Literacy Lens: Connecting Family Engagement and Effective Schoolwide Literacy Programs

July 2023
Literacy Lens by Ashley Sheppard

This month, I invited my colleague Ashley Sheppard to share her expertise and contribute to this post. As a principal consultant for family engagement and school-community partnership, Ashley is passionate about supporting school leaders to create the conditions for authentic and effective partnerships between educators and families. Prior to joining Education Northwest, Ashley spent a decade supporting students, families, and educators in District of Columbia Public Schools through her work with Communities in Schools of the Nation’s Capital and the Flamboyan Foundation.

The positive outcomes associated with family engagement in schools read like a wish list: higher GPAs, better attendance, lower dropout rates, fewer retentions and special education placements, higher levels of social skills, increased abilities to self-regulate behavior, and—most relevant to the Literacy Lens—increased literacy.

We know that parents and other family members can have a tremendous impact on a child’s ability to read and write. They are a child’s first and primary reading teachers, and they help determine how much access a child has to books and other reading materials. They can create a literacy-rich environment that will impact a child’s reading and learning habits for life.

Despite this extremely important role, parents and family members often find themselves taking a backseat once a child enters formal schooling. While nearly all educators understand the importance of family engagement, many schools take a counterproductive approach to promoting it. And this may have more to do with mindset than actual strategies.

In her article “Tracing My Research on Parent Engagement: Working to Interrupt the Story of School as Protectorate,” education researcher Debbie Pushor says we must stop perpetuating the myth of school as protectorate—the authority on all things educational—and as the sole center of learning.

Pushor contends that most efforts to involve parents and families keep them on the periphery of their children’s education, asking them to complete only the tasks the school deems worthy (e.g., helping with homework and volunteering for parties), limiting the parent-teacher conversation to 15-minute conferences twice a year, and providing programming intended to bring parents into line with the school’s ways of thinking, rather than soliciting actual ideas and feedback from them.

Think about what these actions communicate to parents about their role, their value, and the ownership of student learning. And then think again before blaming parents and family members for not being more involved in their child’s education.

Charlette Strickland, principal of Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C., and a 2022–23 district Principal of the Year nominee (and Ashley’s former supervisor), offers a fundamentally different mindset. “This school doesn’t belong to me,” she once said. “It belongs to the students, families, and community. I am afforded the privilege and responsibility to ensure their expectations and needs are met so they get the education they deserve to have a successful life, however they define it.”

Ultimately, the extent to which educators acknowledge families as a child’s first and primary teachers will determine how they approach building relationships and partnering with families for student success. And nowhere is this more important than in teaching a child to read and write.

Building a Collaborative Literacy Culture

Collaboration is critical to implementing effective literacy initiatives in any context. In fact, one foundational element of Education Northwest’s Framework for Literacy Leadership Development is the ability to build a collaborative literacy culture across an entire school or district. We include family engagement in our framework because both research and our own lived experiences have shown how critical it is in sustaining school improvement and fostering a culture of learning.

Effective literacy leaders engage staff members, students, families, and community partners in developing, articulating, implementing, and stewarding a shared, equitable vision for literacy. This collaborative, inclusive process creates a sense of shared ownership, increases buy-in, strengthens the home-to-school connection, and increases the likelihood that a literacy program will be culturally responsive and relevant for the entire school community.

How can schools invite parents to be part of crafting the literacy vision for their school? First, we must redefine family involvement and move away from biased thinking and visions of schools as all-knowing protectorates.

When inviting families to co-create a collaborative literacy culture—especially families from marginalized communities—it is imperative that leaders and teachers foster respect for family and community literacy practices and shift perceptions of parent roles among teachers, parents, administrators, and the educational community at large. This means acknowledging the value of family literacy practices, which are rooted in the day-to-day realities and authentic purposes of life. As educators, we must see families as experts and allies, as well as true partners in their children’s literacy development and overall education.

Strategies for Engaging Families and Communities

We are addressing this topic in July because summer is a critical time for educators to plan and prepare for the year ahead. Schools and districts typically offer in-service professional development in the weeks leading up to the new school year to introduce new programs and strategies for teachers. This is an ideal opportunity for school leaders to ensure their staff members are prepared to engage families as active participants in literacy culture.

