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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Chapter 3 on Case studies in family literacy initiatives

by Ann Hegarty
Language: EN
Parental involvement in a child’s literacy practices is a more powerful force than other family background variables such as social class, family size and level of parental education (Flouri and Buchanan, 2004)



Family literacy ideally responds to learner needs and so the profile of practice varies greatly across the EU.  History plays its part too in that some FL interventions have had a longer period of engagement with this field of study than have others. Consequently they have had more opportunities to develop responsive FL programmes and policies, to build collaborative networks and to enrich the skill base of tutors that interact with parents and children.

This chapter presents three FL case studies, from Ireland, Malta and Sweden which illuminate the diversity and creativity of approaches to the ‘powerful force’ of intergenerational FL learning interventions. Learning from the case studies point to some of the success factors which are central to the development of sustainable, cohesive FL policies and these are presented in the final chapter of this OER.



Ireland: The ‘Friday Morning Group’


The European Commission’s Action Plan on the Integration of Third Country Nationals (7 June 2016) aims to help Member States to further develop and strengthen their national integration policies. The Action Plan acknowledges education as a key driver in providing migrants and refugees with the skills they need to flourish in all areas of their lives.  Personal fulfilment, social inclusion and employment are all recognised as key factors for integration into new communities. The first two of these factors influence the FL  ‘Friday Morning Group’ based in a Kilkenny DEIS primary school in Ireland. The FL project provides a welcoming space for parents from a diversity of backgrounds. It is one model of how collaborative FL interventions can provide a key support in the drive to include and integrate refugees and migrants through a culturally sensitive and celebratory creative adult learning process.

Participants to the FL group were recruited through a collaborative approach which brought together the school Principal, the local HSCL coordinator, the Adult Literacy Service and ESOL staff. This group identified parents who might be interested in such a group and an informal meeting was planned to gather together a mix of local parents and newcomers from a range of countries who had recently settled in Kilkenny. Two tutors, one a craft specialist and the other an experienced literacy tutor, work every Friday morning with up to 16 women in the school premises. The tutors and the host school espoused a clear family learning ethos that is parent/ learner centered and egalitarian in practice. Initially, they determined to develop good learning relationships with and amongst the group in order to build solid foundations for learning together. These processes have supported engagement, retention and progression for parents.

Watch this short introductory video on recruiting and engaging parents in the 'Our stories: intercultural family learning project'. 

Source: NALA Ireland


With a diverse community of parents and children, the school has been proactive in promoting respect and recognition of this multicultural reality. When the Friday Morning Group developed a book to reflect this rich diversity it became a core vehicle for literacy and the expression of creativity over a period of time. The book introduced the cultures of 22 different nationalities that made up the school community. It was launched during the school’s Intercultural Day and became a source of great pride for all involved.



The project was further extended by the creation of a quilt, designed by the parents of the Friday Morning Group which captured much of the artwork prepared for the book. The quilt now hangs in the school hall and has been displayed in the local library and the County Council Offices and has received much local publicity which has in turn highlighted FL in the wider community setting. This local recognition of the project grew the confidence and pride of group members and was identified by tutors as an important factor in the ongoing participation in the group.

The benefits of being involved in such a creative FL process reached across children, parents, the school and the wider community. The parents’ physical presence in the school space and their involvement in the project brought them into direct experience of their children’s schoolwork. Parent’s confidence to become involved in supporting children’s literacy development was supported. It enabled common ground and a rich learning exchange to be established between the school and parents and amongst parents, this in turn supported intergenerational learning in the home. For newly arrived parents the project provided an introduction to Irish school life and the unfamiliar school culture. In the Friday Morning Group parents found a route to social and cultural inclusion. At the same time they began to focus on their own learning whilst attending to the literacy, numeracy and cultural development of their children. Many became more ambitious about their own goals as a result of their experience. 





An exceptional level of collaboration between the school and the local Education and Training Board (ETB) meant that participants in the Friday Morning Group had a direct route to further adult education pathways such as a basic literacy group, ESOL classes or in some cases a vocational course if they so wished. The Friday Morning Group is an impressive example of FL and family learning. It was transformative for parents, children, the school and the wider community. The group process was rooted in caring and strategic relationships. It mobilised what is best in people and learning systems to make a brighter and more inclusive future for those who might otherwise join the ranks of the educationally disadvantaged.



