Home literacy bags promote family involvement.
A project was developed by three teachers at the Howard Early Childhood Center in San Antonio, TX, which demonstrated the importance of parent participation in early childhood learning. The teachers created home literacy bags containing different books and activities that prekindergarten and kindergarten students could take home and enjoy with their parents. Feedback from parents showed that these bags encouraged them to read to their children and helped them realize the key roles they played in their children's literacy development.

Reading (Parent participation)
Early childhood education (Parent participation)
Barbour, Ann C.
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1998 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Winter, 1998 Source Volume: 75 Source Issue: 2
Accession Number:
Full Text:
Programs and initiatives aimed at encouraging families' participation in children's learning are varied, widespread, and increasing in number.

The importance of involving families in children's learning and school experiences is widely understood. One of the eight goals presented in the U.S. Department of Education's Goals 2000: Educate America (1993) is the formation of partnerships with parents. Many research studies, numerous professional organizations, and noted educators (Boyer, 1991; Powell, 1989) have highlighted the importance of family involvement, and have underscored the key role that parental interest and support plays in children's school achievement (Swick, 1994).

Programs and initiatives aimed at encouraging families' participation in children's learning are varied, widespread, and increasing in number. Some efforts, however, are more successful than others in reaching particular families. Initiatives that emphasize classroom participation or even attendance at school events, for example, can be very effective in building partnerships. Middle-class families may be particularly responsive to family involvement opportunities of this sort (Coleman & Churchill, 1997). Other families, however, may be unable or unwilling to participate in school-based programs, whether because they are physically or culturally isolated or because they are consumed by providing basic needs. Families limited by time constraints may not respond to solicitations to become involved at school.

Family involvement, however, should not be limited to volunteering at school or attending school-sponsored events. It can take other meaningful forms. Epstein (1995) conceptualized a framework of six types of involvement, two of which are learning at home and helping families to create home environments that support children's academic progress. This broad view of involvement affirms the parent's role as the child's primary teacher, and the home as the child's first classroom (Barbour, 1996; Boyer, 1991). School efforts aimed at reinforcing the importance of parents as educators and of homes as learning environments have great potential for positively influencing children's learning. Schools should support those characteristics of family environments (Silvern, 1988).

The importance of family involvement in children's literacy development, in particular, has been extensively studied (see, for example, Silvern, 1991; Teale, 1986). Parents who read regularly to their children promote positive attitudes toward reading and reading achievement (Becher, 1985). Such one-on-one interactions are key elements of home environments that support children's learning. Frequent storybook reading enables children to learn about the functions of written language and to gain information about reading skills and processes (Strickland & Morrow, 1990). In addition, books are conversation starters. Parent-child conversations that are prompted by reading books together provide rich learning contexts (Neuman & Roskos, 1993), and enable children to extend many other understandings on personally meaningful levels.

Home Literacy Bags

One strategy to encourage family participation and engage parents in children's early literacy development is the use of home literacy bags. Home literacy bags contain collections of books, and sometimes activities, that children take home from school. The materials within the bags encourage parents and children to read books and do related activities together in a relaxed, informal fashion.

Home literacy bags appear to "reach" all families, even those that typically do not participate in school-based events. Families that lack transportation and/or child care, or whose members do not speak English or do not understand the school system, still can profit from home literacy bags. The bags put appropriate, high-quality literature directly into the hands of parents, and offer informal, interactive activities for extending children's language and literacy acquisition. In other words, home literacy bags can empower all parents to be teachers of their own children.

Individual teachers have written engagingly about their personal experiences using home literacy bags (Cohen, 1997; Reeves, 1995). The effectiveness of this approach in involving families, however, has not been studied on a larger scale. A pilot project begun in January 1996 provided an opportunity to do so.

Project Description

Three teachers at Howard Early Childhood Center, in San Antonio, Texas, initiated a family literacy program. They created 109 "B.E.A.R. (Be Excited About Reading) Bags" to be taken home on a rotating basis by 97 prekindergarten and kindergarten children. The project, as well as parents' and teachers' responses to it, are described below.

One teacher worked with 60 Title I kindergartners from different classes. Half of these children were from low-income families, and half were identified as having other risk factors. Another teacher taught seventeen 4-year-olds, all of whom met federal guidelines for receiving subsidized lunches. Most of these children came from single-parent families, some with limited English proficiency. The third teacher taught 20 kindergartners, mainly from middle-income families. Half of these children's parents were divorced, and many of these shared joint custody of their children.

