Language Education Policy Studies
An International Network
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U.S.- Family Literacy Programs 

& Adult Latino Immigrants 

During the past 20 years, scholarship on immigrant populations has focused heavily on the social and educational experiences of immigrant children and adolescents, especially following the groundbreaking 1990–2006 study, Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS), conducted by Alejandro Portes and Rúben Rumbaut (Portes et al, 2009).  Although less intensively studied, adult immigrants continue to need support for developing their English language skills, despite longstanding misconceptions that they are stubbornly resistant to linguistic adaptation.  Many community agencies and organizations have stepped in to provide instructional support for these adult English language learners, including non-profit community literacy agencies, religious institutions, public libraries, and public elementary schools.  Collectively, volunteer language tutors at these locations provide crucial support for immigrant community members who are often deeply committed to improving their language proficiency––both for the social and employment benefits of such knowledge and especially to support their children’s educational aspirations. 


As a whole, such grassroots programs focused on adults are an informal but often vital part of a community’s efforts to assist immigrant families who seek greater social and linguistic integration with their communities and schools.  Family literacy programs that partner with public schools have developed in tandem with the parental involvement movement, and critiques of the latter may also be relevant to family literacy programs (e.g., imposing a white, middle-class paradigm of cultural expectations on immigrant parenting).  Since these literacy programs are outside the formal, regulated structure of language education policies in public schools, they have more freedom to create programming tailored to the needs of the local community. Moreover, an important benefit of such programs is that when immigrant parents are more comfortable communicating in the dominant language with school officials, they are empowered to advocate for their children’s linguistic and educational needs.  Reforming language education policy in schools, however, is often a protracted process, one which may face multiple hurdles and forces of resistance.  Community literacy programs focused on adult immigrants can provide more immediate support for a family’s linguistic integration.  The primary drawback of these improvised programs is one common to many grassroots efforts: maintaining funding is a yearly challenge (even with the support of volunteers), and a program’s survival may depend on the continued commitment of the individual(s) who initiates it.


One reason these grassroots literacy efforts are often promoted under the label of “family literacy” is to recognize the family benefits of supporting adult literacy.  Another is that funding agencies across the political spectrum are likely to find a family focus on literacy appealing.  Some even explicitly identify such priorities in their mission, such as the National Family Literacy Council or the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.  Because family literacy programs have been developed at such diverse institutional sites by educational and community professionals with different areas of training, each program is quite distinctive.  Since there is no fixed template for such literacy programs, the articles that have been highlighted below are ones that should be accessible to both academic researchers and community educators who might be interested in initiating their own literacy programming to support adult language learners.


A few broad patterns are worth noting here.  First, women are far and away the most likely participants in family literacy programs, and their literacy needs should be acknowledged and prioritized (Cuban & Hayes 1996; Rivera & Lavan 2012; Prins et al 2009; Toso 2012; Jacobs 2014; Miano 2011).  Just as public educators avoid bringing a deficit view to ELL and minority students, family literacy programs should likewise recognize the existing literacy skills and cultural knowledge adult learners bring to such programs, especially through a “funds of knowledge” pedagogy (Iddings 2009; Caspe 2003; Gillanders & Jimenez 2004; Miano 2011).  Collaborating with community partners––including members of the local immigrant community and other community based organizations (CBOs)––before designing a program is crucial to the success of such efforts (O’Donnell & Kirkner 2014; Khailova 2012; Johnson et al 2001).  And once the program is ready to implement, organizers should not assume that recruiting participants for a free literacy program will be a simple matter (Johnson et al 2001; Khailova 2012). Recruitment can present a frustrating challenge unless a collaborative foundation with the local community has already been established.  For a more intensive account of peer-reviewed scholarship about family literacy––both grassroots programs and programs sponsored through public schools and federal agencies––the literature review and analysis provided in Compton-Lilly et al (2012) is indispensable. 


Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy (Penn State)

Annotated list of family literacy interactive websites (Goodling Institute)

American Library Association:  Family Literacy Focus (initiatives to promote family reading)

Latino Family Literacy Project

Family Literacy program at the Literacy Network (Madison, WI)


Testimonial from Cicero School District (IL), posted by Latino Family Literacy Project

Menlo Park (CA) Public Library program

National Center for Family Literacy and corporate partnership with Toyota


Portes, A., Fernández-Kelly, P., & Haller, W. (2009). The adaptation of the immigrant second generation in America: A theoretical overview and recent evidence. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 35(7), 1077–1104.


Caspe, M. (2003). Family literacy: A review of programs and critical perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.  Retrieved from


Cassidy, J., Garcia, R., Tejeda–Delgado, C., Garrett, S. D., Martinez–Garcia, C., & Hinojosa, R. V. (2004).  A learner-centered family literacy project for Latino parents and caregivers.  Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 47(6), 478–488.


Chao, X., & Mantero, M. (2014). Church-based ESL adult programs: Social mediators for empowering “family literacy ecology of communities.”  Journal of Literacy Research, 46(1), 90–114.


Compton-Lilly, C., Rogers, R., & Lewis, T.Y. (2012). Analyzing epistemological considerations related to diversity: An integrative critical literature review of family literacy scholarship. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(1), 33–60.


Cuban, S. & Hayes, E. (1996). Women in family literacy programs: A gendered perspective.  New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 70, 5–16.  


Gillanders, C. & Jiménez, R. T. (2004).  Reaching for success: A close-up of Mexican immigrant parents in the USA who foster literacy success for Their Kindergarten Children.  Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 4, 243–68. 


Iddings, A. C. D. (2009).  Bridging home and school literacy practices: Empowering families of recent immigrant children.  Theory into Practice, 48, 304–11.  


Jacobs, M. M. (2014). Literacy, education, and inequality: Assimilation and resistance narratives from families residing at a homeless shelter. Critical Questions in Education, 5(3), 172–188.  


Khailova, L. (2012). Every child ‘off to a good start’: Hispanic/Latino family literacy workshops in an academic library setting.  Illinois Reading Council Journal, 40(2), 23–29. 


Miano, A. A. (2011).  Schools reading parents’ worlds: Mexican immigrant mothers building family literacy networks.  Multicultural Education, 30–38.


O’Donnell, J. & Kirkner, S. L. (2014). The impact of a collaborative family involvement program on Latino families and children’s educational performance.  School Community Journal, 24(1), 211–229. 

Prins, E., Toso, B. W., & Schafft, K. A. (2009). “It feels like a little family to me”: Social interaction and support among women in adult education and family literacy.  Adult Education Quarterly, 59(4), 414–449. 


Purcell-Gates, V. (2000). Family literacy.  In M. L. Kamil et al (Eds), Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3 (853–870). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Rivera, L. & Lavan, N. (2012). Family literacy practices and parental involvement of Latin American immigrant mothers.  Journal of Latinos and Education, 11, 247–59.


Toso, B. W. (2012).  Educational and mothering discourses and learner goals: Mexican immigrant women enacting agency in a family literacy program.  Penn State Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy, Research Brief #8, 1–4. 



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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Garrett, Julia M. (2015). U.S. Family Literacy Programs and Adult Latino Immigrants.  In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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