Policy brief brings national attention to family literacy

Researchers invited to share findings with policymakers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new policy brief out of Penn State’s Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy has identified a critical need for family literacy programs across the United States and calls for increased funding of these programs nationwide.

“For several decades, there was a strong focus on family literacy programs because they were seen as a way to help children of low-literate adults succeed in school,” said Carol Clymer, co-author of the brief and co-director of the Goodling Institute, explaining that in the 1980s, family literacy programs offered adult and parent education alongside early childhood education programming because parents were seen as a child’s “first teacher.”

“Programs would support children’s development and literacy skills as well as help parents develop their literacy and parenting skills,” she said. “This idea truly came to fruition in 1989 when Even Start was first funded.”

Even Start, a federally administered program that targeted low-income families, integrated adult education and early childhood education programs into one unified program. Parents and children would engage in various literacy activities together such as reading books and playing language games. While children were developing their literacy skills, so were their parents. The idea was that parents would practice their own reading, writing and language skills or prepare for high school equivalency tests, which would increase their likelihood to gain sustainable employment as well as help their child succeed academically.

“The goal of Even Start, and the goal of family literacy programs in general, is to put an end to the social and economic inequalities that exist in education,” Clymer said. “Without programs like this, a cycle can perpetuate and low-income families continue to get left behind by society.”

Funding for Even Start was pulled in 2011, causing most family literacy programs to be eliminated. The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) still includes family literacy as an allowable program; however, it gives states the authority to choose whether or not to fund it.

“We contacted all 50 states and the District of Columbia to see if and how they were using AEFLA funds for family literacy programs,” said Blaire Willson Toso, co-author of the brief and research associate for the Goodling Institute. “As of 2015-16, only 11 states and D.C. have specific funding for family literacy programs.”

Those states — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Wyoming — as well as Washington, D.C., vary in their funding strategies and their approaches to programming. However, there was one commonality.

“These states truly believe in and value the importance of family literacy programs,” Willson Toso said. “Research shows that family literacy programs are an effective way to increase opportunities and skills for both children and adults, especially for those who have low levels of literacy and education and live in poverty.”

Families with higher incomes, she said, are able to send their children to preschools or centers that help develop their academic skills because they have the means to do so. Research also shows a direct correlation between parental education and a child’s academic success, and family literacy programs offer the opportunity for parents and children to strengthen academic literacy skills in the context of the family.

“We also found that some states have a difficult time collecting data on their programs,” Clymer said. Depending on the funding source that is used, reporting requirements vary and since AEFLA tends to focus on adult education, there are no specific measurements for family literacy.

“Without data, you can’t justify the worth of your programming,” she said, adding that since the Goodling team completed its review, Wyoming eliminated its funding for family literacy programs. “Specific measurements regarding the effectiveness of these programs must be put in place so that state representatives can make informed decisions when it comes to funding.”

Funding and data collection are just two challenges reported by state officials. Due to a lack of resources, implementing the programs also has proven difficult.

“Even Start followed a four-component model, which many of these 11 states continue to follow, and that model can be costly to implement,” Clymer said. “To get around this, programs partner with other agencies that focus on some of those other components, such as early childhood education and interactive literacy, to alleviate some of the financial burdens.”

“One state official reported that some agencies are hesitant to partner with family literacy programs because parents are seen as a ‘high-risk’ population who may not be able to meet funder-mandated academic or employment goals in what the agencies consider to be a timely manner,” Clymer said.

“These challenges must be addressed in order for family literacy programs to continue, to be successful and to demonstrate their effectiveness,” she said. “Our paper can help increase family literacy programs’ visibility for policymakers and state administrators.”

Published in January, “Changing the Course of Family Literacy” has already caught the attention of peer organizations such as the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), the National Coalition on Literacy (NCL) and The Aspen Institute.

“NCFL has already contacted us about presenting our research at a policy briefing in May in Washington, D.C.,” Clymer said. The Goodling Institute researchers will be part of a panel that also includes other family-literacy proponents, such as NCFL.

“We will speak with policymakers about the importance of family literacy and hopefully influence them to adequately fund programming and study its value,” she said.

“We’re very excited about the responses we’ve received as a result of this paper and the positive attention it is bringing to family literacy programs,” Clymer said, adding that the paper was a collaborative effort that included Elisabeth Grinder, project assistant for the Goodling Institute, and adult-education graduate student Ruth Parrish Sauder.

“It is our goal to continue to spotlight this area of education that is too many times overlooked or ignored," said Clymer.

The Goodling Institute will host a webinar to discuss the paper and policy recommendations from 2 to 3 p.m. on March 2. For more information about the webinar, contact Carol Clymer at

Last Updated July 28, 2017