suggestion, not a requirement. Classes also spent 5 minutes each morning reviewing the previous night’s question and noting their responses on the board. This review allowed teachers to both reinforce the previous day’s lesson and incorporate the voices of all family members into the adult literacy classroom.

The third strategy was planned to respond to evidence from a study indicating that the highest incidence of writing was found in families where there were established routines and to the evidence that in all of the program’s families, girls were more likely than boys to self-initiate writing. Staff decided to focus a series of four instructional days on writing in our daily lives and to target strategies for encouraging reluctant writers to see the importance of writing as a means of accomplishing tasks.

Based on what they had learned from the family writing project, teachers were aware that shopping lists were used by many of our learners. Since all family members have a stake in what is bought at the supermarket, the shopping list seemed a perfect first lesson. Teachers began by asking learners what considerations they used in shopping. Did they plan a new list each time they shopped based on a weekly menu, or were they more likely to make slight modifications to a preset list? Who was involved in writing the shopping list? Did they write it just before they went to the store, or did they post a running list that was added to over time? In the store itself, did they select items based on price, sale items in a flyer, brand name, or family members’ preferences? Did they use coupons? Teachers graphed some of the findings on the board and discussed commonalities. The class then read a short article on tips for saving time and money in the supermarket. After discussing the reading in small groups and as a whole class, teachers asked the parents how they could involve their families into writing a shopping list. Teachers requested that learners think especially of ways to include children who could not yet write or who chose not to write. After brainstorming in small groups, the parents reconvened with a range of suggestions for both early and reluctant writers. For their youngest children, they suggested keeping a set of index cards with the names of different foods that children could copy onto the list, keeping old packages and labels that children could copy, and leaving space for children to draw pictures. To involve their children who didn’t want to help with the family shopping list, one parent suggested dividing up the shopping list task into different sections (e.g., dairy, produce, frozen foods) and having each member of the family come up with items for that section. Another mother proposed having children look through the kitchen cabinets to come up with what was in limited supply and adding those items to the list. Parents also suggested writing the list as a family, with different members taking turns writing down others’ suggestions, or offering children an opportunity to add a treat of their choosing to the list if they had come up with a sufficient number of items the family actually needed. As with other discussion topics, staff sent parents home with their journals to encourage family members to offer their thoughts on how to construct a shopping list.

Subsequent lessons, focused on note- and message-writing, constructing chore/task schedules, and budget-writing, followed the same format of encouraging parents to generate strategies for incorporating all members of the family in routine writing activities.

Submitted by Dr. Barbara Krol-Sinclair

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