Susan Neuman


Susan Neuman  N E U M A N.  University of Michigan in Anabor, Michigan.

There are many definitions of family literacy, um some are as simple as um working with adults in adult literacy skills as well as uh working with children and have and encouraging parents and children to work together.  There are more um inclusive definitions which we might call, including 4 different parts which is involves adult um ESL, uh bilingual or uh GED kinds of training, there are um uh activities with children or early childhood education, there’s parent child interaction time as well as parent discussion time.  All of these things are generally included in family literacy.

I think they should think about um when considering uh a family literacy program I think they should consider um the context.  In other words where are they working, who are they working with.  Uh one of the things that we’ve learned so poiniently so very often is that we have to be sensitive to our participants who are our clients more or less and you know what that means is the first thing that they need to understand is what do these families want, what do they need, and how can we best serve their needs.  If we come with a canned program, what I mean by that is something that we’ve read and just planned to integrate in that community.  It will not work.  So the first thing that’s essential is what do the needs of the community, what are the needs of the community, and what how might we best serve them. 

Um I’ll give you an example from my work, uh I’ve done a number of family literacy uh programs.  Some uh with fam uh with teenage mothers and I find that teenage mothers we often assume that teenage mothers don’t know very much about child development.  But very often teenage mothers have in fact become teenage mothers because their parents were also teenage mothers.  What that means is that they do have a lot of uh practice in tending to children and working with children already.  If we provide if we give them um family literacy programs that suggest that they know very little about children and very little about child development, we diminish their already existing or already under uh knowledgeable understanding of children, child development.  So in those cases what we need to do is strengthen their own confidence in what they are already doing.  And give them an opportunity to talk.  One of the things we recognize for example with teenage mothers is their often socially isolated.  So we needed to provide them a time where they could come together and talk about their children and enjoy them and not feel guilty.  Alright.  Another kind of program um I’ve run in a bilingual community and um one one of the things I’ve recognized is that I needed to provide materials in both Spanish and English.  And provide an opportunity for those parents to decide what language they felt stronger in in working with their child.  The importance was to work with their child, not to suggest that one language was preferrable over another.  So those are the kinds of adaptations that we need to take into account.

Well one of the keys of early literacy one of the keys that we’re trying to promote is adult child interaction in language.  It doesn’t matter what language that is.  What matters is the conversation that that child gets and the kind of language they receive from the parent.  So whether that language is Spanish or whether that language is Vietnamese it doesn’t really matter in those early years.  What matters is the foundation of language itself.  The other thing that we’re trying to promote in the early literacy and family literacy is the kind of interconnections that parents make with their children.  For example they parent have a very rich background and history with their child therefore they are likely to know the child’s history and what the child comes with.  That’s why parent and children interaction is so potentially rich, because that parent has the background, they have the the context, and they have the ability to connect the background and the context with the future.  So in other words when we use uh storybooks with parents what we suggest is use what is most comfortable for you.  Because really the storybook is only the context which will promote that kind of conversation. 

Well that’s uh a wonderful uh question about conversation and the kind of quality of the conversation.  One of the things that we’ve done with um parents is we’ve used a number of different kinds of storybooks to inter to encourage different kinds of interactions with children.  So for example one of the interactions that parents especially parents who who are new to English have is we use uh predictable storybooks and predictable storybooks are easy to relatively easy to use with young children because they almost promote conversation without having to try very hard.  So the predictable language will be include um chiming kinds of behaviors from the child, in other words they’re repeating in their whole constructing language along with the storybook.  While that’s wonderful kind of language it is um a low cognative demand language.  And what we mean by that is the child is just in encouraged to participate but not really to think new ideas and thoughts.  So chiming is wonderful.  At the same time it promotes a phonological awareness type skill, but not a narrative skill.  So one of the things that we will often do with parents is after they feel a little bit more confident in using that kind of language we’ll encourage a more complex story.  So that now we’re getting into recall and we’re finally getting into bridging.  Now bridging is actually complex behavior because what it does is they encourages the parent and the child to talk about the storybook and to take it beyond that storybook to events in the child’s life.  And that’s the quality of the conversation which becomes more abstract and more high level.

