Will they ever learn?

Sarah Wellard explores how helping parents support their
children’s learning is also enabling them to tackle their own
literacy problems.

Even if you left education with A levels or a degree, helping
your children with their schoolwork can be a challenge. The
literacy hour bears little resemblance to anything we did at school
and modern teaching of numeracy is unfamiliar too. But for parents
who missed out on education themselves, supporting their
child’s learning can feel like an impossible task.

According to the Basic Skills Agency (BSA), one in five British
adults is “functionally illiterate”. Parents with poor reading and
writing skills may struggle to cope with everyday tasks such as
filling in application forms and understanding letters from school
about everything from dinner money to school trips. Because of the
risk of social exclusion and the intergenerational effects of
educational underachievement as well as the economic implications
of an under-skilled workforce, it is a problem that ministers are
keen to tackle. Chancellor Gordon Brown has recently set ambitious
targets for improving basic skills, and announced a big increase in

There are many reasons why some parents have difficulties with
reading and writing. It might be that they missed out on attending
school regularly or that they have a specific learning difficulty,
such as dyslexia, or general learning difficulties which they were
not given the opportunity to overcome. Karen Hanson, project
manager for Read On Write Away (Rowa) in Derbyshire adds:
“Sometimes education wasn’t valued. Rather than being
supported and given opportunities to progress they were
discouraged.” Many of the towns and villages in which she works are
former mining communities, where the view tended to be that you
wouldn’t need an education to work in the pits. Although many
of the collieries closed back in the 1980s when the parents might
still have been children themselves, attitudes take time to

Whatever the lingering stereotypes, Hanson finds that parents
who missed out on education want their children to have
opportunities they lacked. “They’ll often come to family
learning classes saying, ‘I never got my GCSEs or CSEs but I
want my child to have a better chance.’ Or they say, ‘I
can’t spell but I want them to be able to spell’.”

The effectiveness of family literacy classes in improving
children’s performance at school as well as tackling adult
basic skills needs is well-established. Research by the National
Foundation for Education Research (NFER) has shown, for example,
that children from families participating in the BSA’s
demonstration programmes make lasting gains in vocabulary, reading
and writing, as well as being better behaved in the classroom. They
also receive more support from their families than those who do not
attend the programmes. There are also clear benefits for parents,
with more than a third of those in the NFER study attributing their
subsequent employment to family literacy classes.

Family learning classes involve teaching parents about how
children learn, what children do at school and how parents can
support them. They generally start from the premise that everyone
can learn something about working with their children, and that
parents can help each other. Classes often involve making books and
games to share with the children and towards the end of the class
the children might come in to share an activity with their

However, parents with literacy difficulties themselves are often
initially reluctant to come forward. Rowa aims to deal with this by
putting on more than one course in each school, starting with
family learning classes open to all parents. The most confident
parents come forward first and then help recruit those who are
harder to reach for subsequent courses. Hanson says: “We tell
parents that we are here to help their children. That’s how
we sell it to them. But if we only went once to a school,
we’d miss the parents with basic skills needs because they
wouldn’t come to the class.” She adds: “The challenge is in
engaging them. Once we’ve got them we’re showing them
that education is fun. We’re giving them information so that
they can support their children but also boosting their confidence
by saying that we value them.” Parents who have attended family
learning courses and gained confidence in their learning ability
often go on to further study, including adult basic skills

In Rochdale, a network of home-school liaison workers has the
task of recruiting parents with English as an additional language
into family learning. The town has large Punjabi, Urdu and
Bengali-speaking communities as well a growing number of asylum
seekers from many backgrounds. Nan Jackson, partnership education
service manager, says that some of the community workers have been
in post for 10 years. “They can really get to know the community
and build up relationships with parents and with schools. Because
they come from the communities they are working in, they understand
the pressures on people. They understand for example that it is
often pressure from home that stops people coming to classes.”

Some of the classes are mixed nationality while others are for
single communities. Jackson says: “We try to have interpreters so
people can learn in their strongest language. It’s hard for
people to grasp complex concepts in a language they are less
familiar with.”

