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Emergent literacy in family child care: perceptions of three providers.

Abstract. Perceptions of emergent literacy by three family child care providers are described. These perceptions were gathered through ethnographic data collection techniques, including participant-observation, field notes, interviews, and document analysis. The providers described their understandings of emergent literacy through perceptions about themselves, perceptions of their own child-rearing practices, perceptions of how young children learn to acquire literacy, and perceptions of the literacy-play connection. The findings focus on the providers' notion of being on a continuum between a mother, provider, and teacher. Possible effects that these self-understandings may have on the literacy development of children who attend family child care, and the implications of these perceptions for children who attend family child care as a preschool experience, are discussed.


In the past 20 years, literacy research has investigated the acquisition process of young children's reading and writing. Many of these studies have examined the environments in which children interact. In addition to describing the home literacy environments (Heath, 1983; Purcell-Gates, 1996), researchers have described the emergent literacy environments of urban child care centers (Neuman, 1999; Neuman & Roskos, 1993), university preschools (Rowe, 1998), and kindergarten classrooms (Christian, Morrison, & Bryant, 1998; Vukelich, 1994). However, according to the State of America's Children Yearbook (Children's Defense Fund, 2000), the children in the formal settings account for just 53 percent of preschool children in the United States. People who operate family child care businesses within their homes care for approximately another 15-20 percent of the preschool population. Although this is a significant number of children receiving a different type of preschool experience from those previously mentioned, few studies have investigated the literacy experiences provided in family child care settings (Cress, 2000).

Family child care providers are people who care for non-residential children in their home as a source of income (Saracho & Spodek, 1992). They combine their own family structures and economic conditions in order to care for non-family children (Atkinson, 1993); have often found their houses taken over by their work; and have occasionally been reduced to living in a small area of their homes (Nelson, 1990; Roemer, 1989). They usually have little training in the care of children, and do not have many opportunities for professional development (Bailey & Osborne, 1994). They balance the demands of running a business, such as accounting, customer service, and inventory management responsibilities, while at the same time caring for others' children in the space in which they live. Additionally, family child care providers have been perceived to have the lowest job status of all child care workers (Clyde & Rodd, 1992; Zeece & Fuqua, 1991). These factors, as they relate to the quality of the emergent literacy environments in family child care settings, may have an effect on the literacy development of children who attend this relatively unexamined preschool experience.

Researchers have created a composite of family child care providers as a population (Anderson, 1986; Eheart & Leavitt, 1986; Kontos, 1992; Molgaard, 1993; Nelson, 1990). Most family child care providers are married women with at least one child of their own. The average age of these providers is between 30 and 40 years, with a vast majority having earned at least a high school degree. The number of children they care for during business hours varies from one to nine. For the most part, these women had been previously employed outside the home in highly gender-stereotyped occupations, such as secretaries or sales clerks. In these positions, pay was low and there was little opportunity for advancement. For many, family child care became an attractive employment choice because they could be their own bosses while working around the needs of their families.

Various perceptions of family child care providers' lives have been described, including the motivation for selecting family child care as an employment or career choice (Nelson, 1990). For the most part, these women stated they liked being at home during the day, liked being home when their children arrived from school, and felt it was important to "keep house" for their husbands. Their primary commitment appeared to be to "domesticity" (Nelson, 1990, p. 44). Yet, their self-perceptions have not been examined as they relate to the literacy acquisition of the children in their care. Previously described perceptions have focused on their attitudes toward caring for children as opposed to educating them.

Perceptions of Family Child Care Providers

Caregivers, in general, have decided attitudes toward child care as a profession. They stated "patience" and "understanding children's needs" (Clyde & Rodd, 1992, p. 58) as important characteristics of family child care providers, and these could be bought and sold as a commodity (Nelson, 1990). By doing this work, they confirmed for themselves the importance of a "mother's discipline and love" (Nelson, 1990, p. 90) and maintained a strong commitment to the field of child care (Manlove, 1993). Even though they had limited authority in mothering the children in their care, family child care providers stated their role to be one of enhancing a child's development. They proclaimed their day-to-day interactions with children, grounded in the beliefs listed above, as helping to create a warm, safe environment.