Malta: Hilti Family Literacy Programme


The Faculty of Education in the University of Malta first piloted Family Literacy Programmes (FLPs) in Malta in 2000. In the following year FLPs then became part of the work of the Foundation for Educational Services (FES) - an entity within the Maltese Ministry for Education and Employment (MEE). The FES aimed to work with families and individuals through the development and implementation of programmes and services to promote integration and social inclusion, bridging the gap between formal and non-formal education provision. The FES was conceived as a mechanism through which the MEE would provide a range of innovative approaches to literacy support, parental empowerment and lifelong learning (Carpentieri et al, 2011).

In 2014, the Maltese inclusive five-year National Literacy Strategy was published. Family literacy programmes were included in the strategy that covers all age groups, ethnicities and forms of literacy learning (MEE, 2014). The Maltese approach to literacy is socially situated  and uses the term ‘balanced literacy’ to describe a process ‘where the technical aspects of reading and writing are taught in the context of making meaning through text’. The strategy recognizes the gendered nature of literacy and suggests more empirical research is necessary to understand how gender and literacy are interrelated.




Hilti, which is Maltese for ‘my ability’ was one of the original FL programmes offered in 2001. It had two core objectives which were to improve levels of children’s literacy while at the same time supporting parents to develop the skills to be effective FL workers. The issue of addressing parents literacy skills was not a stated goal of Hilti but rather seen as a bonus if it were indeed an outcome (Carpentieri et al, 2011).

The successful Hilti programme has evolved over the years to take account of access issues for parents in work, the needs of the most disadvantaged families and the degree to which  FL was integrated with classroom learning. Evening provision was introduced to widen access and smaller groups were developed for those with greater needs. The integration of FL with school literacy has become a core element of Hilti (Spiteri and Camilleri, 2013).




Early iterations of Hilti experimented with group size, the age of children and the length of sessions. The Hilti Club met twice a week and children were given special t-shirts to differentiate from mainstream school learning. In this experimental phase, the school decided whether the focus would be on Maltese, English or numeracy. Parental involvement was encouraged but not an absolute requirement and tutors worked separately with groups of parents and children. Learning from this exploratory phase led to certain changes in the structure of Hilti programmes. It was agreed that parental participation was essential and so it became obligatory. The optimum length was thought to be a school term and the ideal number of children per tutor was between 8 and 12. The intervention was found to be most effective for children up to the age of 7 years when it was a literacy intervention rather than a remedial strategy. Hilti also was proved to make a contribution as an effective personal and social development (Ibid).




Figure 1: The H Model of Family Literacy Provision


Spiteri and Camilleri (2013: 4) capture the model of Hilti provision – the H Model as shown in Figure 1 above. This demonstrates that children and parents work separately in order to prepare for a joint learning activity in which parents work with their own child/ren to deliver a specific literacy learning moment. Both parents and children then separate once more to review and reflect on the new learning from the session. In a comprehensive review of Hilti in 2003, parents, children, teachers and head teachers all found the programme beneficial and it subsequently became a popular intervention in Maltese schools. By 2005 over 2,700 families had participated in 224 Hilti Clubs. Adaptations were subsequently developed to meet particular needs including for children with literacy learning difficulties, programmes designed to capture the involvement of fathers and FL as an integral part of the school day. All of these follow the H Model developed through Hilti.

Because of the success of Hilti an increased demand arose for professional development courses for existing and new staff. Continuing professional development in FL exists now for teachers and programme coordinators and for pre-service teachers. Pre-Service teachers may opt for a specialist FL module in their B.Ed. (Hons) Primary degree course. This is specially designed for training parent-in-education teachers.

To further support the delivery of Hilti Clubs, FES has developed a number of teaching and learning materials both in Maltese and English. These include bilingual reading packs for diverse age cohorts of pupils and guidebooks for parents that focus on home-based learning possibilities (ELINET, 2015).

