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Family literacy: One district's approach to ELL instruction

literacyWith over 37,000 students, almost half of whom speak a language other than English at home, and 30% of whom qualify as English-language learners, Oakland Unified School District needed a way to better support their students, and their families. In this interview with SmartBrief Education, coordinator Sue Pon discusses the Family Literacy Program and shares lessons for other school districts.

The Family Literacy program provides parents both ESL and computer literacy skill building. By integrating them into the school environment, parents have access to the same tools and resources as their children, allowing them to learn the language alongside their children. Today, the Oakland Family Literacy program is a component of the Oakland Unified School District’s plan for a full service community school that supports the whole child -- both in school and at home.

A research-based approach

Research shows that proficiency in reading and literacy in general is incredibly important to students’ overall academic success. According to a study released by the National Institute of Health in October 2010, “[a] mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income … Programs to improve maternal literacy skills may provide an effective means to overcome the disparity in academic achievement between children in poor and affluent neighborhoods.”

Successful literacy program will develop parents’ functional English language skills that relate specifically to their involvement in their child’s education and academic improvement. By focusing on strengthening the literacy skills of parents, Oakland enables them to better engage with their children and assist in their academic progress to ensure success within the American school system.

With this approach, the Oakland Family Literacy Program has seen great gains in parents’ English reading skills. In 2012-13, approximately half of the parents completed a level of the National Reporting System roughly equivalent to one K-12 grade level.

Integrating technology into instruction

With technology becoming an integral part of children’s learning, the program integrates technology into parents’ learning so that they, too, will know how to use the same technologies as their children.

Instructors in the program incorporate technology such as PowerPoint, projection and audio/video recording in the presentation of course content. Some Family Literacy classes are offered in computer lab settings, allowing parents with varying levels of English to use 21st century technology to develop their reading fluency, enhance their ESL learning and encourage the use of online parenting resources.

Technology has enhanced the ability to reach all learners at all levels. Personalizing instruction through the use of digital tools increases the engagement of English-language learners and helps them succeed.

Transitioning to the Common Core State Standards

The transition to the Common Core presents family literacy programs with the opportunity to further coordinate and align parents’ learning with children’s learning.

In 2013, one of Oakland’s top priorities in implementing the Common Core was engaging in academic discussions. Teachers integrated academic discussion strategies into their classroom instruction and modeled instruction for parents to have discussion with their children at home.

Another focus in transitioning to the Common Core was reading complex academic texts with comprehension. Part of the curriculum was to integrate the use of the myON literacy program to develop parents’ awareness and understanding of leveled reading within the Family Literacy program, both for their own learning as well as their child’s. This access to digital content allowed parents to become more cognizant of their child’s Lexile level and grade level reading ability. Parents were also able to leverage their access to the program in their homes and became more engaged with their children’s reading.

Explore additional resources

The Oakland Family Literacy program rallies others to join the literacy cause by exploring potential partnership opportunities outside of their immediate surroundings. For example, the Oakland Technology Exchange West is able to offer qualifying families a free home computer. Additionally, the Oakland Public Library offers free access to computers. It was a win-win situation for Oakland to turn to their neighboring community businesses to gain support for their program.

Presently, the Family Literacy program is integrating more technology into their program and exploring distance learning to supplement classroom instruction. With the hope of dedicated adult education funding in California, the program hopes to expand the Family Literacy program in Oakland to more families.

Family literacy should be viewed as a support system not only for parents, but also for their families as a whole. Design a program that frames adult education in support of children’s learning outcomes. Incorporate appropriate technology and don’t hesitate to reach out to your community for assistance.

Sue Pon coordinates the Oakland Adult & Career Education program in California. She has developed programs to help parents build their English language and technology skills in order to better support and advocate for their children. Contact her via email at sue.pon@ousd.k12.ca.us.  

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