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'Literacy Is The Key'

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Every time I think of walking in the school door, I get sick to my stomach. The idea of going back there for any reason terrifies me.

This statement reflects a fear held by one of the hardest-to-reach segments of the adult population--undereducated parents who believe they can never be part of "the system." It is this segment that family-literacy programs try to reach.

Parents in such programs are among those who need help most: About 81 percent receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, 91 percent are unemployed, and 84 percent have no high school diploma. These adults rarely respond to conventional appeals for parent involvement in their children's education: parent conferences, P.T.A. meetings, or other school volunteer activities.

The National Center for Family Literacy focuses on the needs of these parents and their children and helps instructors and teachers become skilled at identifying and building curriculum around those needs, rather than recommending the use of already developed "one size fits all" programs.

Family-literacy programs provide literacy instruction for parents, developmental experiences for their children, time for parents and children to share learning experiences, and time for parents to discuss experiences with each other. Through this approach, parent participants are able to meet their own educational goals and express individual concerns and problems.

This shifts the focus of parent involvement from one that entices parents to come into the school to learn to be better parents to one that directly appeals to their educational and personal needs. In this way, parents build their own self-confidence, begin to develop a positive attitude toward education, and begin sharing the joy of learning with their children.

Recent research has shown that the family-literacy approach is helping move the nation toward the goal of parental involvement. In the most recent study based on information from family-literacy programs in Atlanta, Rochester, N.Y., and Richmond, Va., improvements were substantial. Parent/child book-reading time increased by 70 percent; parents took their children to the library twice as often; children's reading of books increased by 80 percent; and parents became increasingly aware that their children learn better through activities and play. Another study showed that, among parents who had completed the program, as many as half were still actively involved in their children's elementary school two to three years later.

The goal of parent involvement is ultimately to connect the home and the school to insure that every child is successful and that parents themselves send the consistent, positive message about education in the home. Literacy is the key to that goal: By helping parents learn, we help them help their children.

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