4. Understanding and Valuing Children’s Home Literacy Environments

“Every child needs one adult that is crazy about them”.

-Urie Brofenbrenner

4.1 Introduction

4.2 Family Role in Literacy Development

4.3 Understanding Families’ Diverse Social Contexts

4.4 Working with Families to Promote Literacy


Opening Vignette: A Tale of Two Teachers

Head Start teachers, Jane and Mallory, are attending a professional development workshop. The first session of the day, “Early Literacy and the Home Environment,” presents the attendees with strategies to support families’ home literacy environments. The presenters encourage the participants to utilize tools such as a home literacy screening inventory to determine which families might need additional support. During the discussion they highlight the value of literacy rich home environments where parents or caregivers regularly share books with children. The presenters conclude the workshop by emphasizing the implications of early home environment on a child’s language and literacy development.

After the workshop, both Jane and Mallory have time to reflect on the content and their own literacy experiences. Jane experienced a very traditional middle-class upbringing. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom and she has vivid memories of her mother and father sharing books with her. Their home was filled with literacy materials and her parents often read for pleasure. She even remembers the excitement of the day she got her first library card.

Mallory had a very different early literacy experience. Mallory spent most days with her grandmother. Their days were spent baking treats and tending to the garden. Mallory has memories of her grandmother telling her stories. The stories were sometimes based on their faith, and at other times they were full of magical creatures in far away lands. As a teenager Mallory learned that her grandmother could not read. This explained why her grandmother filled their days by telling stories, rather than reading books.

4.1 Introduction

It is well-known that parents and caregivers, and the home literacy environment they create, directly impact a child’s emergent literacy development (Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006; Waldrep, 2005). Beginning at birth, children acquire language and emergent literacy skills within social contexts. The opening vignette demonstrates the beauty of language and literacy development in different homes and family environments. Emergent literacy skills are shaped by the home and preschool literacy environment (Saracho, 2017). Children enter school contexts with a wealth of language and literacy experiences from the home and community contexts they experience. It is important to use a strengths-based perspective when considering the differences in family literacy practices. In doing so, educators guard against deficit perspectives that may privilege some literacy experiences over others. In the opening vignette, it might be easy to conclude that Mallory entered school with vulnerabilities based on family structure and her grandmother’s literacy level. Yet, Mallory’s family’s rich oral storytelling practices supplied her with a wealth of knowledge about narrative styles including plot, theme, and character development. In addition, Mallory has learned a great deal about how to create dialogue in a way that captures a listener’s attention. Jane’s experiences in a book rich environment also provided her the opportunity to see reading as a source of pleasure. Although Jane and Mallory had very different early experiences, both children entered school with a love and eagerness for literacy. Both educators realized that the workshop had presented an incomplete view about how home environments can support children’s literacy development. Early childhood educators are tasked with the responsibility of celebrating the individuality and strengths of each child and their family. Partnering with families promotes a strong foundation for successful literacy learning. In order to do this, educators must recognize there are many contexts and methods in which families transmit and share in literacy experiences.

Two teachers stand in the classroom looking at a clipboard one of them is holding.
Early childhood educators collaboratively plan literacy activities.

This chapter will explore the following questions:

Branch from the Nested Literacy Model Figure 1.1 What role does a child’s family play in literacy development?

Branch from the Nested Literacy Model Figure 1.1 How do families’ social contexts differ?

Branch from the Nested Literacy Model Figure 1.1How can educators in early learning settings work with families to promote literacy?

Branch from the Nested Literacy Model Figure 1.14.2 Family Role in Literacy Development

Family literacy development refers to parents and their children using literacy practices and strategies together at home. These literacy experiences are usually informal and occur within the context of the normal family routine (Wasik, 2012). These experiences, compounded daily, support the influence of the family on a child’s literacy development. Many decades of research support the vital parental role in nurturing a child’s literacy development. Consider the literacy-rich moments illustrated in the exchange between Ava and her father getting ready to go to the store.

Vignette: Grocery Store Trip

Two year-old Ava is happily drawing a picture while her father is creating a list for the grocery store. Her father mentions that he is planning to buy grapes at the grocery store. Ava proceeds to scribble across the paper and exclaims, “I added grapes to my list, too.”

