Vol. 2. No. 2 R-5 September 1996
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Immigrant Learners and Their Families

Gail Weinstein-Shr & Elizabeth Quintero (Eds.) (1995)
McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics & Delta Systems Co., Inc.
Pp. viii + 164
ISBN 0-937354-84-8 (paper)
US $13.50

Although the term "family literacy" has almost become a buzzword over the past few years, there are very different perceptions of just what it involves. In many family literacy programs, the schools identify learner problems and set learner goals, then ask the family for support. In what Auerbach (in her chapter in this volume) calls the "transmission-of-school-practices" model, schools are seen to be doing everything that is necessary; all that is needed for success is family support for school practices at home. Such programs emphasize the importance of families helping with homework and engaging in school-like literacy tasks with children.

The authors and editors of Immigrant Learners and Their Families take a more participatory view of family literacy. Instead of the schools telling families how to support school practices at home, the learners themselves are involved in identifying both their strengths and their needs, developing the content of the curriculum, and extending literacy outside the classroom through activities that are meaningful to them and their families. The chapters in this volume show how intergenerational and multilingual family literacy programs establish links between cultural knowledge and practice of immigrant families and the learning and use of literacy.

The book is divided into three sections. Section one focuses on collaborative program design for family and intergenerational literacy programs. These programs, which emphasize the importance of parental involvement in children's schooling, the development of positive attitudes toward reading, and the incorporation of literacy into family and community life, acknowledge the difficulties faced by immigrant families but at the same time emphasize the importance of building upon their existing knowledge and skills. The four chapters describe (a) school, community and home-based family literacy programs in California; (b) successful strategies for achieving collaboration within a family literacy program in Arizona; (c) a program in Philadelphia which pairs college-age volunteers with non-English-speaking refugee and immigrant elders; and (d) family collaboration for literacy development within a third-grade classroom in rural New Mexico. This section is of particular value for program planners as the authors describe the struggles encountered by participants, staff, school administrators and community leaders as they learn to communicate more effectively and negotiate ways of working with one another. [-1-]

Section two opens with a chapter on changing perspectives on family literacy in which Auerbach questions many of the assumptions that underpin current "deficit" models of family literacy programs and suggests counter-evidence in support of programs which build on the strengths of their participants by encouraging their input into the development of curriculum and materials. The three remaining chapters describe how different programs go about the collaborative construction of curriculum, including (a) a process writing approach which extends literacy to action both inside and outside the classroom; (b) a family literacy curriculum developed with input from participating parents and children; and (c) the development of community literature through storytelling in an urban literacy program. This section should be of interest to both planners and teachers, as the approaches described here could be adapted for use in a variety of literacy programs.

Section three takes a broader look at the challenges ahead. Weinstein-Shr discusses the linguistic, educational, religious and social diversity among immigrant adults and emphasizes the importance of learning more about those who are served by literacy programs and examining the effects of those programs on the quality of life of children and adults outside the school. Quintero suggests that successful family literacy programs require respect for alternative ways of knowing and the kind of collaboration that results in a multidirectional transfer of knowledge. For those involved in the planning and administration of immigrant literacy programs, the most significant chapter in this section would have to be Wrigley's "Evidence of success: Learner assessment and program evaluation of innovative programs." In this chapter, Wrigley confronts the thorniest issue of all: finding ways to assess and evaluate collaborative language and literacy programs. Because the very nature of these programs requires that objectives and goals change over time, the effectiveness of collaborative programs cannot be measured by the traditional method of comparing program objectives and program outcomes. For programs in which both curriculum and learner objectives emerge as the program is implemented, Wrigley suggests a four-part assessment framework that can be adapted to local contexts and used as a decision-making tool. The first part, articulation of a literacy perspective, involves deciding what the program means by literacy. If the program has moved away from defining literacy as a set of skills to be mastered in favor of seeing literacy as a holistic process of making meaning within social contexts, standardized tests and evaluation instruments that look at very narrow indicators of success will present only a partial picture of the progress made by program participants. The second part of the framework, description of program goals and expectations, involves the consideration of both short-term and long-term outcomes. Although language and literacy development is an important goal of family literacy programs, social goals, such as the creation of cross-cultural relationships and helping participants gain access to health and social services, may also be included. [-2-] Wrigley suggests that evaluation of such program goals should include the use of qualitative measures, including interviews with learners and case studies of families. The third part of the framework, linkages among goals, curriculum, and assessment, involves looking at the ways in which programs make literacy meaningful by linking families, schools and communities. Wrigley emphasizes the need for assessments which capture this aspect of the curriculum. The final part of the framework, definitions of success and the development of standards, presents the greatest challenge to family literacy programs that have moved away from a rationalistic paradigm in which programs are evaluated by comparing program goals to program outcomes, to a more naturalistic paradigm in which ethnographic techniques are used to describe program outcomes as they occur. Wrigley warns that naturalistic evaluations are successful only if they are valid. Although naturalistic evaluations may be open-ended, evaluators must have a clear idea of what they are looking for. They need to consider the concerns of all participants, including learners, teachers, families and communities, as part of the evaluation process. Wrigley concludes this chapter by emphasizing the need for programs to take responsibility for defining success, setting standards and developing appropriate evaluation techniques so that others will not set those standards for them.

This book fills a real need in the area of ESL literacy because it describes innovative intergenerational and multilingual literacy programs which have shifted their focus from the classroom to the wider social context of family and community. It is of practical value because the teachers and program developers who write about their experiences in collaborative program design and curriculum development are quite open about the difficulties they faced and the ways in which they had to revise program goals as they went along. Because it links theory with detailed accounts of practice, Immigrant Learners and Their Families should prove a valuable resource for anyone concerned with the kind of teaching that takes the needs and resources of immigrant families into account.

Christina Hvitfeldt
Nanyang Technological University


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