Much research has shown a relationship between increased risk of low literacy achievement in young children and the low socioeconomic status of families (Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998). The question arises as to why this relationship exists. One suggestion is that there may be mismatches between the literacy practices of school and the home environment of children in these families. Further, the types of literacy practices required in the 21st century have become extremely diverse. For example, the term `literacy' now includes the use of electronic devices such as computers with CD ROMS, interactive facilities and global connections, and low-tech approaches such as video tapes and audio books. However, as Topping (1997) has pointed out, in areas of relative socioeconomic disadvantage there may be no computers in many homes. This will have implications for young children living in certain communities, as literacy is socialised in the community of the literacy learner.
In this article the importance of family literacy in the early development of literacy skills is examined in terms of some recent research on the topic. Some differences between home and school literacy practices are examined, and the benefits to schools of supporting the home literacy practices of the school community. Finally, the implications for schools of family literacy programs are articulated in terms of some recommendations in the Australian National Literacy and Numeracy Plan (DETYA, 1998). A recent study conducted with parents of young children at a school in a low socioeconomic area in Western Australia (Jayatilaka, 1998) will be referred to in order to illustrate concepts.
Family literacy: The current literature
Topping and Wolfendale (1995) admit that defining family literacy is difficult and that the term embraces more than the amalgamation of the concepts of `family' and `literacy'. Some of the literature has attempted to define the parameters of the field (Barton, 1995; Cairney, 1994; Morrow, 1995). However, the concept of family literacy has changed over the past 15 years, with an increase in the amount of research and debate conducted on the topic. Barton (1995) comments that the term `family literacy' can mean different things for different groups of people. He is concerned that the presentation through media channels of specific, narrow images, such as parents reading to young children, has resulted in a lack of clarity about what is meant by family literacy. While adults reading regularly to children is an important aspect, the concept of family literacy itself has a much broader understanding.
Cairney (1994) defines family and community literacy as `the literacy practices which occur within the context of both the family and community'. A literacy user will give and receive assistance during literacy activity with both family members and the wider community. Barton (1995) explains this by saying that everyone in a western society participates in some form of literacy activity, that literacy learning is lifelong, and that family members do not stop learning different ways to use their literacy skills just because they are not the generation attending school. He adds that, because families are infinitely different, literacy learning within families, community, and classroom cultures happens in many different ways. Further, McNaughton (1995) has examined the role that families play in the socialisation of young children and notes that part of this socialisation process is the use of those literacy skills appropriate for the family group. Socialisation is achieved through a series of experiences and opportunities for `purposes that have to do with [each family member's] role within and outside the family'. Through these family activities McNaughton claims children `develop ideas and values about literacy practices and activities and their personal and cultural identity' (1995, …