Such postulates asserted that family child care providers had a clear understanding of the importance of their role in providing quality care (Clyde & Rodd, 1992; Nelson, 1990). Although providers held such self-perceptions and rated themselves as having a high degree of job satisfaction (Kontos, 1992), those qualities were not enough to convince many of them to remain in the low-paying, low status position of a family child care provider (Goelman & Guo, 1998; Zeece & Fuqua, 1991). In turn, this continuous lack of job recognition contributed to providers leaving the field.

There are many reasons why women choose to work in the home child care industry. They are related to issues of economics, parenting desires, job satisfaction, and stability. Such factors have had both positive and negative effects on the quality of care delivered (Kontos, Howes, Shinn, & Galinsky, 1995). Yet, this group of women, as adult mentors in the literacy acquisition process of young children, has not been considered within the field of emergent literacy. The emergent literacy perceptions this group holds could affect the literacy acquisition process of the young children in the environment (Nelson, 1990; Weaver, 2002).

Emergent Literacy

Emergent literacy focuses on the reading and writing behaviors exhibited by young children before they conventionally learn to read and write (Sulzby & Teale, 1991). Commonly studied areas of the field include storybook reading, the literacy-play connection, emergent writing, and metalinguistic awareness (Yaden, Rowe, & MacGillivray, 2000). These areas have been studied in a variety of contexts, including the home/community, classrooms, and child care centers (Neuman, 1999; Sulzby & Teale, 1991; Yaden et al., 2000).

Whitehurst and Lonigan (1998) stated that emergent literacy is best conceptualized on a developmental continuum, with its origins at the beginning of a child's life. McGee and Purcell-Gates (1997) defined the development of emergent literacy to be contained within two time periods, specifically from ages birth to 5 and age 5 to independent reading. This division highlights the two distinct sociocultural contexts in which young children operate--the home/community in the first time period and formal school/instructional in the second. Family child care, as a preschool experience, falls into the first sociocultural period, and is relatively unexamined in this light (Cress, 2000). This context needs to be further examined for types of emergent literacy experiences provided for young learners.

Because 15-20 percent of preschool children in the United States spend their days in family child care, these adults play a significant role in providing emergent literacy experiences to young children (Barclay, Benelli, & Curtis, 1995; Children's Defense Fund, 2000). An expansion of the research to include this form of preschool experience could further add to the body of knowledge about emergent literacy learning (McGee & Purcell-Gates, 1997). Such knowledge was addressed by Trawick-Smith and Lambert (1995) when they noted the discrepancy between what is known about establishing formal emergent literacy environments (preschools and lab schools, for instance), and how those understandings did not easily transfer into the context of family child care. The research has not adequately reflected the preschool experiences of this significant portion of the population (Cress, 2000).

Literacy in Family Child Care Settings

Family child care providers reported supplying emergent literacy opportunities within their settings (Cress, 2000). Many reported they had books for the children to use, and most of the time these were available to the children on a daily basis. The reading aloud of those books was listed as part of the daily routine. All of the respondents reported having at least one writing tool available for the children daily, and that occasional opportunities for writing were available. Many reported they had storybook/music tapes available, while some reported using singing, storytelling, and fingerplays frequently with the children in their care. These daily activities in children's environments have been deemed critical to developing literate behaviors in young children (International Reading Association & National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998).

The effectiveness of the emergent literacy environment has implications for future academic success (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). As the overall quality of the child care program has lasting effects on later positive feelings toward language and literacy learning, the effectiveness of the environment is predicated on the types of interactions the adult supplies. Since family child care providers are responsible for the care of children during many of their waking hours, the task of providing environments rich in literacy opportunities becomes theirs.