The teachers separately planned and acquired the materials that would be contained in the home-literacy bags, at least one for each child. Title I money was used for the 68 bags that the Title I teacher developed. The school's Parent-Teacher Organization donated $600 each for the pre-K and kindergarten teachers to use in creating bags. The teachers used nylon gym bags, printed with the school's name and the name of the literacy program.

On average, each bag contained four high-quality children's books that shared a theme (e.g., "Shapes and Shadows," "Under Construction"), as well as one or two activities that extended the theme. The teachers attempted to include a variety of books: fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and beginning readers. The average cost per bag was $30 ($5.50 for the nylon bag, $20.00 for the books, and $4.50 for the activity materials). The Title I teacher also included in each bag two response journals (one for parents and one for children), a box of crayons, and a pen. The pre-K teacher checked out a tape recorder for the duration of the project to lend to families that did not own one, and included in her bags audiotaped readings of one or two of the books. This enabled families to enjoy the books together, even if the parents could not read them. When designing their bags, the teachers considered the ranges of their children's developmental stages, experiential bases, and literacy development. The teachers wished to provide for a variety of responses and levels of understanding.

The activities, inspired by the books, incorporated puppets, board games, puzzles, sorting/matching cards, and dramatic play props. The "Dance!" bag, for example, contained four books, a tutu made of netting, a wand, and a small stuffed rabbit similar to a character in one of the books.

An initial letter describing the program was sent to parents, accompanied by a "contract" requiring signatures from the parents, the children, and the teacher. Parents promised to spend time regularly reading to their children. Children promised to select bags, spend time with the books, and treat each bag with care. Teachers promised to "instill a love of reading" in children and to manage the program.

Teachers began sending bags home in March. Each child could keep a bag for approximately one week. Check-out systems varied among the teachers; two, however, used pocket charts and cards with names and pictures depicting each bag's theme. Children could not check out another bag until the previous one was returned. Notes were sent home if a bag was not returned or if any contents were missing. The teachers handled check-outs and returns.

Two weeks before the end of school, after the project had been fully implemented for over two months, the teachers sent home surveys to parents. The 10-question survey was designed to elicit information about families' experiences with the literacy bags. Thirty-three out of 97 surveys were returned. Each teacher also completed a 22-question survey about the project in her class. Parents' responses were overwhelmingly positive; no criticisms were voiced. One parent, however, stated that she felt uncomfortable writing in the parents' response journal because other parents would be able to read what she had written.

Teachers' Experiences

The teachers found that children were eager to take home the literacy bags and were enthusiastic about their experiences with the books and activities. The children talked about the bags among themselves. Based on each other's reviews, they began requesting particular bags. Most children returned bags on time and only a few items were lost by the end of the year.

The teachers found that parents were very positive about the project and, for the most part, conscientious about upholding their agreement to read to their children. The children's comments and parents' responses in the journals indicated to the Title I teacher that even those parents who had not read to their children before had begun making time to do so. All of the children benefited, even though, as one teacher concluded, the children who lacked "structure at home or who were in complicated dual-custody situations benefited [the] least."

Parents' Responses

Although many benefits were apparent during the project, it was not until the final days of school, when the parents returned surveys and requested specific information about the bags, that the teachers fully realized the project's positive effects on family involvement. Samples of unedited parents' comments serve as illustrations.

Parents expressed their enthusiasm for the project and for their increased understanding of the importance of time spent reading and interacting with their children.

We are always together for an hour. It's very important for us to do this all the time.

[The bags showed me that] we can read every evening.

Parents indicated that materials in the bags exposed them to the breadth of children's literature, and expanded their understanding of using appropriate activities to extend children's grasp of concepts and specific literacy skills.

There are pretty neat books out there for 5-year-olds.

Reading and vocabulary can be greatly enhanced with related activities.

[The materials showed] how to interact with books and games.

[The bags] gave me many ideas to encourage my children to read.

[My son] learned most from the more interactive activities.

Parents also learned about their own children's interests and abilities, and observed their progress in becoming readers.

[I saw] how interested Justin is in reading and learning new things.

Juanita and I really enjoyed the books. I didn't know that she was so eager to learn to read. She tries and these books helped.

Sarah beams/delights in the attention of one-on-one reading. I have really seen her interest in reading and writing increase since she started Title I. She has blossomed - the improvement is vast!

The availability of high-quality, ready-made materials made it easier for single, working parents to become meaningfully involved in their children's learning. It also helped some parents to prioritize activities that they did together with their children, and to use that time profitably. Some single fathers learned new ways to interact with their children, noting that they had never "realized how fun it is to read to their children."

