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Program Development

Family Literacy


Family literacy programs have been recognized as a way to help children become successful in school while adults develop literacy skills. The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, Title II of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, reflects this dual goal in its encouragement of adults to "become full partners in the educational development of their children." The law also mentions helping adults to "become literate and obtain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment and self-sufficiency."

Many family literacy programs in the United States use an educational model with four components:
  • Adult education and adult literacy
  • Parenting education to help parents support the educational growth of their children
  • Interactive parent and child literacy activities.

Family Literacy and Adult English Language Learners

Family literacy programs have created many learning opportunities for adult English language learners and their children in rural and urban settings. Particularly in parts of the country that are experiencing a rapid increase in immigrant population, programs are adapting to address immigrant family issues. While addressing the needs of all families, program staff must be aware of the differences between immigrant families and native-born U.S. families in terms of their strengths, goals, and challenges.

Family literacy programs serving adult English language learners may want to consider implementing the following practices:

  • Implement programs of sufficient duration to demonstrate learner progress
    Because it is required by law that learners' educational progress be documented, family literacy programs must be of sufficient intensity and duration for visible progress to be made. This is particularly important with adult English language learners, because they may need time to understand American school culture and expectations while they are increasing their literacy skills. Many learners may not have had opportunities for education in their native countries. In addition, their native language may not be written, or it may use a different alphabet. As a result, they need sufficient instructional time to learn the language offered by family literacy programs in order to become comfortable and proficient in the new language and culture
  • Address both early childhood learning and older children's needs
    1 Scientists, researchers, and teachers agree that a child's early learning environment is important for school success. Some research suggests that a stimulating and positive environment in the first three years is essential (Chugani, 1997; see also U.S. Department of Education, n.d., Implications of brain development research). Other research suggests that the brain's elasticity allows for lifelong active learning (Bruer, 1999). Since immigrant adults and their children often come to this country after the 0-3 year old period, the needs of older children and their parents must be addressed, as well as those of young children. Families with middle- and high-school-age children often need to negotiate whether old country or new country rules apply to social and school situations. As family literacy programs expand their scope to include all children--not just pre-school and early elementary children-- they may be able to help families negotiate these complex issues.
  • Build on parents' language and literacy
    Many immigrant parents have literacy skills in one or more languages other than English. Others are not literate in any language. Researchers and practitioners are exploring the value of learning to read in a first language other than English both for its own sake (i.e., as a vehicle for passing on culture and knowledge) and to facilitate becoming literate in the second language.While reading and writing are critical to effective functioning in the United States, the first educational need that many adult English language learners express is to speak English well. Many adult English learners hold two jobs to make ends meet; it may take some of them many years to read well in English. During this time, they are still able to help their children in school.
  • Respect parents' cultures and ways of knowing
    Immigrant parents come to the United States to find a better life for themselves and their children, and they often cite their children's opportunities for education and future success as reasons they came. These parents are eager to understand U.S. culture in general, and specifically, the complexities and expectations of school. Yet the language and cultural knowledge that non-English speaking parents have is valuable and should be shared with their children. Family literacy practitioners and parents themselves need to know that telling stories and sharing cultural traditions with children in any language help prepare the children to do well in school, even when the language is not English, and even when this is done orally rather than through print (Weinstein & Quintero, 1995). Family literacy practitioners also need to understand that immigrant parents come to educational programs with many strengths. Their knowledge about learning and child raising may be different, but not deficient. Family literacy program staff should learn about and respect these parents and their cultures, which often include strong, intact, multigenerational family structures. These parents want to learn, but they also have much to teach.

Adapted from Adult ESL Fact Sheet, Family Literacy and Adult English Language Learners (2002).


Bruer J.T. (1999). The myth of the first three years: A new understanding of early brain development and lifelong learning. New York: The Free Press.