This scenario demonstrates the value of an everyday interaction that takes place in many homes. The daily conversations and interactions between children and adults in the home provide models of how people use reading, writing, and language to engage with the world. Every day parental interactions create opportunities for adults to model literacy skills. Early childhood educators have the responsibility to honor the language and literacy expressions present in families’ daily lives. When early educators focus on developing partnerships with families and champion the role of the family as a vital space for meaningful literacy interactions, they help promote family literacy.

4.2a The Home Literacy Environment

The home literacy environment is ordinarily defined as activities facilitated by family members at home that relate to literacy learning, and literacy resources in the home combined with parental attitudes towards literacy learning (Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006). Home literacy environments include practices such as shared picture book reading, storytelling, conversations and singing songs. Literacy contexts reflect multiple variables and include a child’s interests, library experiences, and how parents and children enact a variety of literacy practices in the home (Myrtil, Justice, & Jiang, 2019). Bronfenbrenner’s human ecological theory suggests that children must be understood in the context of their families and communities (Rosa & Tudge, 2013). The ecological environment is a set of nested structures, each couched inside the subsequent one, similar to a set of Russian dolls where each doll of decreasing size fits inside the next. The innermost setting would include the developing child and their immediate setting, likely home and classroom. Bronfenbrenner’s approach closely matches the nest model, where not only is the child considered, but also the immediate environment and the wider context.

A parent and two children are sitting at a fountain. The parent holds the book in front of one of the children while the other looks on.
Sharing books with children is an important way to promote literacy in the home.

More recently, the concept of funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) acknowledges the influence of the household and community. Funds of knowledge encompass families’ traditions, experiences, information, and practices. When educators and supportive adults establish a relationship founded on the common goal of successful and healthy development of the child, it supports the aims of cultural responsiveness, equity, and inclusion. For example, when a child shares their enthusiasm for a television program their family is watching together, it draws upon many of the child’s own funds of knowledge. While the child is drawing on a shared family and cultural experience in the show itself, the child is also engaging with notions of occupations and outings, values, chores and activities and vocabulary. A child’s experience shopping at the grocery story is another example of funds of knowledge. A child may learn about quantity, money, shopping practices, cultural norms around food, and patterns of interacting, all while learning and practicing signs and symbols. Drawing on socio-cultural perspectives, educators embrace the funds of knowledge children possess utilizing these resources and skills to build productive pedagogy. In this way, educators acknowledge that every child comes to school with previous experiences that influence their interactions with language and support their emerging literacies.

The home environment of each family is complex and personal, and includes economic, social, and cultural influences. The complexity of home and community environments explains the diversity we see amongst school readiness nationwide. The home literacy environment, parental expectations for their child’s literacy success, and parental characteristics are influencing factors in literacy development (Senechal & Lefevre, 2002). Ideally, prior to entering kindergarten, children have the developmental precursors for reading well-established. This includes skills children learn from shared book reading and oral storytelling experiences, exposure to rhyming structures, and opportunities exploring alphabet material. Literacy development is “rooted” in experiences young children have prior to formal schooling. These informal literacy experiences take place daily in the home environment and involve interactions with caregivers. Examples include caregivers reading to children and an emphasis on environmental print. The caregiver might point out a word or sign to the child. It could also sound like a family member singing a familiar song with a child, making up silly words that rhyme, or saying the letters in the child’s name.

4.2b Literacy Materials and Experiences

There are many ways families engage in early literacy experiences in the home. Research studies demonstrate the strong relationship between school success and early literacy exposure. Children who enter school with foundational literacy skills will likely have success in formal schooling. Children’s access to diverse literacy materials in the home encompass a range of resources that promote children’s interactions with print. Literacy materials include children’s access to print based materials such as books and magazines as well as access to a variety of writing and drawing materials that children can use to generate print. The influence of technology is also situated in this arena. Digital media offers children additional ways to interact with text and acquire literacy as they read, play, or otherwise explore words and sounds. Children’s interactions across a variety of literacy materials supports their emerging knowledge about literacy practices.

Reading aloud has long been touted as an important practice to encourage literacy development. Educators and parents have long known the positive impact of sharing books with children. Positive interactions between children and caregivers that include picture book reading promote language skills and vocabulary development (Wells, 1985). Additionally, research suggests the way in which children are read to is related to their language gain. If children are given opportunities to be actively involved in the reading experience, for example, asking questions about the pictures, children show greater gains than when an adult simply reads the book (Whitehurst, et al., 1988). While this finding is valuable for educators to consider, the mere value of reading to a child should not be understated or undervalued. Providing children opportunities to engage with books in various ways and settings, including school settings, encourages positive feelings related to literacy.