Benefits of Hilti Clubs have been rigorously assessed over the years and include:

  • Measured improvement in child psych-social development. Children’s self-esteem increased and interpersonal and communication skills developed as a result of participating in Hilti Club.
  • Children demonstrated improved educational development in general and literacy skills in particular. They reported being more interested in learning than was previously the case before the Hilti Club intervention.
  • Parental involvement in children’s learning improved. Children’s improved literacy was seen by teachers as directly correlated to parents’ participation rates.
  • Both parents and children felt that participation in FLPs was beneficial to both their educational and social development.  90 per cent of parents felt they were better parents as a result of the Hilti Club. They had better relationships with their child/ren and were more involved in their learning and in the life of the school.
  • Teachers found that Hilti Club practice had positively influenced their classroom activities. They were more liable to work cooperatively with parents thereby narrowing the gap between home and school.
  • Head teachers (90 per cent) evaluated the FLPs positively in terms of children’s and adults’ learning experiences and parents greater participation in the school (ELINET, 2015).



Sweden: Learning Together Linköping




Driven by the desire to deliver universal parenting support within cities, regions and universities, a cross-sectoral collaboration led to the development of a successful family learning initiative in Linköping, Sweden. Initially the Public Health Agency of Sweden, the Department of Education and the University of Linköping worked together to develop the programme to meet the needs firstly of Swedish parents and more latterly those of migrant parents. The emergent programme has been adapted many times since then and been significantly shaped by the migrant family participants and FL practitioners over the intervening years.




Since September 2015, Learning Together, has been working with the Swedish Agency for Family and Parenting Support. They have developed a number of innovative courses to support families of foreign origin and from culturally diverse backgrounds. Linköping has a population of 160,000, eighteen per cent of whom were born abroad. The majority of migrant families come to Sweden from conflict zones in Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. The FL intervention is fully funded by the municipality. It is integrated into the reception of immigrant families in Linköping and provides an immediate and responsive range of supports which scaffolds families from their first arrival right through to pre-school and onwards to primary education. Recognising that migrants had arrived in Sweden without having an opportunity to engage with Swedish values and culture the project has a focus on supporting families to understand and navigate through the unfamiliar context. Learning Together aims to increase literacy skills in general, and Swedish language skills, in particular, as well as the numeracy skills of parents and their children. Furthermore it provides an introduction to the Swedish education system. Highlighting the collaborative ethos of the project Learning Together has successfully developed programmes and approaches to FL through ongoing consultation with migrant families, practitioners, pre-school and school education staff. Learning from the programme has been systematically gathered through partnership with the University of Linköping and has informed the development of the project.

The role of a ‘Link Person’ has been found to be a uniquely successful element in engaging and retaining families in FL. Link persons have lived in Sweden for at least five years and are compatriots of migrant families. They work as a cultural and linguistic link between migrants and professionals and are key to building relationships between communities and are important bridge builders and decoders of Swedish society and customs for newly arrived families. Not only do they provide ‘insider’ knowledge of the workings of Swedish society in the familiar mother tongue of participants, they are also readily identifiable as peers who have made a successful life in their new homelands. As such they are viewed as trustworthy and empathetic role models of social inclusion and integration. The trained link persons are located in Family Welfare Centres, preschools and primary schools and are funded by the local municipality.

Family Welfare Centres are meeting points for parents with children under five years old. They provide a developmental and supportive space for newly arrived families. They aim to promote wellbeing and good health through tailored activities and to strengthen the social network around families. Early interventions included Parenting Programmes, however through consultation with participants providers soon learned that families had more pressing learning needs. These focussed on a desire to understand how Swedish society and culture worked, including curiosity about the education system, social services and other civic functions.

Programmes grew out of these learner needs. Courses located in the Family Welfare Centres most usually include six to eight, two hour sessions with five or six families (mostly mothers and their children) of the same language background. These courses are facilitated by a team of tutors one of whom is proficient in the group’s mother tongue. Reflecting the diversity of the families, courses cover a range of themes including;

  • Responsibilities and Rights as Parents in the Swedish education system
  • Understanding Social Services - demystify the rumours, reducing fear and stress
  • Understanding Democracy
  • Gender equality
  • Parents’ role in children’s development
  • Understanding Swedish people.

Fun and creative activities are also part of the wider learning offer and include;

  • Art classes
  • Getting to Know Your Neighbourhood
  • Gymnastics for Mothers
  • Cycling classes.

