August 15, 2006 Features

Parent Programs in Literacy: Differences for Latinos

Mr. and Mrs. Jorge Garcia
Mr. and Mrs. Jorge Garcia are building the first bilingual preschool for Hispanic children in St. Louis, MO. The center will provide family support through literacy programs, preschool /child care, after school tutoring, and parent programs.

Literacy is a national issue. The No Child Left Behind Act, school districts, and professionals such as teachers, speech-language pathologists, school psychologists, English as a Second Language teachers, professionals, and parents all have a part to play in helping children to achieve academic success.

We recognize that parents have an important role in the early development of literacy in young children. Parents who read to their children raise children who learn to read. But what if parents don't know how to read? What if parents lack foundational skills for literacy to teach young children who enter schools that expect specific skills, such as book handling, page turning, and page scanning from left to right?

Over the past two decades Early Start and Head Start have helped people from diverse backgrounds in many areas of life. However, when it comes to literacy, a major gap still exists in academic achievement among children such as Latinos, African Americans, and European Americans. Reports describe the Latino population as having lower high school graduation rates, less maternal education, and less parental involvement in schools than whites and African Americans (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2001).

SLPs increasingly are becoming aware of differences among Latino groups in terms of language and culture. But the issues that confront Latino families are more complex than culture and language. External and social issues also influence children's learning and parents' participation in literacy programs. Family influences affect the success and failures of selected literacy programs implemented with European American and Latino families and children.

Influencing Factors

A number of factors influence the development of parent programs. Theoretical bases for these literacy programs vary depending upon the books for developing literacy authorized by state educational agencies and school districts. Another factor considered less often in its effects on children's literacy development is the teacher's philosophy and design of the early childhood classroom. Literacy may or may not be a focus depending upon the teacher's strengths and training. The existence or system of communication used between the school and parent is another factor. If no mechanisms exist for translating materials or classroom information, parents are left out of the education of their own children and decisions made by parent-teacher organizations.

The content of a literacy program and whether it reflects the language and culture of Latino families is the most important factor that may influence its success or failure.

Programs that do not reflect a person's culture and language make reading difficult. For example, I find reading Spanish difficult when the text originated in Spain instead of Mexico. The language or vocabulary, the phrasing, and the idioms, as well as the coherence of the text are different between the two forms of Spanish.

What Do We Want?

All of the above factors are important considerations in developing a parent program for Latino families. Janes and Kermini (2001) asked, "What do you want from a parent program?" and provide a number of possibilities as goals for parent programs. These include parents reading to children in English or in the native language, being literate, and being knowledgeable about children's literacy, supporting the school program in literacy, and developing children's oral language that will support later literacy.

The possibilities for goals in parent programs are endless and the factors that will influence their success and failure with Latino parents become more difficult to manage without an understanding of the needs and experiences of families with literacy.

The following are descriptions of four programs: two developed for English-speaking families and two developed for Spanish-speaking families. These studies provide evidence of different outcomes for two different cultures with different methodologies.

Two Cultures, Two Outcomes

Dickinson and Tabors (2002) described a preschool project that examined the language and literacy backgrounds in families and the literacy philosophies of preschool teachers. The children were from English-speaking "high-language homes"-the parents were literate, read to their children, and the researchers considered the families to have rich language environments. The children attended preschools with low-language literacy environments. At the end of the project, the results for this combination of high-language literacy homes and low-language/literacy preschools showed that children scored below the mean for the sample on measures of kindergarten abilities, e.g., receptive/expressive language, narrative skills, and emergent literacy skills.

Another group of children from low-language/literacy homes but high-language/literacy preschool environments also was observed. The children's scores were above the mean for the sample on measures of kindergarten skills. One implication is that excellent preschools can compensate for homes that have below average language and literacy environments. Dickinson and Tabors (2002) recommended the following:

  • Exposure to varied vocabulary that builds the child's semantic, content knowledge needed for reading
  • Opportunities to be part of conversations that use extended discourse, as in explanations, narratives, or pretend talk
  • Home and classroom environments that are cognitively and linguistically stimulating through books at home or a varied curriculum in the classroom

Another successful project directed toward English-speaking families is the Family Literacy Project: Project EASE (Jorday, Snow, & Porche, 2000). The project design provided parents a theoretical understanding of how to help their children and facilitate their early literacy development. Parent education sessions taught parents how to:

  • Develop the receptive and expressive abilities of their children
  • Learn how children's reading builds language skills, strengthens comprehension skills, and extends thinking beyond the here and now
  • Understand decoding print and the role that letter recognition and sound awareness play in developing awareness of how the print system operates in reading;
  • Use narrative retellings to develop oral and written language skills
  • Understand the different structure of exposition and the role that engagement in explanatory talk plays in developing language

Parents met each week and completed school and home activities, creating positive results for the children. Both of these family literacy programs for English-speaking parents assumed that the parents were literate, understood the importance of literacy, and would accept the experts' judgment of how the program should be implemented.

Literacy Programs for Latinos

Janes and Kermani (2001) developed the three-year Family Literacy Tutorial Project Southern California for Spanish-speaking families with the goal of teaching caregivers how to read storybooks with children. The participants were low-income immigrants in southern California with an average fourth-grade reading level. Fifty bilingual undergraduate tutors trained to work with the families at home or in preschool classrooms. The data analysis included videotaped and audiotaped sessions, pre- and post- measures, surveys, interviews, tutors' and researchers' field notes, and observational records.