Well recruiting is a a critical part of family literacy but I would like to add not only recruiting but retaining.  And one of the things that we find is important to recruiting is frankly as uh uh white woman in um uh different kinds of context very often I’m not the best recruiter.  What I need to do is use other people in the community that are much more familiar with parents to recruit those parents.  So in my own experience, what I’ve done, is I’ve encouraged the teacher to help me recruit.  Now I’ve encouraged the parent outreach or community outreach person to help me recruit.  But I’m the one who helps to retain.  The way I do that very often is I encourage a social interaction, I become very familiar with parents.  By the end of my family literacy kinds of programs they don’t call me Dr. Neuman they call me Susan.  And what that says is that I’ve established a personally connection, I care about them, and they begin to care about me.

There are a number of ways I encourage um parents to become part of these family literacy programs.  First thing I think that they’re very knowledgeable.  And I behave that way.  Very often they might not know about literacy but they know a whole lot about a other things.  One of the insights as I um have uh worked with teenage mothers is that I’ve found that they might not know about literacy and schooling and I can help them there.  But they know a lot about care taking and care giving.  And so there’s an assumption that they come with a rich funds of knowledge that I can learn from.  The other thing that I think is extremely important is that I always ask them how they what they want to get out of this program and how I can promote their own learning.  For example one of the things that we did in one of our local programs is they were very concerned.  One of the reasons they wanted to know about literacy is that frankly the government, the local government, was not being very sensitive to their needs.  they had trash problems in their neighborhood and they couldn’t get anybody to come and pick up some of the blight and the trash.  I asked them do you vote?  And they said I’ve never voted before because I don’t feel comfortable in voting.  So I help them in the family literacy program to learn how to vote.  And I said by voting you become a voice and when you become a voice you are listened to. 

Guided participation is a a form of interaction which assumes that we do more or less a fore step um kind of approach.  It’s almost um uh for those people who may not be familiar it’s very Vagotskian.  And what it assumes is that as part of guided assistance what I have to do in working with a child and in a family literacy situation is I have to set up or really create a situation which is comfortable for parent and child to interact.  I then have to give meaning to that situation so we’re working together on a storybook one of the first things a parent wants to do is find out and work with a child what is in that book, how can I give meaning to that that story.  And sometimes that means only giving meaning to a particular page you know you don’t always have to do and work with a whole story.  The sad but the third thing we have to do is we have to begin to really help the child and um and interact with the child and let the child begin to take over.  And then the fourth stage is to help them step back and provide an opportunity for a child to do it on his or her own.  So the guided participation really involves more or less four step uh promotion where the uh parent has the control in the beginning and she gives increasing attention to the child and what the child is learning and finally letting the child do it on his or her own.

Well I think when we talk about the parent I talk about investing in two generations at a time.  that we cannot promote children’s literacy without also promoting a not only the literacy of the parent but also the attitude that literacy is very important.  And so part of what we’re doing in family literacy is suggesting that’s a very useful activity in the parent’s life as well as the child.  So one of the things I think is very apparent or important in family literacy is not just saying read to your child on a regular basis.  But all the activity that is associated with literacy, the talking to the child, the taking um involving children in your daily life makes life more pleasant for the parent and makes their connection generally much more close in the long run.