Books offer children and families intentional and focused opportunities to share, discuss, and experience reading together. It is important to note the emotional connection that is facilitated by sharing a book with a child. This connection is valuable for development, but also for the pure joy of learning to love books and the experiences they create. Books are also used to teach young children skills and to provide understanding of topics that may be difficult to discuss. Shared storybook reading provides an avenue for language learning, offering exposure to new concepts, ideas, and vocabulary that might not be encountered in everyday conversation. This learning occurs both through the text and the talk that is facilitated around the text by the caregiver and child (Brannon & Dauksas, 2014).

Sharing books is not the only way to support literacy development for young children. People use stories to learn about curricular concepts, share life experiences, and capture the imagination. Culture and history are, in part, transmitted through story. Storytelling is frequently described as an oral language activity, but the presence of gestures and physical expression are also an important part of storytelling. Moreover, storytelling can also take place through the use of signing, gestures, picture cards or props, and assistive technology. Storytelling is an important expression of symbolic thought as children or adults use language to convey information beyond the present moment or situation. Additionally, it allows children to gain insight into the world of communicating ideas to an audience. Children’s response to stories is both social (Alexander & Levine, 2008) and cognitive (Lehne, et al, 2015). Speakers practice story concepts such as sequence and structure, dialogue, and vocabulary. Storytelling allows children to process emotions and find their voice.

Parents read with their child.
Sharing books with children provides a strong literacy foundation

In addition to reading aloud, sharing books, and storytelling, families can also build strong literacy experiences through everyday conversations. Chapter two introduced the idea of “serve and return” and the five steps in facilitating serve and return interactions with young children. Engaging with children regularly using these steps is an integral component of supporting language development. Children successfully acquire language through consistent experiences and opportunities with adults they love and trust. When a young child babbles and an adult responds appropriately, connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication. Much like a game of volleyball, the back and forth interaction is both rewarding and capacity building. Responsive caregivers provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences to build language and literacy knowledge and skills.

Pause and Consider: How Does Our Own Literacy Background Influence Us?

Our early literacy experiences influence how we think about children’s home literacy environments. This includes previous experiences with family members, teachers, friends, and how our time and physical space were structured. Whether it is conscious or not, we are accessing our own memories. Did you have a family member who was a great storyteller at family gatherings? Did you have access to books? Were you read to? What was your own pathway to reading like? Our personal literacy journey is shaped by these early and formative experiences. Take a moment to consider the following questions: What were your personal home literacy experiences? How do you think these experiences supported your literacy development? How do your previous experiences impact your perception of what you believe families should provide to the children you are educating today?

Branch from the Nested Literacy Model Figure 1.14.3 Understanding Families’ Diverse Social Contexts

Early childhood educators must recognize the uniqueness of all cultures, languages, and communities by embracing the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity of our society. All classrooms should be seen as multicultural and inclusive, and promote equity by valuing and celebrating each family represented. This includes understanding the influence of multiple languages and dialects. These culturally responsive practices engage children and families through authentic home-school connections. As educators recognize and understand diverse social contexts, they are strengthening the effectiveness of instructional delivery. Academic progress takes place within the context of a child’s ecosystems and their development is maximized when these ecosystems are considered and respected. Diversity of social contexts is an asset to educators, rather than a barrier to appropriate development, when culturally responsive practices are implemented in the classroom.

Language development is influenced by exposure and influence within a broader regional and social environment. When considering our nest model, this means not only the bird itself, and the nest, but also the tree and even the forest. This illustration illuminates the continual theme that language development is complex and influenced by many factors. Language experiences build a foundation of thinking and understanding upon which knowledge can grow. Educators strategically craft language experiences which draw upon the life experiences of students and add to their understanding of the world. Language experiences that connect to the broader regional and social environment bring life into the classroom and make what is learned at school relevant and real.

