2011. Vol.2, No.3, 288-291
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.23039
The Power is in the Partnership: Families as Partners in
Bilingual Bicultural Family Literacy Programs
Virginia Tech/Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, USA.
Received May 27th, 2011; revised June 15th, 2011; accepted June 22nd, 2011.
This paper presents a research project that involved Mexican and Honduran families in a family literacy program
through a service-learning course of cross-cultural education for teacher education candidates The study exam-
ined how the families in the program articulated their purposes for participating in the program and how they
changed their attitudes toward education and toward the program, moving from a stance of participant to stake-
holder in the program. The paper also describes the dissonance that occurred when the program incorporated an
online language learning program. Despite the dissonance, however, the instructor posits that a family literacy
program that regards the families as partners offers numerous possibilities for strengthening children’s educa-
Keywords: Service-Learning, Community-Based Education, Family Literacy, ESL/EFL
This paper presents a research project that engaged Mexican
and Honduran families in a family literacy program. The pro-
gram provided bilingual bicultural educational experiences for
parents and children through a service-learning course of cross-
cultural education for teacher candidates at a Research I univer-
sity. The study examined how the families in the program ar-
ticulated their purposes for participating in a family literacy
program over a period of two-and-one-half years. The study
also investigated the ways that the families changed their atti-
tudes, moving from a stance of participant to stakeholder in the
program. The paper also describes the dissonance that occurred
when the program changed from an informal monthly gathering
whose program focused on literacy to a formal computer-based
program for the adults to learn English and to strengthen their
literacy skills in Spanish. Despite the dissonance, however, I
posit that a family literacy program that regards families as
partners offers numerous possibilities for strengthening chil-
Crossing the Border through Service-Learning provides the
context for the family literacy program. Service-learning is a
form of experiential education in which students engage
through the intersection of academic knowledge and commu-
nity engagement interpreted through constant reflection (Tilley-
Lubbs, 2007). It provides an opportunity for teacher candidates
to put into practice the theory they study in the methods class,
helping them understand the influence of language, culture,
ability, family, and community on student learning and devel-
opment. In addition, as teacher candidates collaborate with
families in the community, they learn to understand and value
the strengths and values that all students bring to school thus
fostering an attitude change from regarding immigrant children
from a deficit model (Nieto, 1999). Teacher education pro-
grams that strive to facilitate a concern for social justice issues
(Cochran-Smith, 1999) need to encourage student teachers to
be in the community so that they cease to see those from di-
verse backgrounds as “they”. If teachers are to have knowledge
of students, they must know how students develop under vari-
ous conditions, understanding the influence of language, culture,
ability, family, and community on student learning and devel-
opment (Cochran-Smith, 1999; Freire, 1970; Greenberg & Moll,
1990). They should have opportunities that are grounded in
inquiry, experimentation, and reflection (Smylie, Bay, &
Tozer). Serving in diverse cultural settings familiarizes stu-
dents with the beliefs and practices of other cultures, providing
a bridge to cross from the world of the privileged university to
that of the marginalized immigrant population (Ward, 1997;
Although children who are learning English as a non-heritage
language may not be familiar with the language or customs of
the school they enter as recent immigrants, nonetheless they
bring to the school and the community rich funds of knowledge
(González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005), whether in terms of aca-
demic or practical knowledge. In order for these children to
find success in school, it is necessary that they continue to feel
value for the linguistic and cultural heritage that frames their
lives. However they must learn English so they can succeed,
not only in their English Language Learning (ELL) class, but
also in their content area classes. Those children who learn
English in a bilingual setting will be able to draw upon previ-
ously acquired literacy, transferring that knowledge to the ac-
quisition of English (Krashen, 1997). Biliteracy also strength-
ens reading and writing in language minority students (Grant &
Wong, 2003). Likewise, drawing on the funds of knowledge in
the immigrant community strengthens the bicultural biliteracy
approach that complements a viable ELL program literacy
(Moll & Greenberg, 1990).