Ok that’s a um it’s a long question to think about a child’s development and from birth to eight.  But one of the things that we think about in early literacy is that literacy begins at birth.  It is not something that we begin later on in life.  And it begins very often, I have a grandchild and it begins and I see it already happening, he’s a he’s three weeks old and his eyes are beginning to fix on his mother in a very special way.  One of the things that we recognize is those little coos and those lovely sounds from the child are the child’s beginning effort at communication.  And the communication with the parent is the first um signs of interaction and communication um where the child expects uh response from the parent.  That those conversations begin the process of a lifelong uh effort toward literacy.  What the child will begin to do very early in life is uh after that communication it’ll begin to very often scribble and and try to communicate with their parents generally in um in in scribble like form.  And they’ll begin to recognize signs in their environment and they’ll see that those black squiggles actually mean something.  That’s very impar important for a parent to validate and say oh look you’re trying to communicate with me.  Or if a child says oh gosh that’s McDonald’s and a parent will say oh yes you can read isn’t that wonderful.  Now the fact of the matter is the child is not reading in those early stages, but the child is saying I am trying to make meaning.  And the parent must validate that and say yes that’s important.  And of course as the child begins to develop they’ll look at letters and it’s also important for a parent to say those letters are important in your life and let’s sing the alphabet song and enjoy the song.  Um so the child will begin to learn the alphabet and will begin to through the sounds develop a vocabulary and I cannot say that anything is more important than the vocabulary and the experiences that parent involve children in very early in life.  That vocabulary begins to become enriched when children go to storybooks.  So storybook experiences um in events and activities um functional activities where parents take their children to the grocery store, to the bank and they give them evidence that literacy is important, those are all some of the important precursors to development.

Oh we love literacy albums.  Literacy albums are like can you image family albums only here we’re promoting, we’re showing the child’s nassent uh efforts at literacy with their long term efforts.  One of the things I’ve documented even in my own child’s literacy is their first recognition that uh print had meaning.  And so family literacy albums are actual documentations of the children’s developing sense of literacy.  How the squiggles become letters, how the letters become words, how the words become sentences.  And increasingly as those sentences occur the pictures become fewer, the words become longer and so our family albums are documentations of the child’s emerging sense of reading and writing.

I hope there’s hope.  Um well when we think about socio-economic status and we think about the problems that poor families often have we often neglect to understand that some of the times they don’t do what we consider in literacy rich activities.  It’s that we have to provide the environment in which to do so.  So one of the things that my own research has shown is that there is tremendous lack of access to print in low income environments. What I mean by that is there’s lots of print in in the actual environment, in the United States we are literally flooded with print, but when we think about the importance of storybooks we need to help parent we need to provide those storybooks for parents.  Much of much of my research for example has shown that when we provide parents with opportunities, and what I mean by opportunities are storybooks, are places where they can do activities with their children, we find that they naturally do them.  We don’t have to teach it, they want to do that.  But the lack of access often prevents them from doing um activities.  So one of the things that teachers and community workers need to think about is how can we provide parents with books, with books that are beautiful books, that are high quality, that really promote language for their children. 

Books make a huge difference in children’s lives.  Books are the centerpiece of literacy development.  They’re where children develop vocabulary, they’re whe whe where children develop increasing vocabulary over the course of the year.  Um there is no other mechanism in which children learn better than the book.  Um it’s just essential.  One of the things that we’ve recognized is that children need to see books so we talk about theory of proximity and psychological proximity.  And what I mean by that is all children need to see libraries, they need to see libraries in their classroom, they need to have books in close proximity to them in their home.  They need to also have psychological resources to promote those books.  For example access to books is not enough.  What we need to do is have the parent be more knowledge about how to bring that book to the child, what kinds of conversations are critical, um in those book conversations.  So we need books and we need knowledgeable parents.

