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Chapter 1 on the Background to family literacy

In a context of widespread concern for literacy levels across the EU, there is growing recognition of the role of family literacy (FL) in addressing intergenerational cycles of literacy inequalities (Carpentieri et al, 2011). Indeed, European and UNESCO policies currently reflect a strong commitment to FL as a means of combating disadvantage and enhancing literacy levels across generations (find more relevant information on EU policy framework at European Policy Cooperation (ET2020 framework), and in UNESCO’s 2017 study on family literacy and learning titled Learning Together across Generations: Guidelines for Family Literacy and Learning Programmes. That said, FL is most often integrated into adult education, basic skills provision or other sectoral policies for social inclusion.

Whilst the often organic and fragmented nature of FL provision has been viewed as one of its strengths there is also an opportunity to further strengthen this sector through an enhanced awareness of the importance of cohesive and collaboratively created FL policy. This OER aims to contribute towards such transformation.

This first chapter provides an overview of FL. It opens with a discussion of definitions of FL and the impact of ideology on FL interventions. This is followed by a rationale for the need for FL and an outline of the benefits and challenges of FL in a context of educational and wider inequalities across the EU. Critical reflection prompts conclude the chapter.

What is family literacy?
The term ‘family literacy’ (FL) does not refer to any one aspect of literacy, rather it includes oral and written language, numeracy and digital literacy. It also includes the broader skills of facilitating learning where parents, caregivers and siblings learn how to build on existing knowledge and explain new skills and concepts to each other. Although most FL initiatives focus on parents and children, grandparents, grandchildren and those in other family care relationships can be involved, too (Christoffels et al., 2017). Outside of formal interventions, FL recognises that families and communities have already developed their own local literacies and that they have different, but equal, ways with words and diverse linguistic practices which may vary across cultural and social contexts (Barton and Hamilton, 1998; Pahl, 2008). These local communicative practices are part of the archetypal process of family life and learning where parents and children are interacting throughout their days together and where children instinctively imitate their parent. This early patterning lays the foundations for a love of learning across life.

Thus, FL is a relational process situated in a social context. It is integrated into and underpins family and community life and occurs across a myriad of private and public spaces; in the homeplace; in school settings; sports clubs; community and faith based institutions; adult education centres and cultural education institutions such as libraries and museums (Christoffels et al., 2017; Hanemann, 2015). FL describes the moment to moment and longer term literacy practices between adults, children and oftentimes siblings, wherever they may be. These socially situated local literacy practices are diverse and shaped by the family itself and inevitably by the wider social, economic, cultural, affective and political context in which FL is embedded. Some families in our communities have greatly benefitted from these structural contexts whilst many others have been disadvantaged. This imbalance has resulted in a legacy of inequality, including intergenerational educational and literacy inequalities that FL aims to redress.

As well as FL practice in the private sphere, FL can also refer to learning programmes and projects in the public sphere. These interventions are initiated by external organisations to support parents to extend their existing skills in supporting their children to flourish and become agentic lifelong learners. FL interventions vary to suit the needs of parents and in some cases providers. They can be one off events, they can be with parents alone and they can be with parents and children working together. Provision may vary in duration depending on need and resources. Hanemann (2015) suggests a common model has three components: adults’ sessions, children’s sessions, and joint sessions where children and adults develop activities together.


Family literacy/ Family learning

Despite having distinct meanings the terms ‘family literacy’ and ‘family learning’ are sometimes used interchangeably. On the one hand, and from a socially situated understanding, family literacy refers to specific literacy skills and their application in a host of social and cultural circumstances (Hamilton and Barton, 2000).

On the other hand, family learning usually has a broader focus on life skills but inevitably includes literacy and is preferred by those adult learners who find literacy to be a term that has negative and harmful associations and which may present significant barriers to engagement. For an alternative definition on family literacy see p. 48 in UNESCO’s 2014 study titled Learning to Fly: Family-oriented Literacy Education in Schools.



