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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please see the note at bottom. For help citing this article, click here.

Research Background

My 18 years of teaching suggested that students’ learning was not determined by methods, materials, programs, or pedagogy but by the social, cultural, and economic contexts in which children live and learn. As an urban teacher, I felt the need to understand the literate lives of my students and their families in order to connect school learning opportunities with the rich experiences and “funds of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) that my students’ families possess.¹

Sociocultural theorists recognize that reading is more than deciphering words; reading is connected to social and personal activity. However, reading in classrooms, along with thinking, acting, reading, and writing are generally defined in accordance to school norms and expectations. For example, children spend significant amounts of time reading texts to answer predefined questions in particular ways.

In the present study, I adopt the concept of “discourse” to explore how reading and learning to read are situated within the families and communities of my students. Discourses are “ways of talking, viewing, thinking, believing, interacting, acting, and sometimes reading and writing” that are evident in a particular community (Gee, 1992, p. 104). For example, the way we speak, dress, read, write and act are all part of our community discourse. Only a limited number of studies have explored how discourses about literacy itself operate within particular communities. This is an important area to study because educators and community workers need to understand the literacy beliefs of different segments of society. This knowledge can be used to enrich curriculum and pedagogy that, in turn, can improve children’s literacy development.

Research Methods

The 10 children who were involved in this longitudinal study were my first grade students during the 1996–1997 school year. They attended a large urban school that served children from the lowest socioeconomic section of a mid-sized northeastern city. Ninety-seven percent of these Puerto Rican, African American, and biracial students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Every 3 years I return to interview eight students and their families.

The data for the initial study (children’s first grade year) included four semi-structured interviews with each of the 10 parents and children. Interviews focused on people's experiences with learning to read, self-assessment of their reading abilities, critical events in their lives as readers, and their feelings about reading over time. Student portfolios, audiotapes of class discussions, lesson plans, and daily fieldnotes were collected.

In the second phase (when children were in fourth and fifth grade), interviews were conducted with each parent and child. Student writing was collected and student reading ability was assessed. Field notes documented each interview and case studies were constructed for each family.

I am currently analyzing data from the third phase of the project. When the final round of interviews is completed, the students will be in 11th grade. Grounded theory methods including open and axial coding are used to identify relevant themes within and across cases.

Research Findings

The initial phase of the project documented how parents and students describe the roles reading plays in their lives, parents’ and teachers’ responsibilities for helping children learn to read, the social relationships that surround reading, and participants’ identities as readers. For example, several parents described the role of reading as helping people to “get somewhere” in terms of getting a job, being physically mobile (i.e., driving a car), or traveling vicariously through books.

The study revealed the various unquestioned dominant discourses that surround reading and explores the contradictions and complexities that surround reading practices in urban households. A major finding of the research suggests that poor urban families are often more literate than is generally assumed, and that much needs to be done to confront the myths that surround urban families and literacy. For example, I found that all of the families I worked with were very interested in their children becoming capable readers; they provided their children with books and engaged in a variety of activities to help their children learn to read.

The second phase of the study explored various discourses that surround reading and urban families. Specifically, this phase revealed the following patterns:

  • While parents were highly critical of urban parents in the abstract, when they described their own neighbors and acquaintances a much more positive picture emerged. It appeared the parents often subscribed to the same negative assumptions about urban parents that are often voiced by urban teachers.
  • Parents and children often talked about sounding out words, yet running records revealed that children rarely sounded out words letter by letter. Teachers must help all parents to develop a range of strategies for supporting young readers.
  • Although parents placed great faith in computers and technological toys, the actual computer experiences of children generally involved playing low level games or were nonexistent.
  • While parents praised the recent high stakes testing movement about keeping parents informed, few of the parents in this study actually knew how their child performed on state tests.
  • Teacher definitions of reading success often failed to acknowledge the factors that contributed to a child’s designation as a successful or unsuccessful reader.

Implications for Practice

The insights I have gained from this longitudinal research project have helped me to understand better the reading practices that occur within the homes of my students. Urban families are literate and urban children have vast experiences with literacy and language.

Preservice and practicing teachers need numerous and ongoing opportunities to communicate and collaborate with urban children and parents so that assumptions about urban families can be challenged through direct contact and the development of shared commitments to children. Preservice and practicing teachers must be provided with opportunities to

  • Reflect on their own home and school experiences to reveal privileges that they may have enjoyed.
  • Meet and talk with urban children and parents in formal and informal settings so that they can gain insight into the factors that contribute to a child’s reading performance.
  • Tour communities and witness not only the problems these communities face but also the strengths and resources that exist.
  • Attend professional and personal events in their schools’ communities.
  • Dialogue with peers to reflect critically and constructively about the ways schools define reading success.
  • Develop case studies of particular families so that the challenges faced by urban families are revealed.
  • Share case studies with other teachers so teachers recognize the variety that exists among urban families.


Gee, J. P. (1992). The social mind: Language, ideology and social practice. New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132–141.

Related Resource

Compton-Lilly, C. (2003). Reading families: The literate lives of urban children. New York: Teachers College Press.

¹ For more information on using a “funds of knowledge” approach to engaging families in the mathematics education of their children see FINE Forum e-newsletter issue 6 on family involvement in mathematics.

Catherine Compton-Lilly
Visiting Assistant Professor
Curriculum and Instruction Department
University of Wisconsin at Madison
31 Filon Ave.
Rochester , NY 14622

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