The primary purpose of this ethnographic study was to observe, describe, and analyze the emergent literacy opportunities and experiences in three family child care sites, located in a Midwestern metropolitan area. This report will describe the family child care providers' perceptions of emergent literacy, and how their perceptions might influence the literacy development of the children in their care. By examining the perceptions of family child care providers, the knowledge base about the literacy experiences children have before entering school is expanded (Pellegrini & Galda, 1993).



Several methods were utilized to solicit potential participants for this study. Names were collected from a published list of licensed providers in a two-county area and through word-of-mouth. More names were collected from advertisements on grocery store bulletin boards and through newspaper advertisements. This sampling method yielded 26 potential participants.

In order to keep the backgrounds of the participants similar, several parameters were imposed upon the selection process. First, because ethnographic study requires intensive field contact, only three family child care providers were selected. Second, because the vast majority of family child care providers are women, the participants in this study were women. Third, although the participants might have taken courses in early childhood development or in the field of education, the child care providers were not formally working toward a degree in early childhood education. Fourth, in an attempt to keep the income of the child care businesses within a range of each other, the business was the provider's only contribution to the family monthly income. Next, as each of the providers had an established daily routine for the children that included an afternoon nap, the observations for this study were conducted in the morning hours up to the afternoon naptime. Finally, as previous research determined that family child care providers treat the children in their care differently when they are simultaneously caring for their own children (Atkinson, 1993), the family child care providers selected were not caring for their own children during the majority of the child care operational hours.

Names of the potential participants were drawn and then telephoned. The premise of the study was explained and a face-to-face interview was requested. The first three family child care providers who met the parameters set forth and accepted the invitation to participate were selected. During the face-to-face interview, the procedure for conducting the full study was explained and informed consent was obtained.

Mary, Sue, and Mrs. Ford (all pseudonyms) were three family child care providers who agreed to participate in this study. One was of African American heritage, while the other two were of European American descent. One provider lived on a quiet side street close to the city center; one lived in a "row house," in an older part of the city; while the third lived on a side street in a suburb. The racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of the children each cared for were reflective of the provider's race as well as the socioeconomic area in which she lived.

The providers were between "late 40s and early 60s," and had been family child care providers between 5 and 11 years. All three of the family child care providers were mothers. All had grown children; however, Mary still had a teenager living at home. Two of the providers were currently married, while the other was divorced. Two of the providers had at least one parent who assisted with the family child care business, while the other hired assistants to care for the children. Two of the providers housed the family child care in their everyday living spaces, and the other had special rooms in the house just for the business. All had literacy tools, such as books, writing instruments, paper, paintbrushes, and cassette tapes available in the environment; however, the materials were not always freely accessible to the children.

Research Procedures

In order to construct a comprehensive narrative of the literacy culture-sharing group of family child cares, multiple methods of data collection were used. These techniques included participant-observation, field notes, formal and informal interviews, literacy searches (Taylor, 1983), the Family Day Care Rating Scale (FDCRS) (Harms & Clifford, 1989), and document analysis. The data were collected in two phases. The first phase was completed within a two-week period, during which each of the family child care sites was visited on three consecutive weekdays. The second phase of observations was completed over a six-week period, six months after the first set of observations. During this time period, each family child care was visited once a week for a total of five additional visits. In total, each participant was observed in two phases for eight days, with a combined total of more than 90 hours of observation.

Data Analysis

The data analysis was continuous, cyclical, inductive, and data-led (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996). As the data were collected in Phase I, they were read and reread in order to identify and note emerging themes. Further reading in the related discourses, specifically in the areas of family child care, the literacy-play connection, and emergent literacy, was then conducted. The emerging themes, combined with the additional discourse information, were used to further delineate the research questions.

From this process, tentative categories describing the cultural aspects of emergent literacy in family child care were named. This cyclical procedure was continued until a comprehensive list of themes was established. Next, the data were coded with the abbreviations of the tentative categories. Revisions and additions were made as needed. The coded categories were then used to identify common threads. The common threads were the basis for the written thematic statements and narratives concerning the various aspects of the culture of literacy in these three family child cares.

