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6. Parental involvement in children's early grade literacy learning: voices from parents unable to read or write English.


There is a growing body of research literature from print-impoverished contexts indicating increased direct involvement by parents in their children's literacy development (see Ngwaru & Opoku-Amankwa, 2010; Mathangwane & Arua, 2006; Arua & Arua, 2011; Pansiri & Pansiri, 2011; Oketch, Mutisya, & Sagwe, 2012; UWEZO Kenya, 2011). The change is encouraging and can be attributed to a growing awareness that beyond the provision of scholastic needs such as uniforms, school fees, pencils, and so on, parental involvement presents in additional ways, and may be home-based or school-based. Epstein's (1995) range of parental involvement activities includes playing a supportive role, communicating with the school, volunteering time in the school, helping the child learn at home, taking an active role in school-related decision making, and regularly collaborating with the school community. In some contexts it also involves parents sacrificing to contribute directly to teachers' pay (UWEZO Kenya, 2011). Following extensive research on parental involvement, Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler (2005) use the term school-based to refer to activities typically undertaken by parents at school focusing on the individual child and/or on broad school issues or needs; and home-based, to refer to interactions (such as helping with homework) taking place between the child and parent outside of school. We use this understanding of parental involvement in this paper, part of a longer study of parental involvement in the reading literacy development of children in a rural community in Botswana, to give voice to these parents, a majority of whom neither speak nor read English.


The community that provided the data for the paper resides in a village along a tarred road approximately 100 kilometers away from Gaborone. It is a low income community dependent on subsistence crop and livestock farming. Unconfirmed information from the local school was that some residents rely on food handouts from the government. The village, however, has running water and a public library, although many homes have no electricity and firewood is the source of fuel for cooking. Under such circumstances, it can be inferred that in many homes here printed information, a desk, or efficient lighting--all helpful in acquiring early reading skills in the language of school--are absent. The domestic chores such as cooking, fetching water, washing up, sweeping the yard, gathering firewood, feeding livestock, and ploughing, are all manual and backbreaking tasks. Traditionally, children would be expected to help with these chores too before and/or after school, depending on the child's age and gender. It is likely therefore that there is very little time for parents to spare, for example, to volunteer for events at their child's school, or listen or watch while their children read at home. On whether the socioeconomic (and educational) status of a community predicts scholastic achievement, McTavish (2007) observed that often studies depict a community such as this one as being at risk of perpetuating an 'intergenerational cycle of illiteracy' (p.477); and proceeds to demonstrate how living in such economically challenging conditions may not necessarily be an indicator of academic underachievement if parents involve themselves in their children's early literacy learning.

To put our expectations of parental involvement in their children's early literacy learning into proper perspective, we look first at what is expected of children by the end of their second year (henceforth Standard 2) of primary school in Botswana. According to the official Lower Primary School Syllabus (2002, p. 64), by Standard 2 a child should be able to:

* Read and understand a range of words in isolation

* Pronounce words which include long and short vowel sounds

* Determine when capital letters are used

* Recognize full stops and commas as signals for short breaks in a text

* Recognize that a question mark indicates a question being asked

* Recognize that an exclamation mark may show feelings such as surprise

* Re-read a text for clues to the meaning of a word in familiar context

* Make speculations about what will happen at different stages of a picture storybook.

Since home-based parental involvement that is specific to the acquisition of the above skills can be a very high expectation, this paper investigates what parents from a community with minimal literacy in and exposure to English have to say. We then make recommendations about how school can involve parents in their children's early literacy development.

The study is significant in three ways. Firstly, in reading literacy learning, Standard 2 represents the ground level for acquiring the basics of reading for a child in Botswana. Secondly, in Botswana, Standard 2 is a crucial step in a child's education as it officially marks the end of the use of the home language because English, which is neither the home language of the child nor of the teacher, is introduced as the language of learning and teaching. It is also a language very few parents, particularly those in rural areas, can use. The study therefore assumed that at the moment many parents are not directly involved in their children's early reading literacy development. Thirdly, research elsewhere says that young school-goers benefit from direct parental involvement in their literacy development (see Eccles & Midgley, 1990; Grolnick, Kurowski, Dunlap & Hevey, 2000; Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994). As the child moves into adolescence, a marked decrease in parental involvement occurs because of increasing needs for independence and reliance on peer relationships (Matza, Kupersmidt & Glenn, 2001; Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992). This study therefore targeted the parents of very young school children in Standard 2 aged between 6 and 7 years.