4.3a Multilingual Learners

Support of the family context may also mean challenging our assumptions about what it means to support a child’s literacy. This is particularly true when it comes to working with multilingual learners. Multilingual learners are young children who are learning to speak their home language as well as at least one other language during early childhood (Castro, Espinosa, & Paez, 2011) or before the age of five (McManis, 2012). This can happen simultaneously, such as having parents or other primary figures use two languages. It can also happen successively, such as when children are exposed to and speak only one language at home in the first one or two years and then are exposed to another language in an early learning program (Genesee, 2010). English language learners (ELLs) are children whose native language is not English and who become immersed in an English-speaking environment (Halle et al., 2012). This text uses the more inclusive term multilingual learners, as it acknowledges that children may speak more than just two languages.

As infants, multilingual learners may appear to be delayed in their language development. They may produce language later and exhibit smaller vocabularies in either language (Hammer et al., 2014). Children who are exposed to more than one language may enter early learning programs exhibiting lower English literacy skills than their monolingual peers, but they catch up and reach the same skills level as those same peers by the early grades (Hammer et al., 2014). If educators focus on these deficits, they might miss the significant advantages that multilingual learners experience. Ultimately, children who are multilingual learners will acquire proficiency in multiple languages through ongoing and intentional language experiences in their home, school, and community environments (Castro, 2013). In other words, there is a long-term gain for language development.

Aside from language development, the acquisition of multiple languages has other benefits that support cognitive development overall. Children who are multilingual may have advantages in their capacity for attention control while working on linguistic tasks and nonverbal tasks (Barac et al., 2014). Access to working memory seems to also be enhanced, as well as a subsequent gain in executive function tasks such as planning, rule acquisition, and cognitive flexibility (Castro, 2013). It has also been suggested that bilingual children demonstrate heightened creativity and divergent thinking, probably because they are compelled to switch between two languages (Castro, 2013). Overall, there is evidence that exposure to multiple languages yields benefits for cognitive development that can be translated to other areas besides literacy.

Additionally, understanding multilingual learners requires understanding their home context. Blank (1998) suggests that children who speak more than one language might be more likely to live in homes with multiple relatives. Castro (2013) points out that while some may perceive living with multiple family members to be detrimental because of perceived crowded living situations, it is actually beneficial as children gain greater exposure to enriched language opportunities and cultural experiences. These rich opportunities to observe and participate in family language help to preserve and cement the dialogical skills that maintain it. Children who move away from using their home language to using English exclusively, tend to lose their ability to communicate in the first language and start to prefer English (Espinoza, 2013). This may depress academic achievement in English (Espinoza, 2013) and also may result in cultural loss as children lose the ability to communicate with extended family members who speak the home language.

Teachers can support families, even if they do not speak the home language, by encouraging families to continue to support the home language. A simple example of supporting multilingual learners and their home language would include making sure to pronounce a child’s name correctly (Fenner & Snyder, 2021). Research suggests that there are multiple long-term benefits to promoting literacy skills in the child’s home language, as well as English (Espinoza, 2013). Below is a chart with suggestions for ways that teachers can support English Language Development and the home language.

Strategies for Supporting Literacy Development and Home Language

  • Meet with families and gather important information about the child and family
  • Add items to the classroom environment that represent the cultures, languages, and practices of the children
  • Include books and materials that represent each family and culture in an authentic way
  • Give the parents’ opportunities to introduce key vocabulary words in the home language
  • Read stories in the classroom that represent each family
  • Use pictures, objects, and experiences to demonstrate the meaning of words and concepts
  • Use visual cues, physical gestures, and signals

Adapted from: Espinoza, L. (2013). PreK-3rd: Challenging Common Myths about Dual Language Learners. An update to the Seminal 2008 Report. Foundation for Child Development Policy to Action Brief. No. 10.

Pause and Consider: Home Language and Educator Perspectives

Read the two vignettes provided below and consider the different stances the two early childhood educators illustrate.

Educator #1

Anika’s brother regularly picks her up from school in the afternoon. On this particular day, Anika is eager to tell her brother all about the happenings of the day. She turns to him and speaking in Hindi says, “aaj hamane beej lagae aur yah bade phoolon mein vikasit hoga.” (Today we planted seeds and they will grow into big flowers.) Ms. Osborne overhears the conversation and says to Anika’s brother, “Anika really needs to be working on her English.”

Educator #2

Hugo’s dad requested to have a parent conference with Ms. Miller concerning Hugo’s language development. Mr. Lopez is concerned that Hugo is not picking up English as quickly as he had hoped and he wants to know what to do. Ms. Miller explains that it is common to have a silent period while learning a new language and the child is learning to receive the language before producing it. Mr. Lopez suggests he will start speaking only English at home. Ms. Miller quickly responds and assures Mr. Lopez that he should continue to use the home language.