The tutors taught the caregivers how to question their children during reading, progressing from simple to complex questions. Caregivers' attention was usually given to extracting information from the text for their own understanding and eliciting evidence that the child had understood the information. As the tutors began to ask parents to use more complex questioning strategies with their children, a large attrition rate occurred. The researchers began to question why parents were leaving the project.

In their interviews and videotapes of the families, the researchers concluded that parents:

  • Did not view book reading as joint conversation or enjoyment
  • Viewed reading to children as a chore
  • Made statements such as, "I never liked to read," "I don't like books," and "Reading was always a punishment when I was small"

The majority disliked and eventually stopped using the program. Video analysis revealed behaviors during reading that included lack of physical contact between the adult and child, adult control of the book, lack of eye contact between parent and child, a low or monotone reading voice, and lack of intonation or affect during a parent's reading.

Janes and Kermani (2001) explored the caregivers' attitudes to literacy materials and methods of literacy provision and began to produce texts that were familiar and non-alienating to families. They developed workshops for parents to create books about fact-based topics of interest that related directly to them.

Parents and children preferred the results of the changes made to texts and topics, resulting in a low attrition rate for the altered program. In videotape analysis the parents' behaviors changed. Their tone of voice, pacing, and volume changed with increased intonation and dramatization elements. They took pride in the physical handling of the books, reference to the authorship (parent), and reference to the child's pleasure.

Knowing families' topics of interest related to their children made a difference in the project's attrition rate and the ultimate success for this parent literacy program. Parents and children must have literature to read that reflects who they are as people, what they value, what is of interest to them, and what is important to read about. Reading in this project became not just a window to view another culture, as in the first stage of the project. The reading activities in the second stage of the project also became a mirror for the families, a way to view themselves as a family.

A different manner of approaching Latino parents is through parent needs and fears. Covarrubia (2000) described a different type of family literacy program for the Spanish-speaking families in his Tucson school. Parents go to school with their children and have their own classroom. Parents begin the day with English classes, learning words and formulating sentences. Next the parents go to the children's classroom and sit next to their child, following the teacher's lessons before receiving independent practice assignments. The parents return to their own classroom where they are encouraged to bring up issues and concerns about their lessons, their children's progress, and what they observed in the children's classroom. Parents also have vocational time in the computer lab, library, cafeteria, or classrooms, learning skills that can help them secure employment. At noon, the parents eat lunch in their classroom before leaving. Covarrubia states that parents learn there is nothing to fear from the people who educate their children. Parents also learn the demands of education on their children and how difficult it is for both parents and children. Most importantly, parents recognize that the school wants to help parents and children succeed.


Comprehensive literature exists concerning parent programs for Latino children, but Saracho (2002) summarizes this research, suggesting that family involvement in literacy programs requires more than information on the process of literacy development in young children. Family involvement requires:

  • Helping families build home environments to support the children's learning and development
  • Designing several forms of home-school communications
  • Increasing parent involvement in the school
  • Helping parents develop curriculum-related activities in the home
  • Including parents in school decisions
  • Identifying and integrating services and resources in the community

Literacy is an important goal for young children and for Latino parents. Children do not learn to love books and the knowledge they hold if they are asked to bring books home for their parents to read aloud. Parents may need to learn to love books also, and not to think of books as past failures, past punishments, and joyless times in school. The entire family (parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc.) supports the success of Latino children to achieve in our school systems. How we engage "la familia" will require innovation, creativity, energy, and understanding of parents' experiences with literacy and schools.

Donations to Caritas Felices (Happy Little Faces) can be sent to Caritas Felices, 9921 Holtwick, St. Ann, MO 63074. 

Hortencia Kayser, is a professor and a speech-language pathologist at St. Louis University. She is a Fellow of ASHA and received the Special Recognition Award for Multicultural Affairs. Kayser is president of the board for the center referenced in the photo. Contact her by e-mail at

cite as: Kayser, H. (2006, August 15). Parent Programs in Literacy: Differences for Latinos. The ASHA Leader.

Focus on Divisions

Division 14, Communication Sciences and Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Populations focuses on professional issues related to diagnosis and treatment of CLD populations. The division offers affiliates the opportunity to earn CEUs through self-study of the Division publication, Perspectives, an exclusive e-mail list and Web forum, and other benefits. Visit Division 14's Web page to learn more.


Covarrubia, J. (2000). Family Literacy: Sharing classrooms with parents. Principal,80(1), 44-45.

Dickinson, D.K., & Tabors, P.O. (2002). Fostering language and literacy in classrooms and homes. Young Children, 57, 10-18.

Janes, H., & Kermani, H. (2001). Caregivers’ story reading to young children in family literacy programs: Pleasure or punishment? Journal of Adolescent & AdultLiteracy, 44(5), 1081-3004.

Jordan, G.E., Snow, C.E., Porche, M.V. (2000). Project EASE: The effect of a family literacy project on kindergarten students’ early literacy skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(4), 524-546.

Paratore, J.R., Melzi, G., Krol-Sinclair, B. (2003). Learning about the literate lives of Latino families. In D. M. Barone & l. M. Morrow (Eds.) Literacy and Young Children. New York : The Guilford Press, 101-120.

Saracho, O.N. (2002). Family literacy: Exploring family practices. Early ChildDevelopment and Care, 172(2), 113-122.

U.S. Department of Education. (2001). The Condition of Education (NCES No. 001072).Washington, D.C.


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