G. TILLEY-LU BBS 289
In a service-learning experience, the needs of the community
shape the project (Anderson, 1999). As parents become stake-
holders and take ownership of the program, they join their chil-
dren in learning to “read the word” while “reading the world”
(Freire & Macedo, 1987). Through a family literacy program,
children and their parents learn how to learn; they learn how to
be successful students in a new world with a different perspec-
tive on literacy. By involving immigrant parents in the educa-
tion of their children, teachers are able to find community ad-
vocates for English language learning especially when the cul-
ture of the children differs significantly from that of the teacher
(Gadsden, 2004). Involving parents results in conviviencia, the
flowing moments of collective creation and solidarity, bonding
in a joint effort (Jasis & Ordoñez-Jasis, 2004). Social change
occurs through personal transformation of worldview (Heaney,
Research indicates that language-minority parents are willing
to help their children succeed academically, and that children
who receive help at home are more likely to develop literacy
(August & Shanahan, 2006). Family literacy programs create a
space for parents to negotiate a critical curriculum (Vasquez,
2001). Successful family literacy programs reflect input from
the parents and children (Gadsden, 2004). Using Latino litera-
ture written in Spanish provides opportunities for parents to
hone their means of making sense of the world through literacy;
shared situational autobiography in an FLP promotes adjust-
ment and the formation of a support system (Pierce & Brisk,
2002). Therefore literacy for English language learners should
be comprised of the valuing of their funds of knowledge and
the involvement of the caregivers in the home, goals framed by
family lit eracy programs.
Methods of Inquiry and Data Sources
The overarching objective of this study was to examine how
the families described their goals for themselves and their chil-
dren during a period of five semesters. I sought to investigate
their changes in attitude as the participated in the program. As
they stepped into leadership roles in the program, I examined
the differences in their attitudes toward their children and their
education. Finally, I wanted to investigate the implications for
family literacy programs situated in service-learning programs.
The nature of the research necessitated the use of qualitative
research methods in using ethnographic data collecting tech-
niques to examine how the Mexican and Honduran families
describe their goals and gains for themselves and their children
in the Family Literacy Program. The setting of the monthly
meeting presented the opportunity to observe the families as
they work together and with the students in the planned activi-
Crossing the Border through Service-Learning was an aca-
demic course that partnered students with Mexican and Hondu-
ran families in the community. The students met on campus
once a week to discuss academic readings. They spent 50 hours
per semeste r with their partner family , teaching the adults Eng-
lish, tutoring the children, providing cultural navigation, and
learning Spanish. Once a month they met with the families in
the Family Literacy Program, serving as aides for the volunteer
teachers who provided classes for the children. The program
was grant-funded, and the grant provided books for the children
and meals for the meetings.
The grant also funded Auralog, an online interactive lan-
guage learning program, for the women. They did the program
in English, and also in Spanish to strengthen their literacy skills
in their native language. The students provided assistance with
the technical aspects of Auralog. Only two of the 22 women
who initially participated in the Auralog workshops had ever
used a computer, so they relied on the students to answer ques-
tions as they emerged.
The adults were mostly women, partly because of the men’s
schedules, and partly because the men regarded it as a women’s
and children’s program. Their ages ranged from 23 - 45, and
their educational levels ranged from sixth grade through the
first year of university. They also represented rural and urban
backgrounds, both in Mexico and Honduras. The children
ranged from under one year through eighth grade.
The classes were comprise d of interactive bilingual bicultural
activities for the children, with written follow-up activities
provided for the parents. The parenting and support sessions for
the adults were provided by a volunteer Chilean psychologist.
The parents were also provided with age-appropriate follow-up
interactive activities to do with their childr en at home.
I collected data at the beginning of the five semesters, both
fall and spring, by having the women write why they stayed in
the program and what their goals were for the semester. At the
end of the semester they participated in a similar activity in
which they wrote about the goals they had reached and differ-
ences they had observed in their children’s attitudes toward or
performance in school.
The first year I collected data by having families fill out
baseline data sheets to collect information about literacy beliefs
and reasons for participating in the program. They were also
asked to fill out monthly evaluation sheets. Although the in-
formation requested was similar to what they provided in the
free write activity, the women were reluctant to fill them out,
saying they did not know what to write, in contrast to the free
writes which resulted in rich data in the mothers’ voices.
I also conducted formal interviews with the women regarding
their interactions with the Family Literacy Program. The inter-
views were transcribed. The women participated in reading
circles in which they relate assigned Latino literature to their
own lives, representing the ideas of the group on butcher block
paper which I collected as data. Lastly, at the end of the semes-
ter, the students and partner families produced PowerPoint
presentations about their literacy experiences, which they
shared with the group at the final FLP meeting; the Power-
Points also served as data.
I functioned as an observer, observer-participant, partici-
pant-observer, and participant, depending on the situation.
