When Mothers Take Literacy Classes, Children Reap Benefits

By Peter Schmidt — September 04, 1991 3 min read

WASHINGTON--Literacy and job-training programs for low-income mothers appear to have a secondary benefit of improving the educability of their children, a study by a women’s employment group asserts.

The 18-month study of the families of 463 low-income mothers in adult-education and job programs found that 65 percent of their children demonstrated improvement in at least one of several education-related areas following the women’s participation in such schooling.

After taking part in the programs, the study found, the mothers were more likely than before to read to their children, to take them to the library, to help them with homework, and to take an active interest in their schools--activities presumed to have contributed to the youngsters’ educational improvement.

The study, released here last month, was conducted by Wider Opportunities for Women Inc., or wow, a Washington-based, nonprofit training organization. Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Inc., a nonprofit research group in El Cajon, Calif., assisted in the project.

‘Double Duty’

“What this research tells us is that even very modest investments in the training of mothers can have a positive impact on the educability of their children,” said Cynthia Marano, the executive director of wow.

“Such investments can contribute to ending the cycle of illiteracy,” she argued. “Dollars spent on such programs perform ‘double duty.’”

The study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, gathered data on low-income mothers participating in nine literacy and job-training programs across the nation. More than 900 children of these women were also studied.

All of the children were under age 16, with those ages 6 to 11 constituting the largest group.

Of the 463 mothers surveyed, more than 45 percent reported that their children had improved their grades after the mothers participated in literacy or job-training programs.

“Even though the programs had no intention in their design to influence the educability of children, that effect showed up,” said the project’s principal researcher, Thomas G. Sticht of Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences.

The children of mothers who participate in such programs, he suggested, “may be in the long run the greater beneficiaries.”

Other improvements in the performance of the children studied included:

  • Better test scores, reported by 42 percent of mothers;

  • Improved reading ability, reported by 42 percent;

  • Improved school attendance, reported by 37 percent; and

  • More positive attitudes toward school, reported by 54 percent.

In addition to the survey, the researchers conducted 48 in-depth case studies of mothers, children, and the children’s teachers. The teachers reported educational improvement in at least one area for almost 69 percent of the children in the case studies.

Issue of Working Mothers

Irene Natividad, the chairman of WOW’s national commission on working women, noted that the study has been released at a time when “it has been somewhat trendy in some quarters to blame the ills of American society on mothers who go back to work.”

“We now have documentation to show the intergenerational impact” of literacy and job-training programs, she said, adding that, “as these mothers build their own skills, they are investing in their children’s education as well.”

Ms. Natividad said the study’s findings do not reduce the importance of investing directly in the education of children, but “should be used to argue for additional support for programs targeting adults--especially mothers.”

Ms. Marano suggested that existing literacy and training programs for low-income mothers should incorporate instruction in such areas as how to read to children and how to be an advocate for children in school.

Officials of wow said they intend this fall to launch a project designed to teach the administrators of women’s programs ways to increase the intergenerational benefits of their efforts.

Copies of the report, “Teach the Mother and Reach the Child,” are available for $15 each, postpaid, from Wider Opportunities for Women, 1325 G St., N.W. Lower Lovel, Washington, D.C. 20005.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1991 edition of Education Week as When Mothers Take Literacy Classes, Children Reap Benefits,