Imagine the strong impact the early childhood educators had on the way each family provides support and encourages language and literacy development. Which provider is knowledgeable about multi-language learners and is appropriately supporting the family unit?

4.3b Multi-Dialectical Learners

Standard English includes the language patterns and usage of academic settings and published text. It has been codified in dictionaries, grammar and usage handbooks, and adapted by published English texts around the world (Biber et al, 1999). The usage of Standard English for written materials is relatively uniform. Spoken English, however, is less straightforward. Speech does not always exactly match what one would write on a page, particularly spontaneous speech used in informal settings. Additionally, there are important speech patterns that should be noted, including the use of dialects, which are rules-governed linguistic systems derived from another parent language, without achieving the socio-linguistic category of a language (Maldonado Garcia & Sandhu, 2015). Dialects are more complex than regional speech patterns or accents, yet are sometimes undervalued as significant, culturally bound practices. Persistent racial and classist biases work to marginalize and devalue the use of some dialectic speech patterns. Assumptions about dialects that are not considered to be mainstream or prestigious can be harmful (Luu, 2020). This text intentionally highlights African American English and Appalachian Englishes as examples of culturally significant dialects. It is important for educators to understand and affirm dialectical speech patterns as they serve an important function for group membership and culture.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a complex dialect of English that is used across the United States ( Green, 2002). AAVE is sometimes also referred to as Black English, African American English, Black Vernacular English, Ebonics, African American Language or African American Regional Language. All of these terms refer to a variety of language patterns that include complex systems for phonology (sounds), morphology (word structure and relationship), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (meaning). Some examples of AAVE speech patterns include (a) leaving out an auxiliary verb (copula absence), (b) third-person singular -s absence, and (c) invariant habitual use of the word “be” (Cukor-Avila & Balcazar, 2019). Leaving out an auxiliary verb would include statements such as, “He a football fan” or “She over there.” Third-person singular absence denotes a missing “s” where it would be expected in standard English, such as in “I run. He run too.” The usage of the “be” might include statements like “It be snowing!” or “I be playing.” There is substantial variation in the usage and occurrence of these features, including generational and regional differences; and for some speakers of AAVE, they do not occur at all (Cukor-Avila & Balcazar, 2019).

The origins of AAVE are rooted in the fusion of Standard English and African linguistic forms (Easter, 2013) and hold important cultural meaning within groups where spoken (Labov, 2010). AAVE has complex rules and language features (Green, 2002). According to Laneheart, et. al, 2015), “When speakers use African American Languages, they know a system of sounds, word and sentence structure, meaning and structural organization of vocabulary items, and other linguistic and metalinguistic information about their language, such as pragmatic rules and the social function of African American Languages” (p. 3). AAVE is used by its speakers to communicate,for social purposes, and even as a form of cultural capital (Spears, 2015). Moreover, AAVE phrases, features, and rules have been adopted into widely used, mainstream patterns of language. Luu (2020) suggests, “perhaps no other variety of speech has been quite so significant and influential to the development of standard American English” (para.11).

The term Appalachian Englishes is plural because there are different dialects, that evolved based on regions and migration patterns. Appalachian Englishes are dialects spoken in southern and mountain areas that include not only the Appalachian mountain range, but surrounding areas as well (Cramer, 2018). The histories of Appalachian Englishes are traced back to diverse groups of settlers to the mountains whose speech blended together over several centuries. Due to the relative isolation of mountainous areas, a distinct regional speech pattern, or dialect form, developed (Montgomery, 1989). These speech patterns are sometimes referred to as Mountain Talk, Southern Appalachian English, or Appalachian English. Like all dialects, Appalachian Englishes have complex grammatical features and linguistics, making them unique to other dialects. For example, the word allow is expanded to mean think, say, or suppose instead of the traditional meaning of allow. In context it might be used in this way, “He allowed he would get it done tomorrow.” Another common feature of the language is to add the sound “a” before a verb. For example, “I’ve been a-studying for that lesson.” Appalachian Englishes contain many other grammatical features and linguistics that make them unique; these are only a few. Like all languages and dialects, they have changed and evolved throughout generations. Unfortunately, there are negative stereotypes that surround the Appalachian Englishes. Dialects and vernaculars have complex grammatical features. The usage of Appalachian Englishes and other dialects is not an indicator of a lack of education, but rather demonstrates the usage of language in a way that denotes group membership, cultural identity, and the innovation of the people of the Appalachian region (Montgomery, 2004). As educators, we are charged with providing the optimal experience to foster growth and development. We certainly must use instructional and assessment practices that are linguistically and culturally responsive (Castro, 2011). Multilingual learners are acquiring linguistic and cultural gains. By maintaining a strengths-based perspective as we interact with families who speak languages other than English, we will best support the child and family.

