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Here you will find parenting articles with useful tips and strategies, links to trusted research and examples of personal experience. Some of the articles have videos that help to bring the content to life.

Family Literacy

Jennifer Hewitt Elora, ON

I’m in the grocery store. Do you notice how the grocery store is a hotbed of parents and children, talking, choosing, and negotiating like their life depends on it?  Without trying to eavesdrop, I always find myself in the middle of very interesting snippets of family time.

I was in the aisle where they keep household items – you know, the random pillows, water bottles, dishes, even toys.  Uh oh, toys.  And a mom was negotiating with her son, probably age 2.

“I want one.” The child was pointing to some teddy bears.

“How many are there?  Let’s count them.”

“One, two …” They counted them up.

Wow, I thought.  I wonder if this Mom knows that she’s using family literacy to help her child learn!  (And, possibly deflecting a meltdown at the same time!)

What is family literacy? 

When we hear the word literacy, we think it means learning to read.  But literacy is much more.  Literacy is being able to talk and write and listen and understand, use numbers, and use technology.  For example, being able to figure something out, follow directions, or look up information are all tasks that need literacy.  Literacy is the way we manage in the world.  We have skills we use to do these things.

We learn these skills – we are not born with them. And we learn these skills starting from the time we are born, when we are babies and all the way up.  So, literacy skills begin at home, and parents are a child’s first teachers.  Children then go on to use these skills to be successful at school, work, and life.

Family literacy is a name for how families do things together that start and grow these skills.

Lots of times, we learn these skills during very ordinary activities.  When families do ordinary things together, like talk, choose, and negotiate in the grocery store, children are learning! 

Parents often don’t realize that things they are already doing are helping their children learn and get ready for school.  That Mom in the grocery store was practicing family literacy with her child.  As they counted aloud together, her child was learning and growing skills.

The grocery store is a gold mine of ways to learn.  Parents can help kids learn about colours, shapes, sizes, weight, numbers, counting, prices, comparing, and of course reading.  As well, making decisions at the store helps children learn the difference between wants and needs, and learn to delay having something they want (which is a useful skill when they start school!)  These skills are all part of literacy, of being able to manage in the world.

I see parents doing family literacy activities all the time, and not just at the grocery store.

  • the dad on the sidewalk who asks his child what the word is on the stop sign while crossing the street
  • the mom at the bus stop who has her kids and their friends line up from shortest to tallest to get on the bus (stopping an argument about who goes first)
  • the parents who point out what they’re seeing on a walk: dogs, cars, clouds, leaves, birds

Even if your child is too young to answer you, whenever you talk, they are learning language skills by listening.  Your children learn so much from every conversation with you – even when you don’t know it.

I hear you thinking – what about my older children, preteens, and teens?  Family literacy is happening in the time you spend with them, too.  Whenever families do things together, family literacy is happening, and kids are developing skills that will help them succeed in the world.

Think about your family’s day: you eat, get dressed, brush your teeth and hair, pack backpacks and bags, decide pick-up times and supper plans.  You go out the door to work and school, and come back together to home and social time and play.  You are probably talking together, listening, and negotiating as you go.  Getting kids to help make supper, set the table, and clean up is basically a bonanza of family literacy (think about all the conversations you have, even the complaining ones).  Plus, with older children there are even more fun activities you can do together as a family.  Play a board game.  Watch a video together and laugh and talk about it – why was it sooo funny?!  Try geocaching!  (There’s an app for that).  Use every interaction as a way to use and develop skills: talk, write, listen, understand, use numbers, and use technology.

If parents are already doing these things, why do they need to think about it? 

Well, it’s the difference between being aware and being not aware.  Being aware of what you are doing makes it stronger.  So, when you know that all the time you spend with your child helps them build skills they need, you might look at your time with them in a new way.  You might add even more family time talking, choosing, and negotiating to your busy days.   And, you might have more reasons to pat yourself on the back as a parent (and who doesn’t like that?)

For example…

  • if the mom at the bus stop knows she is helping her children learn math skills by asking them to line up from shortest to tallest, she may use this strategy more often
  • if the dad at the stop sign knows he is helping his child learn to read, he may ask his son to find words on other signs they can figure out together
  • if parents asking teens to clean up the kitchen know they are helping those teens practice skills they will need to succeed, they may give themselves a big high five (instead of feeling completely overwhelmed by the complaining that is on the way!)

One more really fantastic thing about family literacy. It’s good for parents, too.

That’s because…

  • literacy skills grow over our whole lives, and,
  • we have to keep using them to keep them sharp (use it or lose it!)

So every time you spend time with your family, when you talk and write and listen and understand, use numbers, and use technology, you’re exercising and strengthening your own skills, too!  Kind of like a workout at the gym, but for your brain.

By the way, that 2-year old in the grocery store was so pumped about showing he could count, he forgot about wanting the teddy bear. Instead, he and his mom started counting the Frisbees …

Jennifer is the Family Literacy Coordinator for the Project READ Literacy Network in Kitchener, ON

Facebook  ProjectREADLitNetwork

Twitter @ProjectREADWW


5 Responses to “Family Literacy”

  1. Omkalthoum says:

    Wow, this proved for me that life is a big school. and it remind me of a say in my back home (mother is a school if yo prepare her well, you prepare a good community)

  2. Victorialynn says:

    Great article so many practical suggestions

  3. Hayley says:

    Wow – it’s so interesting to hear about how all of our normal day-to-day activities really are teaching our children literacy skills. What a great reminder!

  4. Nadia says:

    A great reminder how we can use our family time more effectively while making conscious efforts.

  5. L. Walter says:

    This is a great reminder how we as parents are always teaching our children in a sense. Also a good reminder that literacy has so many pieces to it not just reading books. As an older adult having gone back to school you are right we never stop learning. I am having to grow my computer literacy and competencies! Eeeek

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