In order to add credence to this work, Marshall and Rossman's (1995) trustworthiness features of credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability were addressed in several ways. The in-depth descriptions enhanced the credibility, dependability, and confirmability of the work. Triangulation of the data, as well as the theoretical framework, heightened the transferability of the findings between the three FDC settings. Observations of multiple sites over a period of time helped to confirm the general findings of these three culture sharing groups.

Findings and Discussion

Presented here are the providers' perceptions of emergent literacy and their role in the literacy development of the children in their care. This examination includes the providers' own perceptions about their personal literacy behaviors and child-rearing practices. Their perceptions about literacy-learning behaviors and the literacy-play connection are also included.


Mary's, Sue's, and Mrs. Ford's motivations for entering family child care were similar to those previously identified (Kontos, 1992; Molgaard, 1993; Nelson, 1990). However, they differed from those providers in that they remained in family child care longer than average. Presented here are their understandings of themselves as readers and writers. They also verified themselves as family child care providers and what that understanding meant for their role in the development of the children in their care.

Self As a Reader and Writer. These family child care providers stated perceptions about their own literacy behaviors. Mrs. Ford viewed herself as a reader and writer; however, she stated that her assistants were resistant to reading and writing. These assistants were the adults who had daily contact with the children, and she suspected that the lack of "reading and writing by her assistants might have an effect on the literacy development" of the children they served. In the interview, however, she did not elaborate on what the effect might be. Mary and Sue said they read, but would not characterize themselves as "readers." These same two also wrote for the purpose of communicating to parents and others, but did not view themselves as "writers." When asked how their own reading and writing behaviors might affect the children in their care, two of the providers provided unclear explanations. Mary noted that "reading to them, taking them to the library, and going to story hour" modeled literacy behaviors. However, none of the three providers elaborated on how the modeling of literacy behaviors showed its importance to the children.

Although they may not have clearly articulated the effects their behaviors had on the children, the providers in all three settings were observed to model literacy behaviors. They read books to the children, read the titles of the television programs they were watching, sang songs, performed fingerplays with them, and wrote in front of them. Early childhood educators have touted the importance of these modeled literacy behaviors by adults to children (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Morrow, 2001; Purcell-Gates, 2000). Even so, these self-perceptions could have later effects on literacy learning (Purcell-Gates, 1994, 1996; Rush, 1999), as support for literacy learning in the early years comes from those involved in the upbringing of the children (Heath, 1983; Neuman, 1999; Taylor, 1983). This understanding of literacy learning is related to these providers' perceptions of themselves as family child care providers.

Self As a Family Child Care Provider. These providers described "patience" and "being good with children" as necessary in their positions, and each was committed to family child care as her work. All felt they had a role in enhancing the development of the children through the establishment of "safe environments." Through their words, these providers shared their understanding of providing quality care for the children who came to their homes on a daily basis. Mrs. Ford stated, "If we don't make a difference in the lives of these children, we are going to lose something" with future generations, while Sue commented that she "just want(ed) to show them that they can be independent."

Each participant shared very decided attitudes toward her role as a family child care provider. Each stated she was the "provider" for the children, not the mother; nor was she a teacher. Sue offered, "I don't really think I'm a teacher, even though there are some things I probably teach. That's a professional teacher's job." This self-understanding was what they used as the premise for the organization of the daily activities. Each was clear that she did not want to do activities that might infringe upon a mother's responsibility, nor did she feel confident enough to "teach" the children. The activities they chose were based upon their understanding of themselves as a family child care provider, their own ideas about child development, and the influence their own child-rearing practices had upon the interactions with the children in their care.

This self-understanding by the providers has been supported by the perception that the general public felt motherhood was adequate training for family child care (Kontos, 1992). This thought supported two of the providers' explanations as to why they did not pursue degrees in early childhood education, although two of them had received some training in the education of young children. Sue believed her role as a family child care provider did not require significant additional training. She commented, "Why do I need a college degree? I run a family child care." Her role as a mother, she believed, prepared her for a position in family child care.