Speakers of AAVE and Appalachian Englishes are often able to code-switch, meaning that they use AAVE or Appalachian Englishes in some settings and Standard American English in other contexts (Easter, 2013). Code-switching is common among speakers of English that also use dialects or vernaculars. Children are able to modify their language use as the circumstances require, and they learn to code-switch or style-switch by the age of nine (Snell, 2015). It is profoundly important for educators to be supportive of children’s use of languages and dialects as they serve as important cultural markers and signify group membership for users.

Pause and Consider: I Saw a Bear!

Jack entered his preschool classroom ready to tell his teacher, Mrs. Mullins, all about his weekend adventures. He entered the classroom and approached Mrs. Mullins, while shouting, “Mrs. Mullins, Mrs. Mullins, you will never believe where my granddad took me yesterday….we went way up our ‘holler’ into the woods and I saw a real live bear!” Mrs. Mullins could not help but notice his sheer joy and excitement. The class had studied bears the previous week and determined which kind of bears lived in their mountains. A teacher from outside of the region might have corrected Jack’s pronunciation of the word ‘hollow’ as ‘holler,’ but Mrs. Mullins focused on the meaning of Jack’s communication. She asked questions about the color and size of the bear, and what his grandmom had to say about this excursion. She made a mental note to talk with the children about the pronunciation of the word hollow when they learn their home addresses later on in the year. Mrs. Mullins knows this is a common word usage in the southern Appalachian region and she values the strong culture and accompanying vernacular structure of the language. She knows that children will be exposed to other language models through media, instructional materials, and her own language modeling. Mrs. Mullins knows that she will expose her students to more widely used word pronunciations, but in a way that does not detract from the contextual value by making a child feel ashamed or embarrassed. She knows it is important to preserve terms, usages, and pronunciations that are part of shared vernacular structures, as these serve important cultural functions.

Can you think of a time when you encountered a situation that allowed you to supportively affirm a child’s home language or dialect?

Branch from the Nested Literacy Model Figure 1.14.4 Working with Families to Promote Literacy

As described in Chapter 2, Bronfenbrenner’s model demonstrates the strong influence and implications of a child’s family and home environment. This is especially true when considering literacy development for young children. Early childhood educators have the opportunity to build relationships with families, support families, and engage families in their child’s early childhood experience.

Building trusting relationships with families happens over time and through a series of positive interactions. Trust, empathy, and time are necessary components of building positive relationships. When educators work to get to know families personally, culturally relevant and powerful funds of knowledge are revealed and can be used to enhance children’s literacy experiences. For example, an educator may discover in conversations with the family that a child frequently cooks with her grandmother and enjoys measuring ingredients and following the recipe. The grandmother reads the recipe and asks guiding prompts like, “Okay, let’s see what’s next.” This small insight into the child’s literacy experience allows the educator to draw the child into meaningful conversations, play experiences, and cooking experiences that build on the procedural literacy knowledge the child already knows about how recipes “work.”

4.4a Addressing Vulnerability

Some children from vulnerable communities are less prepared for the academic language tasks of school (Rivalland, 2004). Research often associates low socio-economic status with poor school achievement, including literacy abilities (Garrett-Peters et al., 2016).

Children from vulnerable communities might need additional scaffolding to bridge their home literacy experiences to expected school literacy outcomes. Poverty can create stress for young children and their families. Conditions such as food insecurity, unemployment, community violence, and inconsistent access to healthcare can impact one’s capacity for attentive parenting (Manz et al., 2010). These variables potentially affect the health and well-being of the family and (the or a) parent’s ability to consistently provide enriching language opportunities. However, it is negligent to say that living in poverty equates to poorer academic outcomes. Parents who interact sensitively with their children positively impact language development (Raviv et al., 2004). Additionally, access to high-quality early learning experiences with strong family/educator relationships supports literacy development for this vulnerable population. Adults in early care settings nurture a child’s language development by engaging in verbally stimulating interactions (NICHD Early Care Network, 2000).