Well one of the things I I again I one of the things I recognize is that um parents know uh a great deal about their children and what I have done I’ve done uh a number of book clubs uh in much of my research where I bring parents to uh to their school, their child’s school, and one of the things that I do often is I feed the parents.  Um it’s very food is very central to our coming together and I wa in our working with parents.  One of the things I often do at the very beginning is I take a book and I work with parents and I say let me tell you what teachers will give to those children when they when they talk about a book.  Now notice when I I promote books that way I’m not assuming that the parent should do the same.  What I’m doing is giving parents a a key to what is going on in the classroom and what children will be um expected to learn.  And in doing so the parent often loves that because what they’re saying is oh this is what the teacher’s doing with my child.  It gives me an insight.  Now when I say to the parents alright knowing that that kind of interaction is going on in the classroom what can you do in the home.  So in other words I give it I I ask open ended questions of par uh about books with parents.  How would you promote um a discussion with a child?  How would you extend um information from this book with your child outside of uh the classroom?  So in other words I expect that they have the funds of knowledge and that they can tell me rather than me tell them what to do.

Well I I guess I would use some of my favorite research because no one no one has any academic could give you a different list of what makes a difference or what literacy research has made a difference.  I can say to me that the research that has made the most difference is Keith Stavach’s research as focus on a number of key elements.  And let me just focus on what those are.  One of the things that Keith Stavach noted is that print expose is critical in the very beginning of children’s lives.  Print needs to be in close proximity to children very early because if not a nasty cycle happens where we call it the Matthew effect.  Where the children who are exposed to print in uh become familiar with print, they become familiar with the sounds of letters, and they often become sensitive to the phonology of print.  And that phonology enables them to eventually learn phonics and those phon those children who know phonics are likely to know words faster.  And thus begins a cycle where they are learning about words learning about sentences and now want to read and are excited about that.  Now the other part of the cycle’s those children who do have limited access are therefore come with lack of words, lack of interest in reading, and therefore the cycle um goes down and the spirilling goes down.  So some of that research of the Matthew effect has had a lasting impact on on me.  The other thing that Keith Stavach says and that is which is remarkable to all of us who are getting older in life is that there’s evidence that the more you read through out life the more you learn and the more you know.  So he has shown evidence of increasing IQ over the years of those people who read on a regular basis.  So knowledge and learning are continuous in life and that is a very important message.  The other key um research that has personally made a great deal of difference to me is Connie Jewel’s work.  And what she essentially says that if a child does not come with some of those important things I’ve just mentioned they are likely to to be behind and unfortunately stay behind.  And those children who are behind will often never catch up.  So these beginning years are so critically essential to me.  The third piece of research is something that many educators are not familiar with.  And that is Christopher Jinx and his work on inequality.  And he says generally that the schools don’t and this is perhaps uh a discouraging message but the schools don’t pro don’t often help us in terms of long term catch ups.  It’s what has occurred in the home that matters most.  So that the more the families can do, the more that child’s literacy can be enriched, not only now but for a lifetime.

The ecology of literacy really focuses on the environment and the potentcy of the environment.  Um I use a word that some people don’t often like but I’m going to use it again and that is the environment has a coercive effect.  What that means is that if you put children in a playground, they play.  If you put children in um a in a a gang hangout they they do that kind of activity.  If you put them in a library they act library.  So they ecology of literacy very often says that we need to create environments that promote the kinds of behavior that we believe important are important.  So one of the things I’ve noted as I’ve worked very much in cities in urban context and I think one of the things that often we underestimate is the power of the library for young children.  You put them in that context and by golly they read.  And what we need in those contexts is their natural um inclinations to read.  We need the knowledgable other than to scaffold them and to say to those children who are beginning to struggle in reading you can do it.  You are capable and I expect you to do challenging activities.

We need to leave no child behind.  Um um one of the wonderful words that California is now using is every child a reader, every child a name.  And we need to think that every child is an individual and they are needs to be left no one behind.  And what that means is that everyone in our society whether it’s the parent whether it’s the teacher whether it’s society leader, must take that seriously.  And we need to make every community worker a literacy teacher because what will happen is if children do not know literacy they will not succeed in our society.  And we need to be very sensitive to that.  Every child I’ve ever met can con can achieve.  Let me just give you a little hint that uh what I’ve been doing in some of my research that is so poinient to me I’ve been focusing on young children who are precocious.  And a lot of these children are precocious at 3 and 4 years old but when they come from high print and high SES environments they’re likely to stay precocious throughout a lifetime.  They have the social network, social structure that allows them to continue to achieve even through out their lives.  I’m looking at 3 and 4 year child year old children who are also precocious readers who come from low income environments.  They don’t have the neighborhoods that sustain that kind of activity.  Nor do they have the schools that they deserve.  And what will happen is those children will over time no longer be precocious.  And that makes me terribly sad.