The first aim of the family literacy classes is to teach parents
about how children learn to read and write but they are also
accredited and matched to the basic skills curriculum. Jackson
says: “The classes are open access but we target areas where there
is multiple disadvantage. It will become obvious when people have
got basic skills needs.”

Jackson believes family learning is an excellent way in to
teaching basic skills. She says: “I don’t think people can
learn until they feel confident in themselves. Basic skills are
best learned in the context of what you want to do. Learning about
how to support their children and improving their basic skills
aren’t separable. All the activities involve practising basic
skills – reading a book to their children or making books for

However, Jackson is worried that the funding for future courses
may be tied to measured improvements in literacy. She says: “Our
courses have a very strict basic skills curriculum behind them and
parents gain an accreditation at the end. But it’s important
for us that parents enjoy playing with their children and feel
they’ve got a way of relating to them and understanding how
they learn.” Any move to introduce diagnostic tests at the
beginning of courses, which funders may be keen to do in order to
assess how much students are progressing, might well have the
effect of frightening away those parents who most need support.

And as Viv Bird, project manager for literacy and social
exclusion at the National Literacy Trust points out, the
effectiveness of family literacy projects lies not so much in
improving parents’ own literacy skills, but in boosting their
capacity to help their kids. Bird says: “Parents who missed out
themselves don’t think they can help. Parents may not have
that understanding about what to do with books. What’s
critical is showing them that they can do things around literacy
with their children, like taking them to the library and sharing

Bird adds that you don’t have to be literate yourself to
support your children. “Showing an interest in your child’s
school work is more effective than taking an authoritarian approach
to reading and homework. Even if you can’t check your
child’s homework you can still take an interest.”

“We’re looking for people who have been failed by the

The London Language and Literacy Unit (LLLU) based at South Bank
University runs a range of family literacy and basic skills courses
in several London boroughs as well as providing training courses
for family learning teachers. First level family learning courses
never address literacy difficulties directly and are open to anyone
who wants to come.

Foufou Savitzky, assistant director at the LLLU says: “We have
parents with learning difficulties who can’t count the change
to take the bus but we also have parents with PhDs. People are able
to work in whatever way suits them.

“We have lots of experiential activities so people can learn how
literacy happens for children. The parents with learning
difficulties and those who have been failed by the system often
have an understanding of things that people who have sailed through
the system don’t have.”

The LLLU teacher training model has an international reputation
and has been put into practice as far afield as Norway, Mali and
Tobago. The basic idea is to recruit parents who missed out on
education themselves but have an aptitude for working with people,
to become family learning teachers.

Savitzky says: “We’re looking for people who have been
failed by the system but have demonstrated that they have
understood the concepts and are very committed to education. They
are people who’ve left school without any qualifications but
have a great deal of ability and a lot to give. “

The parents as teachers (Peachers) course is run two days a term
over two years. Trainees also spend three hours a week assisting on
family learning courses as volunteers.

Savitzky says: “It’s through the practice that people make
sense of the training. Trainees often get paid work at lecturer
rates before they complete the Peachers Course.”

LLLU graduate Sandra describes her transformation from school
phobic to family literacy teacher:

“I had one child at school and was unemployed when I got the
letter about a family learning course…

I went to it because it was held in a play centre at my
daughter’s school – I didn’t have to travel to a
college, it was free and I didn’t feel like I had to commit
myself to anything. When I first went along it was practical
sessions so I didn’t feel like I had to write or spell… I
didn’t feel like everyone else’s ability was more than
mine, we was all in the same boat… The deputy head teacher
would come into the playground when parents arrived and tell
everyone about the course and encourage us to join in. If she had
inspectors or visitors she’d say, ‘These are my best
parents, they’re doing this course for the school’. It
made us feel good.

“When the course finished the teacher asked me if I would stay
on and help with year four. After that I was employed by the school
to help children with their SATs in year six. Then I started
working for the LLLU running the course Helping my Child with
Reading and Writing. At first when I was working with parents they
didn’t see me as a teacher but as another parent. It worked
because they saw me as one of them, not as a snooty teacher.”

Source: From Rees, Savitzky and Malik (eds) On the Road:
Journeys in Family Learning
, London Language and Literacy
Unit, 2003

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.