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,
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.
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
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
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]
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
[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
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
[The bags] have given us great ideas on how to make reading a
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
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
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.
Barbour, A. C. (1996). Supporting families: Children are the
winners! Early Childhood News, 8(6), 12-15.
Becher, R. (1985). Parent involvement and reading achievement: A
review of research and implications for practice. Childhood Education,
Boyer, E. L. (1991). Ready to learn: A mandate for the nation.
Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Brock, D. R., & Dodd, E. L. (1994). A family lending library:
Promoting early literacy development. Young Children, 49(3), 16-21.
Cohen, L. E. (1997). How I developed my kindergarten book backpack
program. Young Children, 52(2), 69-71.
Coleman, M., & Churchill, S. (1997). Challenges to family
involvement. Childhood Education, 73, 144-148.
Epstein, J. L. (1995). School/family/community partnerships: Caring
for the children we share. Phi Delta Kappan, 76(9), 701-712.
Neuman, S. B., & Roskos, K. A. (1993). Language and literacy
learning in the early years. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Powell, D. R. (1989). Families and early childhood programs.
Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young
Reeves, A. (1995). Tote bags: An innovative way to encourage
parent-child interaction while learning a second language. In M.
Matthias & B. Gulley (Eds.), Celebrating family literacy through
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Silvern, S. B. (1988). Continuity/discontinuity between home and
early childhood education environments. The Elementary School Journal,
Silvern, S. B. (Ed.). (1991). Advances in reading/language
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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
* Arrange for reliable parents to handle check-in/check-out
* 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
* Minimize use of consumables, to keep costs and replenishment time
* 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
Ann C. Barbour is Associate Professor, Division of Curriculum &
Instruction, Charter School of Education, California State University at