Community Engagement
Faculty Opinion/Scholarship

Pre-Service Teachers Engage in Family Literacy


Lisa Laurier, Ed.D

Assistant Professor of Elementary Education, Whitworth University

Ann Teberg, Ed.D
Associate Professor of Elementary Education, Whitworth University

Pre-Service Teachers Engaging in Family Literacy
In a cozy neighborhood coffeehouse, elementary pre-service educators engage children in an art project related to the story that was just read aloud. Parents look over a packet of literacy activities for home use designed by the college students while employees serve hot chocolate, coffee and cookies. This collaboration promotes the love of reading through the monthly Whitworth University Family Book Night events at a local Starbucks.

As the Family Book Night comes to a close, the children head home clutching a project they made themselves with the help of a new friend who hopes to be a teacher someday. They have a brand new book of their own to share with family members, and the adults have new ideas for assisting their children in becoming stronger readers.

Parental Involvement
In Literacy Acquisition

Parental involvement has been repeatedly found to be a strong predictor of early literacy acquisition (Bus, van Ijzendoorn & Pelligrini, 1995). More recently it has been found that parental involvement continues to result in higher academic achievement throughout the high school years (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). Parental involvement can be characterized in many ways. Research shows that reading to children can lead to greater attainment of reading skills and increased interest in reading (Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998; Rowe, 1999). However, other types of parental involvement have begun to be studied. Baker and Scher (2002) explain that any way in which parents promote reading activity as valuable can increase a child’s motivation to read and the probability of the child reading for pleasure. Such activities include attending a story time at a library or bookstore, reading the newspaper or a magazine, purchasing books for the home and so on. Parental modeling of literacy skills is undoubtedly a significant asset to emergent readers, but parental attitude towards literacy can be an asset for a child’s lifetime. For most parents, the desire to help their child is strong, but knowing how best to be involved can be a confusing and even daunting task for many. This is particularly true for lower-income parents.

Low-income families often face particular challenges to be involved in their child’s academic success. These families may have fewer books and other resources for reading growth available in the home. The parents that head these households may have inadequate education to allow them to achieve higher paying jobs and to provide a variety of materials for modeling good literacy behavior in the home. Oftentimes, they are working very hard to survive and have less time and energy to read or talk with their children. Statistics show the results of these challenges on the academic lives of children. According to Head Start research (2005), roughly half of lower-income children starting first grade are up to two years behind their peers in preschool skills, have less exposure to books, and a more limited oral vocabulary. By kindergarten, middle to upper class children have experienced up to 1,700 hours of picture book reading while lower-income children have only experienced 25 hours of picture book reading on average. By first grade, these same children have a 5,000-word oral vocabulary versus the 20,000-word vocabulary of their more affluent peers. Looking at these statistics, it becomes very clear that failure to provide resources for these parents to help their children and to engage their interest in doing so is to consign these children to struggles throughout their academic lives. Indeed, low-income parents often have less contact with schools and teachers and need more support from the community-at-large to support their involvement in their children’s education.

With this in mind, during the spring and the fall of 2005, the Whitworth University School of Education partnered with a local Spokane Starbucks Coffee Company to create Family Book Nights. Once a month, a local Starbucks hosted the free event. During each Book Night, the elementary education pre-service teachers at Whitworth University selected a high quality children’s trade book to read aloud to participants. The children were then led through a related arts and crafts project. The adult participants were given a packet of literacy activities created by the Whitworth students and based on the highlighted book. The activities were multi-disciplinary and include a set of directions for parents and an explanation of purpose. Finally, each child was given a free book of his or her choice to take home. The books were purchased using Scholastic book points that were accrued during the year from orders made by the college students. During the event, participants were treated to free hot chocolate or coffee and cookies by Starbucks employees. The employees helped facilitate the event by assisting with the art project. During 2005, particular attention was paid to using Starbucks branches near lower-income schools as sponsors for these events. Contact was made with the school with the highest percentage of children qualifying for free and reduced lunch (94% in 2004-2005) to ensure their assistance in marketing the event to parents and in encouraging their attendance.

The Partnership
The project has grown in popularity since its inception. Several local schools and one community agency have contacted Whitworth University to request a Book Night in their neighborhood during 2006-2007. Many families have attended more that one Book Night and one family faithfully attended all of the Book Nights. These families have shared their experiences with the neighbors and encouraged them to attend the next Book Night. In November of 2005, nearly 50 children were listening and learning with 25 parents taking home the literacy packets. For the twelve-month period of this pilot program, over 200 families in the Spokane area attended a Book Night. For the final Book Night for 2005, it was apparent that the local Starbucks would not accommodate the large crowd. The event was moved to a local Community Center so as to accommodate 75 families. A book table was set-up with a variety of choices by age and genre. The parents were able to select the books for their children. Parents and grandparents consulted the pre-service teachers about appropriate materials for their children at varying levels of reading ability. The pre-service teachers were able to answer with confidence and professionalism. Parents expressed genuine appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about ways to be involved in promoting reading and the love of literacy in their homes. As the pre-service teachers reflected on the experience, they felt this added opportunity to interact with parents and the children was invaluable in preparing for their upcoming student teaching.

