Rosa Roman dreaded visits to the doctor’s office, recalls Sandra Cespedes, who became Roman’s English instructor at a New York City school for adult education.
“She [Rosa] was telling me that with sometimes going to the doctor, she would request an interpreter because she didn’t feel safe,” Cespedes said. “She was afraid of having the doctor and messing up the interpretation or translation.”
Roman didn’t only have her own health to worry about. She had a young daughter named Evelyn. These kinds of fears about completing daily functions led Roman to enroll in classes at Literacy Partners.
This program focuses on “the literacy and language skills and confidence that students need to navigate New York City’s subways, schools, banks, and health care system,” according to the Literacy Partners website. It also emphasizes family learning — “imparting the skills parents need to promote their children’s language and social-emotional development.”
Educators and advocates say that increasing adult literacy will improve educational outcomes for children and families. Adult literacy statistics are not compiled frequently in the U.S., but the most recent survey from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003 showed that 30 million Americans had a “below basic” literacy level. Literacy Partners estimates that more than 2 million adults in New York City are functionally illiterate.
In that state, new funding streams are being directed toward this problem. New York state allocated $1 million in additional adult literacy funding this year, and New York City is allocating $12 million in adult education funding.
The idea that all parents should be teachers to their children was not always popular, but is gaining traction.
“There was a time when parents were discouraged from helping their children with school work,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education and the founding director of the Center of Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “That is no longer the case. Now teachers look to parents for all the help they can provide.”
“Parents can be very effective teachers of their own children,” Shanahan added. “Research is clear that parents can have as much impact on children’s learning as teachers do. However, parents often need some guidance and support to provide this kind of assistance to their children.”
A 2015 research review conducted at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, gathered 14 research studies showing that parent involvement had a positive impact on children’s reading acquisition. The review also found that training parents to teach their child to read was a more effective intervention than training parents to listen to their child read.
Of course, parents like Roman cannot teach their children how to read if they, themselves, cannot read.
Literacy Partners takes a dual-generation approach by partnering with early childhood education programs to offer the opportunity for parents of young kids to obtain a high school equivalency degree. Parents in the courses regularly take up an activity that their children choose to do and report on that action in class, according to Cespedes.
According to results published on Literacy Partners’ website, the school’s approach is paying off: 62 percent of the school’s parents read to their children more than three times per week. Also, the children of the school’s students closed about half the achievement gap that existed between them and their peers, advancing from 66 percent of the average achievement in their Head Start classes to 83 percent of the average.
The school has also developed a program called “Books of Their Own,” which helps parents build a home library to read with their children.
“Parents start to read basic books with their children and it brings them joy,” said Lionel Quellette, director of programs at Literacy Partners.
Additionally, students may borrow local library books. In Roman’s case, her first library card was the key that opened the door to a new world at the Langston Hughes Library in Queens, New York.
“All I remember is that she [Rosa] was really excited because of borrowing books,” Cespedes said.
As a result of the skills Roman gained and the message she sent to her daughter Evelyn about reading, Cespedes expects great things from Evelyn.
“She will eventually learn much, much faster because she has that good start, that connection with her mom,” Cespedes said.
Clarissa Hamlin is a freelance journalist living in New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in English, and wants to report on social issues especially related to vulnerable children. She wrote this story as a student in the Journalism for Social Change online course.