Literature review

One strand of research on parental involvement in children's early literacy development often links availability of print and achievement, because literacy was understood as limited to reading and writing (see the International Reading Association Commission, 1994; Marsh, 2004). The absence of print in the home was therefore concluded as tantamount to failure to learn to read. Studies sought to establish if indeed there were homes with no print at all. One such study by Kersten (2008) reports that the Bible and other religious books could be found in some homes and that activities associated with the church proved to be an important source of various literacy practices in many homes. Perry (2008) reports that her participants read the Bible, the Oxford Companion to the Bible, church pamphlets, church bulletins, and other religious texts; and wrote notes from sermons heard in church, or wrote the sermons themselves, and articles for church bulletins. Therefore, children whose parents were actively involved and engaged in a variety of reading and writing activities both in and outside of church were also involved in several church activities and read the Bible and songbooks; and at Sunday school they engaged in writing practices.

Additional print exists in many homes and around the communities such as food labels, public notices, advertisements, and so on that many people take for granted, but which contributes to children's early literacy learning. Additionally, New Literacy Studies (NLS) informs us that literacy is socially situated and that it also includes oral language (Street, 2003; Prinsloo & Breier, 1996). Because oral language is a resource for early literacy, a number of studies focus their attention on family literacy (McTavish, 2007; Wells, 1987), but is also recognised as encompassing a broad range of oral language activities (Wells, 1987) that Ketsitlile (2011) says may include storytelling, games, singing, knowledge of different plants, basket weaving and sculpting. McTavish (2007, p. 477) notes that being aware of home literacy practices, however similar or different from school literacies, offers opportunities to bridge home and school literacies and to enhance young children's literacy development. So in addition to a good teacher to teach reading, the parents are co-contributors to early grade reading literacy learning even in the case of parents who cannot read, speak or write English. No wonder that in literacy education there is now talk of 'multiliteracies' (Cope & Kalantis, 2000) to indicate the broad understandings of what it means to be literate. There is also recognition of visual, aural, gestural, and tactile ways of meaning-making as part of literacy. Marsh (2004) quotes several authors that have challenged the traditional notions of literacy that 'it is no longer appropriate to focus on literacy as a paper-based activity when children access text in a range of modes' (p.52).

Given the long time spent with parents, Morrow (1995, p.6) informs us that parents are the first teachers their children have, and that they are the teachers that children have for the longest time. Such a view is highly significant in appreciating the role of parental involvement in children's early reading acquisition. According to Darling and Westberg (2004), reading acquisition includes skills in knowledge of letter names and letter sounds, phoneme awareness, and early decoding abilities, as well as word recognition and reading comprehension. It also includes lifelong skills such as learning to use all the conventions of reading and writing. Parents' efforts in their children's acquisition of all these skills require sharing when school texts appear in a language the parents neither read, write, nor speak.

Learning theories posit that people learn by observing others (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2007; Martinez, 2010; Harris & Butterworth, 2002). Observing significant others read (such as parents and older siblings) is beneficial to children's early literacy development. King (2008) adds that for learning to take place, observation and imitation of a behaviour should occur. It can therefore be concluded that the best way for children to learn reading is when they observe and imitate family members. However, in contexts where the home and school language differ, there is a dearth of studies that document parents' actual experiences with their children's early literacy development. This study attempts to contribute to the practice of parental involvement in children's early literacy learning by extracting what parents say they do.

Data collection

Although all parents of the 52 children in Standard 2 were invited by the school for a mid-term meeting, only ten females came. On arrival, parents filled in a quick registration form that captured key information, namely: relationship with the child, marital status, home language, and whether they could read or speak English. While we waited for more to arrive, and before the school had discussed its business with the parents, we were allowed to interview the ten parents for about 45 minutes in the presence of the school head and the Standard 2 teacher on matters pertaining to their children's progress with learning to read English. The group interview was conducted in Setswana. Before the interview, the parents were briefed on the purpose of the study which was to share their experiences in helping their young children in Standard 2 learn to read in English, and that the school could then use these experiences to help other parents of children in Standard 2. They were also told that they were free to or not to take part. Participants were assured that their names, that of the school and that of the child would remain anonymous and that their children would not be affected by their participation in the group interview. It was conducted in the school's staffroom on a Wednesday, the day set aside by the school for meetings with parents.

Findings and discussion

The purpose of the study was to use the group interview to document parents' experiences linked to their children's early literacy learning. To provide background, we first report (Table 1) and comment on participants' key information before presenting and discussing the findings from the group interview.