Pre-Service Teachers
Interacting with Parents
In fact, students preparing to become elementary teachers in the state of Washington are expected to engage in effective interactions with families to support the learning and well being of children. However, opportunities for interaction are scarce for the developing teacher as they spend limited time in the classroom prior to student teaching. Learning to help children develop as young readers is a challenge that can be facilitated by reading and instruction in methods courses; however, learning to involve parents in this development is a much different challenge that is harder to address in the abstract. Many parents say they don’t know how to encourage their children to read (Handel, 1992). This project provides a venue for pre-service teachers to practice family collaboration in fostering literacy development. As the pre-service teachers gain confidence and experience in working with parents, they will increase their effectiveness with parents in their initial teaching years. This partnership provides opportunities for the pre-service teachers to think about the needs of parents and to “plan for collaborating with families to support student learning” (Performance-based Pedagogy Assessment, 2005).

Pre-service teachers who led Book Night events during 2005 had many positive things to say about their experience. Several commented that they acquired a better idea of how to develop materials for parents to use at home to strengthen home and school partnerships. Several made mention that the process of putting together the activity packet helped them to recognize the degree of specificity required when sending home work for parents. Without exception, the pre-service teachers commented, “It is becoming more and more obvious that parents play a significant part in their children’s education, and it is important for teachers to foster a relationship that will benefit children” (Session leader 1, 2005). Several made comments such as this one: “I realize now that small things such as this event can make a big difference in people’s lives. It is important to give your knowledge to others and they share their attention and enthusiasm with you – everyone benefits” (Session leader 2, 2005). Other pre-service teachers stated they learned that by developing community partnerships with local businesses and service groups, there is an opportunity to provide resources for families that might be outside the realm of what one teacher could do alone. One session leader stated that he had visited the Starbucks website after the event to learn how he could create partnerships for his own future classroom. This same session leader summed up the purpose of the Book Night projects well when he said:

I think it is important to participate in the community whether or not the kids attending go to my school. It is through events like these that some children get hooked on books and reading. This event let me reach out to the community and provide an example that some time and effort can make a big difference in the lives of others. (Session leader 3, 2005)

Rationale for the Project
Joyce Epstein, a noted educational researcher from Johns Hopkins University, identified six types of parental involvement that can impact a child’s academic achievement (1996). Two of those types form the basis of the Family Book Night Project. Specifically, Epstein noted that learning at home is limited for many families simply because caregivers do not know how to help. Learning at home is best enhanced when families are provided with information about how to help their students either with homework or with other curriculum-related ideas. The Project sought to do this through the activity packets and by providing current information on literacy to parents through informal exchanges with the college students that occurred before and after each event.

Collaborating with the community is another type of parental involvement that is often given inadequate attention. In this type, resources and services from the community are harnessed to support school programs and parent involvement in student learning. Starbucks is committed to this kind of community engagement and mandates community outreach activities for all of its branches. Indeed part of Starbucks’ mission statement specifies their intention to participate in building stronger communities. Their community and social responsibility programs encourage employee participation in school and literacy programs and in funding provided by the Starbucks Foundation for projects aimed at improving literacy skills among low-income children (Starbucks Foundation, 1997).

The Family Book Night project benefited from this commitment in the use of Starbucks facilities, employee volunteer time, and donated food and beverages. The choice of Starbucks as a venue provided participating families with the feeling that both adults and children were getting a special night out. In December of 2005, the event was moved to a community center in a lower-income neighborhood and Starbucks provided four volunteers to help man the event for 75 families and provided a toy for each child in addition to the book each received. Starbucks is demonstrating on-going support to the project in 2005-06.

The final Book Night for 2005 also benefited from support from a Whitney Foundation grant and a local Kiwanis group making this a true collaboration of community partners. Pre-service teachers benefit from seeing how such partnerships can be developed and sustained over time. Furthermore, the pre-service teachers benefit as they collaborate with parents and grandparents on literacy development. Preparation for these Family Book Nights requires that the pre-service teachers think about how to present material so that the children will enjoy it but also so the adults will learn to value reading. They must plan for activities parents will be able to understand and replicate at home. During the presentations, the pre-service teachers have the opportunity to informally talk with the parents thereby learning what kind of information is most helpful to family literacy development. After each Book Night, the pre-service teachers debrief the event as a group and each session leader completes a written self-evaluation that includes reflecting on the challenges and benefits of community engagement. This project helps the elementary pre-service teachers to think beyond the classroom and place themselves into the community as a source of support for developing young readers.

Baker, L., & Scher, D. (2002). Beginning readers’ motivation for reading in relation to parental beliefs and home reading experiences. Reading Psychology, 23, 39-269.

Britto, Pia Rebello (2001). “Family literacy environments and young children’s emerging literacy skills” Reading Research Quarterly; Oct./Nov./Dec. 346-347.

Bus, A.G., van Ijzendoorn, M.H., & Pelligrini, A.D. (1995). Joint book reading makes for success in learning to read: A meta-analysis of intergenerational transmission of literacy. Review of Educational Research, 65, 1-21.

Desforges, C., & Abouchaar, A. (2003). The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review. London: Department of Education and Skills.

Epstein, J.L., et al, (1996). Partnership – 2000 schools manual. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University.

Performance-based Pedagogy Assessment of Teacher Candidates (PPA) Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Olympia, WA 2004

Rowe, K. (1991). The influence of reading activity at home on students’ attitudes towards reading, classroom attentiveness and reading achievement: An application of structural equation modeling. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 19-35.

Snow, K., Burns, M.S. & Griffin, P. (Eds.) (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Starbucks Mission Statement (2005). Retrieved on June 27, 2005 from

Starbucks Foundation (1997). Retrieved on June 27, 2005 from

The National Head Start Literacy Corps Mission Statement (2005). Retrieved on June 20, 2005 from http://national_head_start_1_/#A2885.pdf

Back to Community Engagement Home Page >>