Perceptions of Child-Rearing Practices

These providers spoke of their own childrearing practices and how those influenced what they did as a family child care provider. They described the discipline they used and the way in which they interacted with their own children. They also spoke of the literacy practices they used with their own children.

Influence of Own Child-rearing Practices. Each of the family child care providers stated that what she did as a family child care provider was influenced by how she raised her own children. They cited the use of "guidance," "modeling," "redirection," "limit setting," and "intervening" with their own children. They supplied supportive responses to the emotional needs by "hugging," "backrubbing," and "holding" their children. They modeled the types of behaviors they wished their own children would show others. Mary stated, "We need to learn to be kind to each other, to share toys, and to speak well of each other, (and) just have that free time to play." In this way, they confirmed for themselves the importance of a "mother's discipline and love" (Nelson, 1990, p. 90). The modeling of these behaviors also was mentioned when they discussed their literacy interactions with their own children.

Literacy As a Child-rearing Practice. All three stated they read to their own children as they were growing up; however, Mary said she "wasn't convinced that that helped later reading." This belief did not deter her from reading to the children she served in her family child care. The other providers had read aloud to their children, but Sue commented, "It was not part of the daily family routine." When discussing writing development, all of the providers noted they were one of the first writing role models for their own children. Mrs. Ford said she wrote notes to her own children. "That way," she stated, "there would be no excuse for not knowing" the required information. Sue remarked, "I feel that if you let them do it [writing] themselves, they learn more on their own." This notion was slightly evident in the providers' perceptions of how children learn to read and write.

Perceptions of Learning To Read and Write

The providers vaguely articulated their beliefs about how children learn to read and write. Children were cited as learning literacy by "picking things up," through explicit teaching, and through questioning.

"Picking Things Up." Each provider stated both she and the children served as literacy models for all who attended the child care. Mary noted that "we are all constantly learning" and that the younger children learned how to do things by watching the older children. Therefore, the children acquired literacy by "picking up" the modeled behaviors. Literacy behaviors were modeled through the use of games, reading aloud, writing, and talking with the children. However, when questioned during the interviews about the acquisition of literacy, none of the providers clearly stated a belief for how children learned to read and write. They indicated that the social relationships between the provider and the children as well as the relationships between children helped with the learning process, but when further queried, did not elaborate on that thought.

Explicit Teaching. Despite the providers' statements that the learning of literacy occurred through modeling, all were observed to engage in explicit teaching. Mrs. Ford commented that literacy was learned through "teaching." She noted that this happened in several ways. Parents and providers taught children through their interactions, including storybook reading. Children also used letter cards in order to learn. Mary mentioned "doing school" as a way to learn. This involved the use of worksheets as a group activity at the kitchen table, following lunch, at least once a week. However, after offering this explanation, she quickly disclaimed it as "not really reading." Providers in all three settings were observed to use explicit teaching through their interactions with children, the use of letter cards, and the use of

worksheets. In all cases, the provider was observed to mediate the experience for the children by talking about the pictures in the storybooks, and by explaining the directions to the letter card activities or worksheets. Many of these explicit teachings included the use of questioning.

Questioning. Mary and Mrs. Ford cited the use of questions as important for the learning process. The use of questions was cited as being important for promoting talk with the children at meals. For instance, Mary often began the lunch conversation with "What did you do last night?" When used in reading storybooks, Mary noted that the questions prompted thinking. These questions also were used within the context of other activities. For example, they were used with the children as they played indoors and outdoors, watched television, and when they were "doing school." The providers were observed to use several different types of questions, including predictive ones, such as, "What do you think will happen next?" when an assistant read a story to the children at Mrs. Ford's.

The providers used many questions as they engaged in the activities that were part of the daily routines. These activities included crafts ("What color is your duck?"), art ("What color paint would you like to start with?"), memory games ("Do you remember where the other Pooh card is?"), and the teaching of concepts ("What shape is this?"). They also used questions as they engaged in the puzzles ("Where does this piece go?"). These types of activities were included in the FDCRS (Harms & Clifford, 1989) as important for family child care providers to include in their daily routines. The use of these materials also has been identified as an appropriate practice for young children (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). The presence of these materials lends support to the importance these family child care providers placed on play.