There is a strong focus on integrating literacy into all programmes. Tutors attend upskilling sessions in Sweden and in Ireland through their collaboration with the Clare Family Learning Programme that promotes adult literacy in Ennis, Ireland.

This initial work in the Family Welfare centres is later consolidated through FL programmes located within pre-schools and later in primary school settings. Pre-school programmes involve parents and children together. Parents are invited to two week long initial training programmes where they are facilitated to understand the purpose of early education and their critical role in supporting children’s learning.

The next intervention by Learning Together is when children enter the primary school system. Here programmes are most usually between five and ten sessions, depending on need. They are facilitated by the school teacher and the link person who, where necessary, acts as a translator. In these education contexts interventions focus on preparing parents for the transition to a more formal school system whilst also providing programmes which respond to evolving parental needs. A range of offers include;

  • Maintain and Develop the Mother Tongue
  • Strategies for Developing Learning in the Home
  • Avoiding Misunderstandings at School
  • Preparing Children for Outdoor Activities.

As in the Family Welfare Centre courses each programme is delivered by two tutors, one of whom has the language skills of the learning group. Participants are awarded a diploma at the end of each course and these are highly valued by parents. In some cases they are the first ‘official’ document they have received and are viewed as having currency by those who are developing CVs for the workplace. 

Furthermore research has shown that Learning Together has had a wide ranging impact on families and on parent/ school and community relationships in which the programmes were delivered. These included greater social inclusion through the expansion of social networks within the school, which in turn led to increased confidence in looking outwards and participating in local community activities. Parents reported new understandings of their important role in supporting children to develop their literacy confidence, greater awareness of the importance of children’s emotional and cognitive development and increased knowledge of the school system and culture in their new locations in Sweden. This in turn led to improved home school relationships. Children who were involved in the programmes were better able to participate in school. They were observed by teachers to have increased interactions with other children which supported them in the development of new confidence in the Swedish language.



The examples of successful FL practice outlined above illustrate the diversity and adaptability of FL to the learning needs of families in a range of social and cultural circumstances. All three examples describe interventions that take account of the specific context within which they are working and have resulted in FL provision developed to meet carefully judged needs. In the Irish case, a local learning collaboration based in one primary school has successfully engaged and retained a range of parents through a creative literacy approach. The Friday Morning Group has supported the literacy learning of their children both in school and at home. It has ended the isolation of the parents and enhanced the core work of the school as well as contributing to a more integrated, multicultural local environment.

The Maltese and Swedish models are national interventions developed and adapted over years to provide for the language and literacy learning needs of parents and children. The Maltese Hilti Club prepares parents and children to learn effectively together in a structured afterschool’s model of FL. Over time it has involved the development of learning materials, the training of existing teachers and the offer of specialist training for working with parents, to pre-service teachers. The ‘H’ model has been adapted in response to evaluations so that it has become a better fit for the needs of users.

Taking place in Family Welfare Centres, the Swedish ‘Learning Together’ FL intervention aims to support migrant parents to integrate into their new homeland, improve their Swedish language and literacy skills and understand and contribute to their children’s schooling. A crucial element of the Swedish programme is the role of the ‘link’ person who shares a language and ethnicity with the parents and has been themselves integrated into the culture a number of years beforehand. The Swedish programme includes cultural awareness, fun and creative activities into all of which language and literacy learning is integrated. Tutor development for Swedish tutors is completed in cooperation with Clare Family Learning Programme in Ireland, introducing a cooperative transnational element.

All of these projects are collaborative in nature. They recognise the value of parental involvement in children’s schooling and establish the necessary conditions for this parental partnership with the school to work effectively. The welcoming environment is central to each FL intervention as are the relationships that support the parents to remain engaged and to develop their confidence as a vital part of their child’s success as a learner. An adult and learner-centred ethos is evident in all projects.



Critical reflection prompt

  • How might the specific family learning needs of parents in your locality be best established?
  • Are family learning interventions reviewed and adapted to ensure best fit with parent’s and children’s needs?
  • Are all of the potential partners in a FL partnership included in programme planning, delivery and evaluation?
  • Are the training and development needs of tutors and other staff adequately provided for?
  • Might the inclusion of a community ‘link’ person help engage and retain parents who are reluctant to participate in FL?




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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