When a child’s early experiences with language are limited, educators may need to develop intentional interventions to mitigate literacy gaps that, if left unattended, might result in negative academic outcomes for the child in the future. Success in educational environments is connected to strong language and literacy in the early years (Hirsch-Pasek et al., 2015; Hoff, 2013; Huntsinger, Jose, & Luo, 2016).

For children who have not participated in rich language experiences, there are long-term implications related to language competency and overall school readiness (Merritt & Klein, 2015). For example, parents who are engaging in abusive or neglectful behaviors tend to speak less frequently to their children and do not draw out conversations (Christopholous et al., 1988; Eigsti & Ciccheti, 2004). This might result in a longer lead time for children to feel comfortable or competent in expressing themselves. Linguistic deprivation may also occur with children who are hearing-impaired and do not have adequate supports, and who lack access to methods of communication (Humphries et al., 2012). Deprivation of language creates other learning problems as children might not follow typical developmental trajectories in other areas, such as mathematical reasoning (Humphries et al., 2012) and memory tasks (Newport, 1990). Any hindrance to a child’s ability to communicate impacts the child’s literacy development.

More recently, the influence of technology has broadened the definition of the literacy environment and further diversified children’s literacy experiences. During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, this diversification became keenly apparent. The 2020 pandemic demonstrated how access to technology and use of technology influences the ability of children to acquire literacy concepts within virtual settings. Some teachers held synchronous video-conference sessions, reading a story to the students in their classroom. Certainly, a familiar face reading a story fosters a social connection, provides a forum for discussing books, and creates an opportunity for developing children’s literacy. Yet, accessibility to the literacy experience for children was not equitable. Some children may not have had the opportunity to participate in the synchronous sessions with their classmates and viewed recordings of the read aloud experience. Other students might not have access to an appropriate device or wifi. A family’s economic capacity to mitigate and successfully utilize technology varied greatly, and resulted in uneven access to educational opportunities throughout the pandemic. For example, some students may have access to a device, but might be sharing this access with siblings or other family members who also need them. Parents might be able to allow a child to use their cell phone for a portion of the day, but few adults can navigate a whole day without access to their own cell phone. The younger the age of the child, the less likely they might be to have access to their own device.

Even when children had full access to technological resources, the impact of Covid-19 greatly diminished children’s opportunities to develop their literacy understandings in collaboration with their peers in play-based spaces. While read-alouds can be done via video-conference, hands-on literacy activities cannot. In-person school contexts allow early educators to extend read alouds with sensory rich literacy activities to support literacy development; these same experiences are not readily transferable to online platforms. In attempts to replicate the sensory experience at home, educators sent families recipes to make playdough at home. However, a solitary literacy activity is not the same as a social literacy activity. In this particular example, educators’ efforts were further thwarted, as there was a flour shortage during the pandemic, making a key ingredient for playdough inaccessible. This brief discussion of some of the inequities experienced by families living through the pandemic provides an example of how the use of technology can certainly be a contributor to literacy development. But, it also provides an important illustration of how context is individual and connected to the people and materials a child has access to.

As early childhood educators interact with families, they have the opportunity to make profound impacts. Children and families might have past experiences or current situations that complicate development; the educator has the opportunity to partner with the family and work towards a successful future. In order for the child to reach their optimal development, they need strong social relationships and interactions that enhance their emotional well-being. This in turn, prepares the child to grow cognitively, and enhances language development. Families benefit from community support as they engage in these tasks. Positive and consistent interactions with their child’s teacher provide an avenue of support for families. In this way, early learning settings play a vital role as community assets and resources to the family; and, they have a direct impact on children. As a greater goal, early childhood programs should work to build adult capabilities and strengthen families as they support the needs of their children.