This can include identifying the engagement strategies they will use and developing the schoolwide structures necessary to sustain these efforts. For example, these structures can include a dedicated team for supporting family engagement, dedicated time for conducting family engagement activities and reflecting on these activities, and dedicated resources to sustain the work.

The following suggestions shift family engagement from the superficial toward authentic partnering to support the education of children.

Trial, Error, and Evidence-Based Decision Making

A first step for literacy leaders is to try multiple strategies, times of day, and days of the week to engage parents—it’s important to provide options. Second, it’s essential to include families in the planning process. With these principles in place, here are four practical ideas drawn from our personal experience:

Host an art night featuring student artwork. Post the art in the hallways, rather than a single room or space, so parents can walk and talk with their child as they view the exhibit. Encourage all students in the school to submit artwork.

Offer grade-level meetings in which a grade-level team invites all the parents/caretakers of students in that grade to come in and learn about what is happening at school. This is also an opportunity to discuss expectations for their children.

Make the children the stars. Host a student teaching night in which students teach new skills they have learned to their adults.

Remember to have fun. We have had a lot of success with game nights that include food from popular local vendors.

Be sure to collect data, including feedback from parents and attendance numbers, to determine which family engagement activities are most popular and effective, and then use that data to inform future planning.

Relationship Building Through Home Visits

The Parent Teacher Home Visit Model is an evidence-based approach to building trusting relationships with families and reducing implicit bias. In this model, educators coordinate a visit honoring families’ preference for location and time, go in pairs, are compensated for their time, discuss families’ hopes and dreams for their children, and reflect on their experience afterward. This low-stakes interaction offers educators and families the opportunity to get to know one another with no other agenda—academics, attendance, and behavior are not the focus. And what better time to build relationships with families than before school even starts?

Removing Barriers to Family Involvement

Making parents feel like a welcome part of the educational process is essential to promoting their involvement. Research indicates that one of the largest factors in parents’ decision to be involved in their children’s education is whether they perceive they were specifically invited to participate or, conversely, implicitly discouraged from doing so. This may be especially true for low-income parents.

Policies and practices that create an atmosphere of nonjudgement and acceptance such as an open-door policy, transportation assistance, and flexible scheduling can counteract barriers to involvement and offset negative feelings parents may have toward schools based on their past experiences.

Another way to create a welcoming atmosphere is through personal contact, such as friendly phone calls and individual notes, rather than traditional one-way forms of communication such as newsletters. Parents appreciate communication from teachers that is “good news”—that is, not about a behavior issue or problem with their child. This relationship must be maintained beyond that initial contact so that families feel actively included in their child’s educational journey.

Call to Action: Create and Nurture a Collaborative Literacy Culture

The following resources can help you move toward a literacy culture that includes meaningful collaboration with families and communities.

Education Northwest’s Literacy Services

Learn more about our approach to professional learning and take a deeper look at our Framework for Literacy Leadership Development.

Lessons from the Early Years: A Personal Journey into School-Family-Community Partnerships

Debbie Ellis, a former Education Northwest staff member and current chief operating officer at Communication Across Barriers, offers a few key strategies educators can use to promote family involvement in students’ education, particularly at the preschool level.

What the Research Says on Engaging Native Families

We compiled this list of resources on the changes schools can make to create a more welcoming school climate and increase the engagement of American Indian and Alaska Native families in schools.

Building Inclusive Schools and Communities with the Community Conversation Toolkit

The Community Conversation Toolkit helps families, educators, and community members discuss how to make schools welcoming and inclusive to all.

Creating a More Welcoming and Culturally Responsive School Community to Engage American Indian and Alaska Native Families

Culturally responsive systems are the key to improving outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native students in school and in life.

Youth, Family, and Community Services

Set students up to excel in school and life through effective, engaging, and culturally responsive youth programs.

Beginning of Year Relationship-Building Toolkit

This toolkit from the Flamboyan Foundation describes five key roles families can play to accelerate student learning and provides effective strategies for educators to build trusting relationships with families.