Well I’m glad um we talk about the moral and ethical uh issues of literacy.  Because one of the things I think has been very damaging is the reading wars in our world.  That we have over overwhelmingly taken a relativist view of literacy, and that is wrong.  Um our children, we have put in place in our country standards, outcomes, assessments, and in my perspective that’s a wonderful thing.  Because we’re saying that all children need to achieve all children can achieve and we now have the kinds of structures to say what is achievement.  So in other words instead of some of these awful political battles we’ve been having we need to get on you know the the on with the case of saying that we really need to make sure that all children achieve that it is important.  And that that there is um there is a benchmark, there is an outcome and that’s important.

The relative standpoint says oh there are many different kinds of literacy.  There are multiple kinds of literacies and in other words if I I speak in one way which is non-conventional that’s fine because it’s a form of literacy.  If I believe that literacy achievement is not important but I believe that um I have a right uh and it’s very important for me to express my own kinds of literacy then that is fine.  No, there are standards of good literacy.  We do need to demand of our children that they not only invent their spelling but they spell correctly.  We need to say that there are standards that are um conventional and we need to acknowledge them among our children.  We have a generation for example of children who do not spell well.  And the reason I believe they do not spell well is it was ok to not spell well.  Well you know what, it’s not ok.

Oh I love play, I love playful literacy environments both for children and adults.  One of the things I do generally in my graduate classes is when I want to explore ideas and have fun with ideas I say let’s play.  What I mean by playful learning environments is that children can feel free to not necessarily have the correct answer that they need to engage with ideas.  One of the fun things that you’ll see and you’ll see if you ever watch this new television program called Between the Lions which really parents and children should see it’s on PBS stations all across the country, but what they do is they play with language.  Scribble fibble, you know they enjoy language.  And one of the things we learn, we know is that when children are playful they laugh, they explore, the risk, they approximate, and all of those activities give them the idea that language is fun, that language is something to play and enjoy.

Well literacy objects as cultural tools comes from a very Vagotsky perspective and what we mean by that to Vergotsky an object was a representation and if we have a representation of something, especially in our culture, let’s say just a representation of a telephone, um a telephone is a cultural object that we believe is important in our society.  So when we talk about literacy objects as cultural tools in the very early environments what we do is we put a lot of those objects in the context of uh playful environments for young children.  And we encourage children to gage engage with them.  And what we not is that for 3 and 4 year old children that tool will provide then with an almost scaffold of of what those kinds of activities mean.  Later on those tools are no longer as important because the child will have taken that in and inter-personalized it and become a representation of the real thing.  So cultural tools at the very early stages are pivots which remind children of the actual objects which they can then internalize as language later on.

Well I guess uh oh I’ve spent 10 years working on television and the effects of reading achievement on television.  And um one of the things that uh I recognize is that number one television is an important um media medium in children’s lives.  That when used well with parents it can be a wonderful opportunity for parent child interaction in language.  And that for young children about two hours of television is actually a positive thing because it promotes language and ideas.  Um over time with something like television when it’s watched six hours is a uh is unfortunately is a um uh something that children that children use because they have nothing else in their lives and it becomes a very negative phenomina.  So what I’ve done is I’ve examined television over many many years and I’ve recognized that it’s not the bad thing that everybody says it is.  It can be a good thing but stop picking on television, there’s some wonderful things on it and parents and children and teachers can use it.