This helped me spend time with my son, since I'm always working. At least with this [activity] I didn't have to plan each evening what we were going to do to spend time together.

As a single parent, when working full-time, it is difficult to read 5 books in 5 days, but I feel 5 books in 5 days is certainly a minimum as my child is beginning to read, no matter how difficult it is for me.

Sharing the books and activities in the bags became a family affair - siblings, grandparents, and other family members began taking an interest.

[The bags] have given us great ideas on how to make reading a family activity.

It was an enjoyable time to have all the family participate. We all took turns, even my older children.

I have four kids. Melissa is on her way - your way. But she learning a lot. But Juan learn a lot too. And we all learn a lot. Thank you. You done a great job.

All my children enjoyed these activities. My 1st-grader was able to read the majority of the books to the younger boys. My pre-K child enjoyed all of the bags, whether we played tapes, games, or planted seeds. My 4-year-old speech-handicapped child enjoyed sitting and listening. He was interested in almost all the bags but some were difficult for him. I felt that this was a great home activity for the family.

This project empowered parents to become teachers of their own children, and encouraged them to provide home environments that support children's learning. Both are important ways for parents to become involved (Epstein, 1995). While the bags' materials initially were intended to promote children's literacy development, it was evident that the materials, as well as the structure of the project, also provided for parent education. One parent's comment summarizes the potential of home literacy bags.

I have learned how important the role of a parent is in encouraging a child's interest in something.

One mother, who had not participated in school events, including parent-teacher conferences, did, however, return a completed survey. In response to the question, "What kinds of activities did you and your child enjoy doing together most?," she wrote, "Everything." The teacher of this parent's child said that the parents' responses to the home literacy project "were the most affirming event of my year."

The Title I teacher summarized her view of the project's impact on parent involvement thusly: "I feel I've truly touched lives and made families feel closer with this project."


As the parents' and teachers' survey responses indicate, the family literacy project based on home-literacy bags at Howard Early Childhood Center was successful in promoting family involvement in several ways. First, the literacy bags reached all families, including those who had not been involved in classroom or school-based activities. While there were undoubtedly variations among families in the extent to which materials in the bags were used at home, all of the families participated.

Second, the bags encouraged family/school partnerships that promoted children's learning. They provided continuity between home and school. Their use enabled parents and teachers to share curriculum-related interactions with the children. While the project's primary goal was encouraging parents to facilitate their children's literacy acquisition, it also provided concrete means for doing so. In other words, the project engendered mutual family/school support. Partnerships were further implemented through ongoing communication, related to the bags, between teachers and family members. For example, response forms included in the Title I bags required parental feedback.

Third, the project not only allowed all families to become directly involved in their children's learning, but it also affected parental attitudes and behaviors. The bags encouraged parents to view themselves as teachers of their own children, and reinforced the importance of that role. The materials in the bags modeled appropriate, interactive means of providing literacy support and fostering children's learning. The very fact that bags were sent home with all children sent a clear message - that every family, regardless of configuration, circumstance, culture, level of parental education, or background experience, can be equally helpful in "motivating and reinforcing" children's learning (Epstein, 1995).

Fourth, the project encouraged parental interest and support. Parents learned more about their children as learners, and experienced the positive influence of their own participation and interest. In addition, the project prompted some families to establish regular reading routines. If continued, such patterns of parental involvement can benefit children's learning in the future. Home literacy bags are one effective strategy individual teachers can use to involve all families in supporting their children and school efforts.


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Tips from Teachers

* Take a lot of time to prepare and organize.

* Make sure the items in the bags are replaceable.

* Enlist parents' help in making activities and response journals.

* Arrange for reliable parents to handle check-in/check-out procedures.

* Include ideas for extension activities (conversation starters, places to visit, words to fingerplays and songs, recipes).

* Use several means to keep track of the bags' contents.

* Allow children to check out a new bag only after all items in a previous bag are returned.

* Be flexible in the lengths of loan time, depending on children's interest.

* Minimize use of consumables, to keep costs and replenishment time low.

* Keep costs low - each bag can be made for as little as $15 if used books or book club selections and bonus points are used.

With gratitude to teachers Susan Wilson, susan Peery, and Liz Mendenhall, and to the children and parents at Howard Early Childhood Center.

Ann C. Barbour is Associate Professor, Division of Curriculum & Instruction, Charter School of Education, California State University at Los Angeles.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.