Chugani, H.T. (1997). Neuroimaging of developmental non-linearity and developmental pathologies. In R. W. Thatcher, G.R. Lyon, J. Rumsey, & N. Krasnegor (Eds.), Developmental neuroimaging: Mapping the development of brain and behavior. San Diego: Academic Press

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Implications of brain development research for Even Start family literacy programs. Available:

Weinstein-Shr, G., & Quintero, E. (Eds.) (1995). Immigrant learners and their families: Literacy to connect the generations. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics.


Beginning- and Literacy-Level Adult ESL Learners


Adolescent Learners in Adult ESL Classes

Promoting the Success of Multilevel ESL Classes: What Teachers and Administrators Can Do

Digests & Q&As

Beginning to Work with Adult English Language Learners: Some Considerations

Cross-Cultural Issues in Adult ESL Literacy

Family and Intergenerational Literacy in Multilingual Communities

Social Identity and the Adult ESL Classroom

Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes

Using Multicultural Children's Literature in Adult ESL Classes

Valuing Diversity in the Multicultural Classroom

Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners

Other CAELA Resources

Family Literacy and Adult English Language Learners (Fact Sheet)

Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners (developed by the the National Center for ESL Literacy Education (NCLE) and the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL), 2004)

Other Resources

Auerbach, E. (1992). Making meaning, making change: participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics. (Available for purchase from the CAL Store).

Auerbach, E. (1998, Spring). Designer literacy: Reading the labels. Bright Ideas,7(4), 3-6 (Available from World Education, 44 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210) Available:

Fairfax County (VA) Family Literacy Curriculum
This curriuculum is designed to be used with multilevel adult ESOL classes. This curriculum contains four modules--introductory, government, health, and consumerism. Each module contains specific lessons (e.g., Talking with the doctor, dealing with stress). The curriculum also includes an appendix of Web sites used in the curriculum and a bibliography.

Family Literacy Special Collection
This Web site is from the National Institute for Literacy's LINCS project. This site offers links to resources for parents, instructors, and administrators. The Institute also hosts an online discusssion on family literacy.

Goodling Institute for Researach in Family Literacy
Housed at the Pennsylvania State University School of Education, this institute offers a variety of resources related to family literacy including a comprehensive Annotated Bibliograpy in Family Literacy that is searchable in pdf format and updated for 2006. In February 2008 the Goodling Institute produced Research Brief #1, Poverty, Residential Mobility, and Persistence across Urban and Rural Family Literacy Programs in Pennsylvania by Kai Schafft, Esther Prins, and Marcela Movit. A key finding of the study they conducted places residential mobility among the set of povery-related problems that "...pose challenges for learners to attend classes regularly and meet their educational goals. (p.1)

Intergenerational Literacy Program [Chelsea (Massachusetts) Public Schools and Boston College)]
This Web site shares information about a program that began offering literacy education to parents in 1989 including data about learners served and outcomes.

McKinney, J., & Kurtz-Rossi, S. (2006). Family Health & Literacy: A Guide to Easy-to-Read Health Education Materials and Web Sites for Families. Boston: World Education.

National Center for Family Literacy
Of particular interest to instructors may be the Tools for Literacy Programs. This section includes information about training, free online resources, and a resources for teachers and tutors of English language learners.

Pastore, J.R., Melzi, G., & Krol-Sinclair, B. (1999). What should we expect of family literacy? Experiences of Latino children whose parents participate in an intergenerational literacy project. Newark, DE and Chicago, IL: International Reading Association and National Reading Conference.

REEP Family Literacy Curriculum

This resource is a compendium of materials, ideas, and links for family literacy classes and programs working with adult English language learners. While some parts of the curriulum focus on the family literacy program at the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington, Virginia, most of the materials and links are applicable to other programs. Immigrant learners can practice English at the English Practice Homepage of REEPworld.


Taylor D. (Ed). (1997) Many families, many literacies: An international declaration of principles. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Weinstein-Shr, G. & Quintero, E. (ed.) (1994). Immigrant Learners and Their Families: Literacy to Connect the Generations. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics. (Available for purchase from the CAL Store)