Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Becoming School Literate Parents: An ESL Perspective

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Becoming School Literate Parents: An ESL Perspective

Article excerpt


As more children enter schools from families in which English is not the language spoken at home, literacy teachers face the challenge of building effective home and school partnerships that foster ESL (English as a Second Language) children's literacy development. In Australia, many urban schools have a high population of non-English speaking background students. For example in New South Wales, enrolments of primary students of language background other than English (LBOTE) in 2007 represent 27.9 percent of total enrolments (see This reality presents significant challenges for the learning of English and particularly for literacy learning in the early years.

Literature documenting parental involvement in children's literacy learning suggests that children with highly involved parents demonstrate higher literacy attainment (e.g. Bailie, Sylva, & Evans, 2000; Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins, & Weiss, 2006; Jeynes, 2005). Discourses of expectations of a home literacy environment often portray school literate parents who understand the literacy demands placed on their children at school; and who provide meaningful learning experiences that are congruent with school literacy practices and expectations. Such discourses about parental involvement are ideologically charged in that they imply knowledge of what should be read/written, what literacy events are supposed to provide a meaning rich environment for literacy development. Yet, many parents of ESL children have been engaged in and are still engaging in discourses that have different print conventions and representations. Thus it is reasonable to expect that these parents bring a different set of cultural resources for making sense of the language demands of school literacies and appropriate ways of supporting their children's literacy learning, which may not coincide with what school expects of a parent literate in English. It becomes imperative then that we understand how parents of ESL children negotiate their understandings about school literacy so that they might support and engage with their children's learning at school.

While some studies to date have focused on intervention programs as a way to increase parents' participation in their children's literacy learning (e.g. Axford, 2007; Bailie, Sylva, & Evans, 2000; Woolley & Hay, 2007), there are few studies that inform schools of how ESL parents learn how to engage with and support their children's school literacy and ultimately, how this process becomes one of reciprocity between parents and school. Thus this paper explores one ESL parent's negotiation of understandings about English school literacy, with implications identified for a more comprehensive study that takes stock of the relationships between ESL parents and school.

Becoming literate--a sociocultural perspective

This paper views literacy as social practice that is shaped by sociocultural settings in which literacy is used (Freebody, 1992; Freebody & Luke, 1990). Sociocultural studies of literacy have revealed the various forms and functions of literacy across diverse social, cultural and linguistic settings (e.g. Cassity & Harris, 2000; Heath, 1983; Kennedy-Williams, 2004; Minns, 1990). This body of research has important implications for how educators view relationships between home and school literacy experiences and call upon educators to think broadly about literacy in ways that 'recognise the multiple language and knowledge systems of multilingual and multicultural communities' (Jones Diaz & Harvey, 2007, p. 212).

A literacy as social practice perspective challenges literacy stereotypes that sometimes have been inferred from home literacy studies conducted in white Anglo-Saxon middle class homes (e.g. Clark, 1976; Holdaway, 1979; Taylor, 1983), such as the notion that all children are read to, that literacy only involves print-based written language, or that story reading is the only means by which children learn to be literate before schooling. …

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