Well captioning is now one of the things that we did as um a result of our research on captioned television is now you probably know that every television has a chip that allows it to become a caption medium without any additional money or any additional um result.  Uh one of the things that we recognize is that captions are very useful for children who are learning a language and for parents who are learning a language.  Um what what they often do is they watch the television set and they read selected words of captioning.  What we found is it’s not a linear process.  They go between the picture and the print.  But the print will will help them um in terms of the comprehension of what they’re seeing and hearing.  It’s a wonderful language mechanism. 

Well I’ve I’ve done a great deal of work on looking at captioning only in English.  I’ve never looked at captioning in another language.  But what we find with captioning in English is that um children will use words for example they’ll heel they’ll hear a discrepent word, a word they’ve never heard before.  You know they, they’re just beginning to learn the language and they’ll quickly look at that word in captioning.  And they’ll begin at to at least once to begin to recognize that word.  They’ll need many many more repetitions of that word in order to actually learn it.  One of the things we all c we also recognize is when the context of the picture differs from the words they actually see, it’s very confusing.  When the context of the picture is congruent with those words, it’s very pleasing. 

Oh one of the things we recognize and answer, when I think about video and it’s relation to young children it’s very often I want to think practically about parent.  A parent is going out or is not available.  Uh one of the things that we recognize is that videos can be a wonderful way of telling stories to young children.  Videos control the television set.  So the more parents can use videos that are appropriate for young children, the more they can really um encourage more storying from children and that’s a good um mechanism for literacy development.

I work extensively with head start teachers and um one of the things that a head start teacher said to me if I do not talk in ebonics to parents, if I do not talk in ebonics to children then children will not understand me and I cannot become close to those children.  And it was very interesting, this was at a conference.  It was very interesting that other African American teachers and parents stood up and said no.  the way in which to enhance the literacy of our children is to help them move toward standard English.  Please do not take away their culture of power.  The way in which children become powerful as well as their parents become powerful is when they learn the culture of power.  The culture of power says that we need to speak in standardized forms.  So even in my own culture, I come from a family where there was a great deal of Yiddish spoken, that Yiddish is still spoken in those families and when I go back to my families I love hearing that language.  But it’s our family language, it’s our cultural language.  And when I go outside I use the standard language and the the fact that I’m bilingual in other words I can speak in multiple communities, makes me so much richer.  So I do not denegrate in anyway the kinds of languages that parents speak amongst themselves or in their own cultural communities in fact I think that’s very very important.  But I suggest that those parents as well as those children need to speak in multiple communities, to multiple communities.  And that they will not be taken seriously unless they do so.

Well I I guess to some extent I say that I would like to say that we’re we’re at a very good point um in uh literacy development in this country.  that I think that some of the language of accountability that I’ve heard in recent years I know is not popular among teachers.  I know it’s not popular among many um children and older children, I believe it’s important.  I believe that te that we need to hold teachers accountable, we need to hold teacher educators accountable, we need to hold children accountable.  And I think that we’ll begin to say that what we want to do is we will move and and work with you but that you have a responsibility as well to learn about literacy because literacy is the key to learning, then we will have more success.

I think standards are very important because when I come into a job I say tell me what is privileged.  Tell me what I need to move toward.  I’ve been working very hard for example with pre-k standards, pre kindergarten standards.  Now I believe even at pre kindergarten we need to hold children and teachers to some standards.  Standards provide us with a mechanism for knowing what we need to move toward.  They but they’re not enough.  In other words what we need to them do is we need to look at our curriculum critically and say does our curriculum move us toward those standards?  Then at the same time we need to do a whole lot of other things.  We need to say is our standard in line are our assessments in line with our standards? So that we are all speaking on one page.  The other thing of course is we need professional development which help teachers move and see that those standards are are something that are helpful to the teachers and not a hinderance to what they need to learn.  So I think that we’re moving in a very positive direction.  I can tell you as the director now of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement that we will hold and we will stro strongly argue that standards are moving us towards achievement.