The ideology of provider organisations deeply influences the design and delivery of FL programmes. For example, from an egalitarian perspective FL can be viewed as a means of redressing the literacy and wider inequalities experienced by adults, children and whole communities. For other critical thinkers FL signifies a subtle way of colonising families into a heteronormative capitalist society. From the currently dominant neoliberal perspective, FL can involve training parents and their children to be units of docile human capital equipped with the externally identified skills and knowledge required by a globally competitive economy. Not all of these approaches are congruent with promoting learner led education that contributes to individual and community well-being, let alone to a more socially just EU.


Why is family literacy needed?

Family literacy has been shown to be one approach to up-skilling that potentially has a dynamic social and economic impact across families and communities (Carpentieri et al, 2011). It is needed because there are significant and persistent literacy inequalities amongst adults and children across the EU leaving many adults and families at risk of social exclusion, poverty and unemployment. Upskilling Pathways (see the relevant pages of the OER on Integrated Policy Approach in the Capacity Building Series) was introduced as a Europe wide policy initiative in 2016 in recognition of these educational inequalities and in an effort to address their long term impact on individuals, families, communities and the economy of the EU. The Upskilling Pathways initiative is a key building block of the European Pillar of Social Rights which promotes equal rights to quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning. UNESCO (2017: 1) frames FL from a human rights perspective reminding us that learning together as a family is a tradition rooted in all cultures, across all world regions and that children have a right to literate parents, grandparents and caregivers. Adults and children living in disadvantaged families and communities and those with migrant and refugee status are disproportionately affected by imbalances in unequal education systems and wider inequalities including poverty, social and cultural exclusion, disaffection and disempowerment (Baker et al, 2004).


Having better literacy skills does not change structural inequalities that are the root cause of literacy inequalities. Having better literacy skills does however increase the likelihood of personal wellbeing and autonomy, social and cultural inclusion, and the development of critical skills to work for just change across our communities.


Studies of language and literacy acquisition have shown the importance of literacy activities in the home and there is rich evidence across Europe that all parents care about their children’s education (Carpentieri et al, 2011; Hegarty and Feeley, 2010; Morgan et al, 2009). However, and further illuminating aspects of educational inequality, not all parents have the confidence, knowledge and skills needed in order to best nourish their children’s literacy confidence and learning development. FL programmes and interventions work to remedy this by ensuring that more parents acquire the privileged insights that allow them to support their children’s learning development (Baker et al, 2004).


Family literacy a win-win solution

Perhaps uniquely, the case for a ‘widespread proliferation of FL interventions’, as suggested by Carpentieri (2011:11) can be made by egalitarians and economists alike. Investment in adult literacy is viewed by many as a human rights issue as well as a way to halt generational cycles of literacy inequalities and state neglect (Baker et al, 2004; Hegarty and Feeley, 2010; NALA, 2011; UNESCO, 2017). From an economic perspective it has been shown to be good economic sense to invest in children’s early education so that they will be less dependent on the public purse in adulthood (Heckman and Masterov, 2007; Elango et al, 2014). As such, investment in FL has the potential to provide that rare win-win solution to what are sometimes seen as oppositional social justice and economic perspectives.


Read more details about the benefits and challenges of family literacy programs here!


This chapter has presented an overview of the benefits and challenges of FL in an EU context. It has provided evidence that FL is a multifaceted approach to learning that brings substantial benefits to families, schools and communities and has the potential to contribute to more literacy confidence and equality for adults and children across the EU.



Critical reflective prompts
  • How is FL defined in your policy context?
  • What are the strengths of FL in your country?
  • What are the challenges relating to FL in your country? How might they be addressed?
  • Who might be the parents in your community who would most benefit from increased resourcing of their FL role?
  • What are your views about the gendered nature of FL? Does this aspect of FL merit greater attention in your locality?
  • What groups are already working with disadvantaged parents in your locality?
  • How might partnerships with these groups impact on FL responses?
  • What might be the challenges of building collaborative partnerships in your context?
  • What elements of UP can be supported especially via FL intervention? Any examples of these?



Recommendations for further relevant resources are welcome in the comment section below!



The Capacity Building Series of EBSN provides free open educational resources (OERs) and massive online courses (MOOCs) through EPALE, to help the implementation of the European Commission recommendations on Upskilling pathways in EU Member States. EPALE is funded by the Erasmus+ programme, as part the European Commission’s ongoing commitment to improving the quality of adult learning provision in Europe. The project is implemented with the support of the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA).


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