Perceptions of the Literacy-Play Connection

Bredekamp and Copple (1997) cited play as important for children's social, emotional, and cognitive development. They stated that play was also a reflection of children's development. Others (e.g., Neuman & Roskos, 1991a, 1991b; Owocki, 1999; Yaden et al., 2000) have cited play as important in the literacy acquisition process. The providers also noted the importance of play and its potential connection to literacy development.

Play As Important. Since the children were observed to spend the majority of their day in choice-play activities, play as a way to learn was deemed important. All three providers stated a belief that play helped children learn. Mrs. Ford noted, "Play is the business of children," while Sue stated she wanted the children to have "lots of play." All the providers noted that they had a role in children's play. Providers were observed to serve as participants, mediators, and interveners in play scenarios. Also, providers often suggested play activities. When asked why she participated in the children's play, Mary reasoned that the children would engage in the activity longer if she supported it. Mrs. Ford noted that children could "play with books and chalk" as a way to learn to read and write.

Literacy-Play Connection. When asked how play supported later literacy development, Mary and Sue did not state clear connections. Sue supposed there was a connection, but she wasn't sure what it would be. Mary stated that some activities, like gluing Fruit Loops on letter and number shapes, might be related. However, Mrs. Ford said, "Play was essential to reading and writing," as when "children make their own little marks as they play grocery store." These perceptions are not surprising, as Schrader (1991) wrote that many teachers had difficulty explaining how play promoted academic abilities.

Even so, the providers were able to identify children's behaviors that related to literacy development. For instance, use of sidewalk chalk was cited as a way to "play with writing." Pretending to read storybooks was identified as a way to "play with books." Mrs. Ford suggested this playing with books helped the children to anticipate what would happen next in a story, and as a way to experience reading. This thought supports the "not-yet-conventional reading behaviors," as noted by Sulzby and Teale (1991). Early childhood educators have recommended that children have experiences with literacy tools (Neuman & Roskos, 1993). This play with literacy tools helps young children "feel like readers and writers" (Neuman, Copple, & Bredekamp, 2000, p. 32), and they use this type of play to progress toward conventional literacy (Yaden et al., 2000).

General Discussion

The providers' perceptions affected the operation of their respective businesses. All cited their own literacy practices, yet two of them did not view themselves as readers or writers. They believed their own childrearing practices affected the way in which they operated their family child care centers, and that literacy development was a part of those child-rearing views. They shared various perceptions of how children learned to read and write, and play was important in the process. All of the providers shared a perception of what it meant to be a family child care provider. They stated they were not the mother, nor were they the teacher. In many ways they were "in-between" roles (Sarroub, 2002).

"In-Betweenness" of the Self-Perception

In their own words, the participants described themselves as family child care providers. All three were adamant they were not the children's parent, nor were they a teacher. This understanding became particularly important when it came time to write the analysis. As previously explained, because of this definition of themselves, it was imperative that they not be defined otherwise. The notion of not being the mother or the teacher put these family child care providers on a continuum in which they were "between" the two roles.

Conflict of "Mother" versus "Provider" versus "Teacher." As shown in other research, the drifting, in-between nature of their lives led to conflict for the providers (Sarroub, 2002). While they contended they were not the mother, nor were they a teacher, at times they exhibited the behaviors of both. They hugged, snuggled, fed, disciplined, and attended to the care needs of the children, much as a mother does. They did their family chores when the children were down for their naps. In this way, they remained loyal to the importance of domesticity or mothering in their lives (Nelson, 1990). Additionally, they planned, taught, and disciplined the children, much as a teacher does (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).