Respondents' background

All participants were female, and as Table 1 shows, 2 were married, 7 were single parents, and 1 was a widow. The dominant home language was Setswana, spoken by all participants. This was to be expected as the village is only 100km from Gaborone. English was reported as an additional home language to Setswana by one respondent as was Sekgalagadi by yet another. Participants' literacy levels in English were very diverse: while 4 reported that they could read and write in English, which for purposes of this study, was encouraging; 6 stated that they could neither read nor write English. Only 2 said they were biological parents, but the rest (8) said they were grandparents to the child.

These statistics have a strong bearing on these participants' ability to assist children with learning to read. For instance, that Setswana was the home language (except for two participants), implies that children do not hear English beyond the classroom. Trudell (2013) identifies this as the leading cause of poor performance on reading tests for many English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) children. Secondly, single parenthood (7 said they were single parents) is quite a strain if we consider the many subsistence responsibilities involved: performing domestic chores, caring for the young child(ren), the added demands of assisting with all of this alone at an advanced age. Studies elsewhere (Fan & Chen, 2001; Pang & Watkins, 2000) confirm that even in communities with higher literate levels than was the case in this current study, single parenthood often means low levels of parental involvement. Against this background, schools need to appreciate whatever little involvement parents can afford, including school visits such as the one that provided this data.

Interview responses

We would like to acknowledge a type of parental involvement we immediately identified as we talked to the group which we will refer to as involvement by proxy--this was the case of two 'parents' who seemed much younger than the rest of the participants and sat next to each other. They were clearly neither grannies nor the biological parents. They appeared to have been sent by someone to represent them. Being younger than the rest of the group, they might have been shy to talk much in a group of older women, as they said little during the interview session. We interpret sending a representative to school meetings as an expression of the keen interest in issues pertaining to their children's education particular parents have and this should be encouraged. Involvement by proxy is particularly welcome in situations narrated by participants: Ga ke kgone go bala le ngwanake ka gore ke nna ko masimong, ene o nna mo motseng [I am unable to read with my child because I stay at the lands whereas my child stays at the village]. Another indicated that: Nnyaa. Ga ke nne le ene, ke mo kopetse fela mo bathong gore a tsene sekolo gaufi [No. I do not stay with the child. I have asked other people to stay with the child so that my child can be nearer to school]. Involvement by proxy may also occur when, as one reported, she only meets with her children in the evening and by then she is not able to help the children with reading as she will be busy with other house chores. The interview yielded other interesting experiences, which we proceed to identify by theme in the next sections.

My child confuses Setswana sounds with English ones

One participant reported direct involvement in the child's literacy learning, but was frustrated that even after much practice, her child still reads the/ ph/in/elephant/as if it were a Setswana sound; pronouncing the word as/e lephata/[this Setswana word is actually a corrupted form of the English word department] and at times as/e le phuntse/[a Setswana word for to punch a hole]. Certain sounds in English differ from Setswana sounds and this participant was raising a pertinent issue. Notice for instance the loss of meaning for the reader arising from this confusion of sounds, a worrisome development since reading without meaning-making is detrimental to enjoying what one is reading and to seeing reading holistically as an authentic way of communication. Yet letter-to-sound confusion is to be expected at this stage in the child's learning to read, given the inconsistency of letter-sound rules of the English language. This parent is rightly noticing children's confusion of letter sounds learnt in one language with those of a second language at this level of education. Indeed Wallace and McLaughlin (1990) inform us that children who experience problems in reading are usually unsure what a particular sound or combinations of sounds make.

Parent-child conflicts

Some of the participants who reported direct involvement in their children's literacy learning complained of frustration arising from a conflict between what they want and the child says the teacher told them. One reported how she was frustrated over the pronunciation of English words when the child refused to listen to her saying that it was not how they had been taught by their teacher. Another parent complained that the child read the sentence and shouted out the punctuation marks along/Mother is cooking soup comma meat and rice full stop/and the child insisted that that was how the teacher taught them. So as not to undermine the confidence the children had in the teacher, the parents decided that the children should be helped by the teacher whom the child believed and trusted was right.