Much of the data was collected informally in conversations
with the participants in the program during the five semesters.
The interviews and meetings occurred on campus, in homes, in
the church where the large meetings took place, at restaurants,
and on the telephone. I kept field notes for all the meetings and
conversations. I sought patterns or significance through direct
interpretation of the data, constantly consolidating, reducing,
and interpreting them (Merriam, 1998). I present the findings in
terms of emergent themes and dissonances (Lawrence-Light-
foot & Davis, 1997).
G. TILLEY-LU BBS
Results of the Study
The findings have two sections. First I consider the overall
impact of the Family Literacy Program on the families who
participated in the program over the five semesters. I examine
the goals the women stated for their children, the changes in
their attitudes, and their increased participation in the planning
and implementation of the meetings.
The data demonstrated four supporting themes. First, the
women described sense of empowerment from learning parent-
ing skills. They specifically described knowing how to talk to
their children about subjects such as sex, learning how to disci-
pline effectively with tolerance and patience, understanding
how to talk with and listen to their children to give them confi-
dence, identifying ways to answer their children’s questions,
learning to make decisions together with their children and to
give them advice, and learning to share emotions with their
Second, the women talked about a sense empowerment from
learning how to help their children be successful in school.
They talked about learning to read to their children by using the
bilingual books that are given to the children at every meeting;
discovering ways to make learning fun rather than boring; un-
derstanding the importance of providing educational books,
games, and toys; understanding the importance of maintaining
contact with their children’s teachers; finding ways of having
time to do homework and time to watch TV; and learning to
maintain a relationship of teacher-parent.
Third, the women told of observed differences in their chil-
dren’s attitudes toward and performance in school. They de-
scribed their children’s relief at being in a program (the Family
Literacy Program) where the other children looked like them
and spoke both English and Spanish. They noticed improve-
ments in their children’s grades.
Lastly, over the course of the study, I observed differences in
women’s attitudes toward the program. There was a signifi-
cantly increased number of suggestions about the program in
terms of the running of the program regarding meeting times,
meals, etc. They enacted increased ownership of the content of
the program by asking for literacy activities and deeper learning
experiences for themselves and their children.
However, the data also provided evidence of the dissonances
that occurred with the implementation of the Auralog program.
These disconnects occurred due to several reasons. First, some
of the women were unable to participate in Auralog. Although
grant funding provided the computers, the training, and the
online program, there was no funding for the initial internet
hook-up or monthly fees, causing the program to be prohibi-
tively expensive for some of the women. In addition, work
schedules caused some of the women to have difficulty in doing
the required five hours of work on Auralog per week.
Consequently, the lack of participation in Auralog resulted in
a lack of interest in the Family Literacy Program. Frustrations
arose due to computer problems, both technical and skill related.
Tensions grew between the women who were able to use the
computer and those who couldn’t for whatever reason. The
women also expressed boredom with the repetitive nature of the
activities and exercises.
In summary, the mothers described the program as providing
meaningful parenting education, attitudinal changes regarding
education, and an environment that fosters improved self es-
teem and school performance in their children. Nonetheless,
they expressed discontent with the Auralog program and a de-
sire to discontinue their participation in that aspect of the Fam-
ily Literacy Program.
Educational Importance of the Study
This paper is intended as a contribution to the larger issue of
developing alternative ways of helping Latino children to be
successful in school. By examining a program that is situated in
a university service-learning class, it is also possible to explore
the reciprocal benefits to teacher candidates who can deepen
their understanding of diversity by participating in a family
literacy program in which parents are partners. Finally, the
study suggests that family literacy programs need to be col-
laborative in planning and implementation.
The resultant findings suggest that a program involving par-
ents as collaborators in their children’s education enables the
parents to become empowered as partners in their children’s
education. The findings also indicate that parents who become
engaged in their children’s education develop a better under-
standing of public school expectations. Lastly a program that
stresses reading and creative play with children helps parents to
appreciate the importance of educational play and interaction
Further research is indicated for the program to investigate
the impact of biliteracy on the women and in turn on the chil-
dren. I am also interested in delving more deeply into the
women’s stories of literacy in their heritage language. Lastly, I
would like to investigate the literacy that is present in their lives
at this point. Despite the dissonances that have occurred as a
result of the women’s participation in Auralog, the women who
have participated in the online language program have gener-
ally liked the program and plan to continue with it. The women
who have computers describe them as “abriéndome el mundo”
(opening the world to me).
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