4.4b Strategies for Promoting Diversity and Equity in Language Learning

Working with families is an integral part of being a quality early childhood educator. The profession requires us to approach families in an unbiased manner. It is important to understand what a bias is and our own “lens” or perspective from which we make decisions and draw conclusions. Implicit bias refers to unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes, and categories that affect behavior and understanding (Chin, 2020). Some examples of implicit bias that might be relevant to language and literacy are the teacher discounting the language used in the home environment or the expectation to make eye contact when speaking. Both of these examples are a result of cultural bias and are sometimes prevalent in early childhood classrooms. No one is immune from a bias; however, as a professional, there are many resources available for exploring possible bias.

Being aware of our own biases can ensure that we approach all families from a strengths-based posture and restrain from judging situations and environments that are different from our own experiences. This is an important first step in creating a climate that promotes equity and diversity. Further work should always center on continually seeking to understand how others are different and valuing differences as they relate to supporting language and literacy development. The key to promoting equity and diversity in early childhood spaces is to appreciate and respect children’s home languages, cultures, and traditions. See the figure below for additional strategies to support families.

Strategies to Ensure Linguistic and Cultural Diversity

● Involve families in your classroom

● Educate families on the benefits of mastering more than one language

● Honor family’s values and norms

● Assist families to ensure children stay connected to their home language

● Support the home language

● Provide children with many ways to demonstrate mastered skills

Key Take-Aways

Early childhood educators have an integral role to play in recognizing and celebrating the value in children’s home contexts when making intentional decisions, while being sure to capitalize on the strengths for each child and family. In recommending the integration of a culturally responsive stance, we return to Gay’s (2010) definition which explains that when students’ cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles influence our everyday instructional practices and the selection of learning materials, we are responding more effectively to learners’ needs.

Supporting families in a strength-based and culturally sensitive way is critical for creating an inclusive classroom environment and building strength-based relationships with families. The role of the family in a child’s language and literacy development is critical and individual. Early childhood educators have the opportunity to build relationships with families, and partner with them, to recognize the influential role they already play in developing their children’s literacy expressions. Celebrating the individuality of families allows educators to leverage equitable practices and nurtures each child’s unique linguistic pathway. It is imperative that we understand the diversity of families and work to build on their strengths, while being aware of our own perspectives and implicit biases. The bird in the nest model cannot survive without the support of the nest in the tree. This illustrates the vital role of families in young children’s language and literacy development.

Additional Resources 

Appalachian Englishes in the 21st Century: https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/appalachian-englishes-21st-century

Becoming Upended: Teaching and Learning about Race and Racism in the Early Childhood Classroom: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2018/teaching-learning-race-and-racism

Black English Matters: https://daily.jstor.org/black-english-matters/

Building Adult Capacities to Improve Child Outcomes: (https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/building-adult-capabilities-to-improve-child-outcomes-a-theory-of-change/)

Colorín Colorado: https://www.cal.org/

The Dialect of the Appalachian People: http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh30-2.html

Ebonic Need Not Be English: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43025634?mag=black-english-matters&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Funds of KnowledgeSurvey: https://earlyeducatorsupport.uncc.edu/sites/earlyeducatorsupport.uncc.edu/files/media/Funds%20of%20Knowledge.pdf

Funds of Knowledge: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/video/funds-knowledge-video

Implicit Bias: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

Strategies to Ensure Linguistic and Cultural Diversity: https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/diversity.pdf

Multilingualism: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/2095-multilingualism

National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Equity Resources: https://www.naeyc.org/equity/resources

National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Advancing Equity in Early Childhood Education Position Statement: https://www.naeyc.org/resources/position-statements/equity

Teacher Tips: Storytelling: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/teacher-tips-storytelling/

Virginia’s Early Learning & Development Standards (ELDS): Birth-Five Learning Guidelines.  https://www.doe.virginia.gov/early-childhood/curriculum/va-elds-birth-5.pdf

What is Ebonics (African American English)? https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/what-ebonics-african-american-english


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Image Credits

Image, Section 4.1: Longwood University. [Teachers Talking] CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Image, Section 4.2, 4.3, & 4.4: Lucy La Croix. [Branch] CC BY 2.0.

Image Section 4.2a: Joan C. Lacey. “Family.” CC BY 2.0.

Image Section 4.2b: Family First. “Black Family Photo.” CC0 (Public Domain)


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Early Childhood Literacy: Engaging and Empowering Emergent Readers and Writers, Birth - Age 5 Copyright © 2021 by Christine Pegorraro Schull; Leslie La Croix; Sara E. Miller; Kimberly Sanders Austin; and Julie K. Kidd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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