Regardless of their understandings of "not being a teacher," all of these providers taught school concepts as part of their day. They were observed to teach about letters, numbers, shapes, colors, names, counting, songs, and rhymes, many of which are common in preschools and kindergarten programs (Henniger, 1999). They did their teaching through a variety of activities, including play, negotiated television, flannel boards, puzzles, games, and worksheets, individually and in groups. Researchers have noted that while sporadic use of worksheets is probably harmless toward children's long-term academic development, a steady use of such materials can cause children to become less intellectually confident (Kostelnik, Soderman, & Whiren, 1999). The use of worksheets also can erode the children's ability to use inquiry and problem solve.

Worksheets were used as the members of the communities "played school." Mary stated she did worksheets as a way to help the children understand what school might be like. In this way, she and the other providers were helping the children learn the "academic registers," the decontextualized language that is used in educational settings (Otto, 2002, p. 59; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). This notion was in conflict with the providers' understanding of "play as important." Frustration on the part of the providers was noted more than once when their processes of teaching in a highly structured way clashed with the children's more immediate interest in free play.

Much of their time as family child care providers was spent in helping children feel safe and secure in loving and nurturing environments. They rooted their work in the belief that play was important and they helped children to develop their understandings of social registers. However, this perception of "family child care provider" was in conflict when they unadmittedly drifted into more of a "teacher" persona. By their words, actions, and beliefs, these family child care providers demonstrated themselves to be on the "mother-provider-teacher" continuum at different times during their daily activities. This notion is consistent with comments made by other family child care providers (Manlove, 1998; Roemer, 1989). This role ambiguity, combined with their perceived status in the child care industry, has led many providers to burnout and, in turn, to leave the profession (Goelman & Guo, 1998; Nelson, 1990).

Lowest Status in a Low-status Profession. The field of early childhood education appears to support a social class system, with the teachers in the public schools who possess advanced degrees at the top of the social ladder and those who operate family child cares on the bottom rung (Goelman & Guo, 1998; Trawick-Smith & Lambert, 1995). Those on the upper end of this social ladder have opportunities for professional development through their schools and organizations.

A social ladder of sorts was evident for the assistants in one of the settings. They were in a precarious position in that they were assistants in the lowest status profession (Goelman & Guo, 1998), and there was much turnover in the provision of direct care to the children during the observation period. Mrs. Ford, who employed the assistants, expressed concern over staff turnover, but also considered it to be part of her business. In an effort to combat this, she required her assistants to receive training and, in turn, financially rewarded them for completing the sessions.

The existence of this low-status position, in which turnover was frequently observed within a perception of being "in-between" (Sarroub, 2002), could have an effect on later literacy development. Bredekamp and Copple (1997) recommended that early childhood personnel know their children well, and that children have the opportunity to form stable relationships with a limited number of adults in their environments. The formation of these stable relationships enhanced learning in all areas of development (Trawick-Smith, 2000).

Most often, family child care providers have not received training in the care and teaching of young children, have struggled to find affordable, as well as time-feasible, professional development (Bailey & Osborne, 1994), and rarely were members of any early childhood professional organization (DeBord & Sawyers, 1996). For the most part, this was true for these family child care providers. Mary and Mrs. Ford had previous work experiences with children, and Sue and Mrs. Ford had received a form of training, but these characteristics were not consistent among the providers. Sue commented that she didn't really feel the need to pursue a degree because she was "just doing child care." This finding is problematic, because a large number of children in the United States attend family child care and are being cared for by the least educated people to do so (Atkinson, 1993).

The concept of "in between" affected the providers' perceptions of their status as family child care providers. They shared their views of job qualifications by listing characteristics many would use to describe the role of parents. In this way, they supported the view of their low status by not fully requiring themselves to pursue continued job training (Goelman & Guo, 1998; Trawick-Smith & Lambert, 1995). As providers, they continually moved among the roles of "mother," "provider," and "teacher" as they attempted to "create real or imagined boundaries" in order to survive and to negotiate the people and things in their lives (Sarroub, 2002, p. 145). Their identity as in-between allowed them to function within the cultural context of their family child care and as members of their own families. Even so, they negotiated themselves in the role of provider without fully acknowledging at least one other characteristic of their work--being a literacy role model for the children in their care.

