Literacy Center of West Michigan says the family that reads together succeeds together

For children to succeed in school and become great readers, they need excellent teachers and lots of exposure to words. But what if a child can't get help with homework or is missing out on bedtime stories because a parent has literacy needs too? With its Family Literacy Program, the Literacy Center of West Michigan aims to increase the English fluency of parents and caretakers -- and the benefits boost the reading scores of the kids in the family at the same time.
Most news about literacy these days centers around a statewide push to ensure more Michigan third-graders are proficient in reading – an initiative which, at first glance, may not seem connected to the adult-centric programming provided by the Literacy Center of West Michigan. But while the center also does plenty of work with adults who have a need for English language services through its one-on-one tutoring program, it's quietly contributing to an increase in child literacy through its Family Literacy Program as well.
Glenda Moran completed the program a couple of years ago at Burton Elementary. At the time, her son was new to the school and Moran struggled with fluency in spoken and written English. "We're both going to learn English," she told her son, and she says the fact that she was at school while he was at school made the whole experience more comfortable.
That's no accident, says Dan Drust, FLP program manager. "It really builds the idea that the family belongs at school," he says, adding that a good body of research shows that a child's potential for academic success is correlated with parents' academic achievement. Indeed, research overwhelmingly concludes that literate home environments have a large impact on reading proficiency. "So the family literacy model is centered around dual generation learning and family engagement: parents or caretakers are seeking education, children are receiving education, and we facilitate learning between the two generations."
The program, which annually enrolls 200-250 adults total at eight schools in Grand Rapids Public Schools and Godwin Heights Schools, meets on a weekly basis for the duration of the school year right in the local elementary building. Twice a week for two hours, parents and caretakers dedicate most of their time to English language instruction, taught by AmeriCorps service members, and reserve an hour a week for what Drust describes as "parent time: how do you advocate for your child's education, games you can play . . . It's about parents being their child's first and best teacher and making sure they are equipped to do that." Classes are offered either right after the morning bell for the stay-at-home crowd or in the evening, with childcare provided, for those who work during the school day.
At the heart of the program are monthly family activity nights at the school, where the adult learners and their children share a meal together and participate in a literacy-based activity – simple crafts, songs, games or poems that are easily replicable at home. "We try to do it in a way where you could easily take these skills that we're doing and import them into the home or into different contexts," says Drust. "We say, 'This is something you can do at the beach, at Meijer, at bedtime; these are just things that will get you using language.'"
Moran remembers the community support during the program as crucial to her increased confidence, saying the supportive environment and creative activities not only enriched her understanding of different cultures, countries, and languages, but also helped her fluency in spoken conversation. "I'm more fluent, but I also feel more comfortable so I don't have to be shy," she says. "I can help my son with his homework and actually I got a job in his school. I'm the Schools of Hope Coordinator and a paraprofessional and I work with the kids."
Drust says many parents report wanting to be able to help their children with homework, and part of the Literacy Center's job is to listen to those kinds of concerns. "So if it's 'I don't know what this homework sheet is about' or it's 'I want to ask questions at parent-teacher conferences but I don't know how to articulate it' or 'I took my kid to the pediatrician but I don't know what they're trying to tell me' . . . We can bring them into the school and facilitate pathways so they can understand what their kid is doing at school and why."
The program, says Drust, was born out of the third grade reading research, which is why the FLP is only done in elementary schools. Both anecdotally and by looking at the data, the Literacy Center knows that this kind of work with families is helping children become more proficient readers. Without intervention, studies show by the age of four, a child of a low-literate parent will have heard 32 million fewer words than a child of a literate parent.
"Through data-sharing with the schools we're in, we capture their literacy test scores. We compare FLP students to peers across the district. We've also looked at people who have expressed a need for the program but didn't get it compared to those who did follow through, and we see FLP participant's children are meeting their reading growth goals at a higher rate," Drust says.
So though the program is geared towards adults and benefits them in all sorts of ways, the Literacy Center is also aware that 3rd grade reading levels are tied to the number of words a child is exposed to in early years, something that can be challenging in non-English-speaking homes when a student is expected to read and write in English at school. "Kids are receiving all of these reading interventions (at school) in order to meet that mark," says Drust, "and really we focus on what parents can do at home, how they can support their child's literacy development."
"We want to make sure we're not just a supplementary intervention. We give parents tools to support their child, and we use this as an approach to the issue of illiteracy to break the generational cycle that we usually see."
Moran, whose son is now in 4th grade, says the program "changed me a lot" – but now she has a new problem: "I have to slow down because I want to talk too fast."

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.
Photography by Adam Bird
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