February 1, 2013 Features

Picturing Literacy Success

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At just past 6:30 on a warm summer evening, the Head Start Center was bustling. Spanish-speaking parents, infants and toddlers in tow, streamed into the center's lobby, grabbed slices of pizza and expectantly took their seats. The 40-plus attendees were migrant farm workers and had just arrived from the fields.

The event? The launch of a research initiative called Project SALSA—Supporting Acquisition of Language and Literacy through School-Home Activities—funded by an ASHA Projects on Multicultural Activities grant.

The parents came to partner with school personnel in the southwest Michigan-based center to enhance their preschool children's language and literacy development through a bilingual journaling activity. The aim of the project was to test the viability of a partnership between the parents-economically challenged, with limited English proficiency, and with low literacy levels-and Head Start teachers and support personnel. The summer-long program involved literacy sessions for children at the center, augmented by parent-child journaling activities at home.

It's well known that parents' involvement with children's early literacy helps children's language and reading skill development-and, ultimately, their academic success. Parents who speak with their preschoolers in the home setting (as opposed to at them) create environments that help children learn the skills required for literacy growth. Spontaneity, reciprocity and regularity characterize these literacy-rich interactions. So do storytelling, shared book interactions and "optional talk"-conversation about interesting events and phenomena that goes beyond the typical parental communication roles of directing, requesting or reprimanding. Such talk is discussed at length in "The Social World of Children Learning to Talk," a 1999 book by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. 

Although the homes of many migrant farmers may lack tangible resources, parents typically hold high hopes for their children's success and provide nurturing and affectionate home environments. However, these parents face many challenges-many have less than a high school education, low incomes and barely functional literacy levels in English and the home language. These limitations can make it difficult for speech-language pathologists and early childhood educators to involve parents in children's language and literacy development. These families may also deal with of health and instability problems caused by their itinerant lifestyles and exposure to toxic pesticides. The lack of parental involvement that can result from such adverse conditions-along with difficulty interacting with English-speaking school personnel-can be misconstrued as parental apathy about children's academic success.

To tackle these issues, the SALSA project [PDF] explored how a parent-child journaling activity might be used to build a school-home partnership. The pilot study's results indicate the activity can do this, and more. It also:

  • Encouraged parents to incorporate "literacy-rich" interactions into family life.
  • Required only minimal levels of reading and writing skills in any language.
  • Required no significant outlays of time or money.

Built on home-school journaling

We built SALSA around home-school journaling, based on an activity described by Nickola Nelson in her textbook, "Language and Literacy Disorders: Infancy through Adolescence." In our program, 11 children ages 2 to 5 in the experimental group took home red SALSA bags at the end of each week with spiral notebooks, colored pencils and other drawing supplies. We asked parents to talk with their children about their activities and to produce simple stick-figure drawings about everyday events and family activities and to add any written commentary in English or Spanish. Children returned the journals to their bilingual classrooms on Monday to build home-school connections during the week. 

Eight preschoolers in the attention-control classroom brought home green SALSA bags. Parents of these children viewed the cardboard books their children brought home and were encouraged to talk about the concepts portrayed in the books using whatever language they chose. The books contained pictures of Sesame Street characters and focused on colors, shapes and numbers, but not narratives.

At the initial SALSA meeting, leaders demonstrated how parents should interact with their children in the red or green conditions. Parents knew the researchers were evaluating the two conditions, but were blind to which was experimental. 

Children took the Early Literacy Skills Assessment, which tests emergent literacy concepts and oral language narrative skills in Spanish and English, at a pretest before the program (week one), and when the program drew to a close (week seven). The test uses a storybook interaction task to assess comprehension, phonological awareness and knowledge of alphabetic principles. Most of the children in the study were developing typically but a few were being observed for developmental concerns or had individualized family service plans in place. One child in the experimental classroom had a cochlear implant and one was being observed for a possible autism spectrum disorder. Three children in the control classroom had IFSPs for speech and language delays. These small group sizes and the heterogeneity of the randomized groups were a limitation of the pilot study. Even so, the results indicate significant increases in pre- to post-test English and Spanish scores for the experimental group in alphabetic knowledge, print knowledge and total scores. Children in the control group showed gains only in phonological awareness, and only in Spanish.

The study demonstrated that home-school journaling may be an effective means of involving parents in their children's literacy development. It was evident that for low-literacy parents, drawing and writing may be easier than reading: Reading requires parents to start with another person's language, words and concepts, and interpret them for children, whereas drawing and writing allows parents to use their own concepts, words and language to interact with their children and model their own literacy skills to the best of their ability. 

The project also demonstrated that low-income parents with stressful lives can contribute to their children's success. Most of the parents who participated were eager, motivated and committed. Many of them expressed disappointment when the project ended and repeatedly requested that it be revived. Partnering with these parents was equally educational for us-school personnel and student clinicians-about the families' culture and lifestyles.

Tips for parent partnering

We hope that other SLPs and educators will use home-school journaling to partner with families with diverse cultural-linguistic experiences and to benefit their young children. We offer several lessons learned:

  • Keep it simple. High-tech gadgetry or expensive tools and materials are not necessary to guarantee success. Using simple, inexpensive materials ensures that clinicians are not deterred by limited budgets and parents are not intimidated by unfamiliar gadgetry. Almost all materials used in Project SALSA came from a dollar store.
  • Make it practical. Parents who do farm work all day have limited time for homework with children. Project SALSA required that parents' drawings be submitted only once weekly-on Mondays, after their weekend time off.
  • Keep it accessible. Ensure that activities are geared to parents' and children's educational and literacy levels. Parents may be more willing to partner if roles are within their reach. SALSA's activities were English-neutral, did not demand high educational levels, and involved familiar topics about which parents could write in Spanish or English. Most wrote something in Spanish. The project's acronym, SALSA, may also be viewed as an example of incorporating cultural appeal, and others are welcome to adopt it.
  • Make it empowering. Low-income parents may feel that their limited education makes them unable to contribute to their children's academic learning. When they realize their critical role in their children's language development, they may be more motivated to get and stay involved. And they'll feel more empowered if that participation involves talking, drawing and other familiar activities related to their cultural heritage. 

In all, we found through SALSA that partnering with parents results in improved clinician-parent relationships and may even help break down linguistic barriers. To us, this project proved that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Lena G. Caesar, EdD, PhD, CCC-SLP, teaches in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology/Audiology at Loyola University. She received the 2009–2010 ASHA Multicultural Projects grant that funded Project SALSA. lgcaesar@loyola.edu

Nickola W. Nelson, PhD, CCC-SLP, is professor in the Department of Speech Pathology & Audiology and director of the PhD program in Interdisciplinary Health Sciences at Western Michigan University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education, and 16, School-Based Issues.  nickola.nelson@wmich.edu

cite as: Caesar, L. G.  & Nelson, N. W. (2013, February 01). Picturing Literacy Success. The ASHA Leader.


Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1999). The social world of children learning to talk. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Justice, L. M., & Ezell, H. K. (2000). Enhancing children's print and word awareness through home-based parent intervention. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 9(3), 257–269.

Wells, G. (1986). The meaning makers: Children learning language and using language to learn. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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