A small section of parents doubted their own ability to correctly pronounce English words, and one particular interviewee who used a lot of English words in her responses, even though some of the expressions were ungrammatical, was very vocal on this issue of uncertainties in English pronunciation. However, this was dismissed by another who said that some parents were literate enough to correctly pronounce individual words. Interestingly, one argued that even though she could not speak English and did not know how 'some' of the English words were pronounced, she could just tell that the word had not been pronounced correctly by her child. Prescriptive concerns for 'correctness' may be declining, according Klerk and Gough (2000, p. 360), but many non-native speakers of English have different notions of what approximates to the native-speaker pronunciation that are potential for conflict.

Another source of conflict that we identified was over loud versus silent reading. Unfamiliar with practices in teaching reading, parents expressed the view that children should read silently all the time. One respondent admitted to always stopping her child from reading aloud, and referring to her primary school days, she said that as a child, her teacher did not allow them to read aloud from standard 2, because loud reading was regarded as a standard 1 style of reading. In support, another parent narrated how futile loud reading by a standard 2 child was because 'children read as if they were spelling words in the sentence'. It is true that parents are not trained teachers, but what is clear is that disallowing loud reading may be due to lack of time to sit down and listen to the reading, or the lack of space in the home where the activity will not inconvenience other occupants. In the opinion of Darling and Westberg (2004), reading aloud helps a child to hear themselves when reading and as they hear themselves making mistakes, children are able to correct themselves and easily comprehend what they are reading. It is important to let parents know this.

It is not the responsibility of the teacher alone

One parent acknowledged that as a parent reads with the child, the child is encouraged to read and where the child does not understand, they ask and are assisted. She spoke at length about parental responsibility in assisting children with reading saying: Tota nna ke dumela go re ga se tiro ya morutabana a le nosi go ruta ngwanake ka go re morutabana o ruta ngwana mo nakong e khutshwane thata fa e chaa go tsena thuto e nngwe ngwana ene a sa sela sepe.

Jaanong ka nna ke motsadi yo ke itlamileng go thusa ngwana re bo re tswele afa a e meng teng le morutabana ko sekolong rona re le mogae [I really believe that it is not the responsibility of the teacher alone to teach my child, because the teacher only teaches the child for a short period when it is time up for another subject the child would not have grasped anything. As I am a parent who is determined to assist my child, we continue from where that teacher stopped at school when we are at home]. The difficulties involved were not lost to the rest of the group, however, as summed up by one parent saying: Ee ke tiro e ebokete ka o a bo a simolola go dirisa sekgoa gape ke sa rutelwa tiro ya borutabana [Yes, it is a difficult task because I will be starting to use English again not having been trained in teaching]. McTavish (2007) shows that with guidance and support, parents may become increasingly involved in home learning activities (p.481).

I can help, but the child brings no books home!

A large section of parents said that they did not have any books at home and that their children did not bring their books home from school. This made it difficult for them to help their children with reading. Indeed, one said Nnyaa. Ga ke kgone go bala le ngwanake ka mabaka a gore ga go nadibuka mo lapeng tse di balwang jaanong fa ba ne ba neelwa dibuka ko sekolong ka go re keletso yone e teng [No. I am unable to read with my child for reasons that there are no books at home for reading--[but] if they were given books at school because the interest is there]. One contradiction was that the teachers had confirmed to us that they often assign a list of words for children to practise word recognition at home. It was clear that the parents understood reading to be book-based and that the school had not alerted the parents about the homework in the form of word lists the teacher gave to children and so, parents did not remind their children about the reading homework. Participants said that they did not have books at home their children would read, yet the words teachers assign provide sufficient reading at this level and are those introduced in class so children have an idea of how to read them. These findings so far appear to suggest that the reason why parents failed to help their children with reading was due to the relationship the school has with parents. It is clear that parents do not know about the homework teachers give. We feel that a homework policy is needed so that the school communicates clearly to parents.

Where do I find the time when my work does not allow me any time?

In the room there were three parents who said that they actually can help their children with reading, but due to their job commitments, they were unable to fully assist their children all the time. Because this did not explain why they were not at work on this particular Wednesday, it turned out all three were on night duty that week at the village clinic. McTavish (2007) also reported that working parents have very little time to be with their children. It can be concluded that any direct assistance parents give to their children with regards to reading is non-existent.

The children are still far too young to start reading English texts

One of the syllabus objectives for this grade level is to enable children to 'read a range of English words' (Lower Primary School Syllabus 2000, p. 64). When participants were first asked if they thought that their child were achieving this learning objective, the consensus, including the six parents who had indicated that they neither read nor write English, was that the children in Standard 2 cannot read in English. This awareness by parents must be commended rather than condemned - it demonstrates an acceptance of their children's capabilities in English which these parents rightly consider appropriate for their children's circumstances and age level, given that English is largely encountered in the classroom for a large majority of them.

How does a parent unable to read and write English help her child 'read a range of English words in isolation'?

A section of parents were heard admitting that they were only able to read and write their names and were therefore unable to help their children with reading in English. It was also evident that they felt very uncomfortable having to say this in public. Being illiterate in a prestigious language like English is disempowering and it is not something one announces without feeling a sense of inadequacy. It is very unfortunate that at the moment such parental feelings of inferiority are affecting the child's literacy learning too. We propose that the school reassures such parents by suggesting to them that even talking about their own handicap as they did, was a form of involvement in that it made the school aware of the problem. The parent's listening as the child reads assures the child that what they are doing is important for their education, even if the parent does not understand the language of the words.

I am proud to hear my child read English. But is he reading correctly?

There were a few exceptions, however. For instance, two parents stated that they could not read, but they listened to their children's reading. One of them said that her personal challenge is when her child experiences difficulty reading a word. When we asked how she knows the child is experiencing difficulty, she said that at times her child will stop reading and indicate that he does not know how to read a particular word. Following close observation this parent reported that her child was still young, knew nothing, and was still struggling with learning how to read. She also said that her child gets irritable when asked to read and that the child cannot read most long words. Such accurate assessment of the child's linguistic abilities in English is beneficial when teacher and parent work closely together. Another parent reported that her child could read some of the words in newspapers. For someone who does not understand the language the child is reading, this parent is filled with pride over her child's achievement. Her pride was: Ngwanake o kgona go bala mafoko a sekgowa ka bongwe kabongwe ke mo reeditse [My child can read English words!]. But this parent had some self-doubt also: Mathata ke go re ga keitse go re a mafoko a a a balang ke one kana ga se one ka gore nna ga ke a tsena sekolo ga keitse go bala. Gongwe o a bo a sa bale se sekwadilweng a njabetsa [The problem is that I do not know whether the words the child reads are the correct ones or not, because I have never been to school and I don't know how to read. Maybe the child is not reading but cheating me!].

Conclusion and recommendations

It might appear that with a language notorious for its irregular and unpredictable spellings and sounds, only trained teachers can help Standard 2 children in learning to read English. Yet in the effort to improve children's reading, parental involvement is critical. In this study, the findings indicate that despite their handicaps relating to English, the parents seemed aware of their responsibility and of the contribution of their involvement to the children's early reading development. They were also aware that by not being involved in their children's reading, they were depriving their children of the opportunity to become successful readers. Parents seemed knowledgeable of the fact that parental involvement is related to children's achievement. The findings further suggest that even for those parents who were not involved in their children's reading, they were aware of the fact that anything that takes place in the home had an effect on their children's developing competency in reading.

It is clear, however, that the parents need guidance on how to assist their children with reading. Irrespective of the parent's capabilities and circumstances, responses showed a general lack of confidence in how to help. Without guidance it was very difficult for parents to develop a sense of confidence in what they were doing for their children's reading development. The way forward would be to mount programmes that target parents with young school goers. Mathangwane and Arua (2006, p. 46) observed that parents fail to be involved in their children's reading because they are not equipped with the basic skills of helping children with reading; they suggest that what is needed are 'clearly defined family literacy programs'. We hope that the current study will contribute to the development of a typology of parental involvement activities which teachers of early reading can use to plan and facilitate their interaction with parents. Such interactions can be used to teach parents the various ways that would reinforce their children's literacy learning. Without these interactions, it is certain that the parents who did not honour the invitation to come to the school on that day are not helping their children learn to read.


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Notty Motlhagodi, Lecturer, Francistown College of Education, P.O Box 878 Mogotshane, Botswana, +267 71466517

D Kasule, Senior lecturer, Language Education, University of Botswana, Faculty of Education, Private Bag 00702 Gaborone, Botswana. Tel +267 3552202 (w); +267 72521182
Table 1: Demographic information on participants

Marital status                   Languages spoken at home

Married   Single   Widowed   Setswana   Setswana    Setswana,
                               only        &        English &
                                        English    Sekgalagadi

2           7         1         8          1            1

Relationship to     I can read/     I cannot
the child          write English   read/write

Mother   Grannie

2           8            4             8
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Author:Motlhagodi, Notty; Kasule, D.
Publication:Nawa: journal of language and communication
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Geographic Code:6BOTS
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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