Family Child Care Provider As a Literacy Role Model

Parents and families have been deemed as children's first teachers (Christie & Enz, 1992; Green, 1987; Taylor, 1983). Since many children spend many of their waking hours in family child care, it may be reasonable to assume that family child care providers would also be a "first teacher." The types of literacy experiences, opportunities, and beliefs provided in family child care may affect the literacy development of children who attend this type of preschool experience. If family child care providers do not view themselves as readers and writers, then it is possible that the literacy experiences would not be of the same quality as those provided by someone who views herself as such (Green, 1987). More frequent and purposeful literacy interactions occur when literacy has a purpose within the everyday lives of those who interact as a family and community (Heath, 1983; Purcell-Gates, 1994, 1996; Taylor, 1983). Some credence to this statement can be found in the lack of literacy materials accessible to the children. The inaccessibility of materials has caused the literacy environment to be of an inferior quality than environments where access is available (Neuman, 1999). In turn, fewer literacy interactions naturally occur. Developing "literacy-rich environments" is a highly recommended early childhood practice (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Neuman et al., 2000), and the "in-between" nature of family child care may have an effect on a provider's actions in establishing such an environment. Therefore, conflicts with space considerations and perceptions of self as a reader and writer may affect the literacy development of the children who attend family child care.


For several reasons, the findings of this study must not be generalized to the larger population of family child care providers. First, although parameters were established for the selection of the participants before the study was implemented, several potential participants refused to be considered. The first three family child care providers who accepted and met the parameters were selected as participants. Because they felt comfortable with a relative stranger coming to their home for an extended period of time, the findings may not be representative of the larger family child care provider population.

Additionally, the number of participants in this study would hardly support the generalizability of this work to the larger family child care population. Although the pool from which these participants were selected was fairly representative of the ways in which family child care providers advertise themselves, it was small in comparison to the number of people who lived in the two-county area in which the study was conducted.

However, this study can be used to ponder the concept of "in between" for these family child care providers. This piece can be used as a lens to further the understanding of this group of early childhood educators. Many of their decisions were based on their belief that they were "in between" the roles they played out on a daily basis. Their use of the environment, the types of literacy activities and opportunities, and self-perceptions were grounded in what it meant to be in between a provider, mother, teacher, and a member of their own household. Their definition of "family child care provider" was not clear; it shifted as the borders in which they operated shifted. This definition of "family child care provider" has implications for groups interested in early childhood education.


The field of emergent literacy research needs to continue to expand the examinations of the environments in which literacy development occurs (McGee & Purcell-Gates, 1997). Little is known about family child care as an emergent literacy experience, and to more fairly represent the entire picture of emergent literacy, the field must expand to this environment. Using a larger population of family child care providers would add to the depth of knowledge about the role they play in the development of literacy for the children in their care. However, this is not without complications, because acquiring access to these environments represents some difficulty (K. Roskos, personal communication, April 13, 1999; Walker, 2002).

The broadening of understanding about family child care as a preschool experience could have implications for the formal schooling experiences that children eventually have. Weinberger (1998) stated that the literacy experiences of young children at school entrance could be enhanced if careful attention was paid to the understandings they bring with them. Since 15-20 percent of the preschool children in the United States attend family child care as their preschool experience (Children's Defense Fund, 2000), it is important for teachers to attend to the types of literacy experiences these children have had. The engagements with books and writing materials may be different than the types of engagements found in preschools and child care centers. A rift between the "social registers" (Otto, 2002, p. 9) found in family child care and the "academic registers" (p. 59) of schools may put some children at risk for failure in school.

As family child care may be the only preschool experience some children have, examinations of children's transition from family child care to formal school settings needs to be investigated. This information could help school personnel plan experiences that bridge the family child care experience to formal school settings. Collaboration between family child care providers, family child care trainers, and school personnel would provide a breadth of understanding in how this type of preschool experience translates into later academic achievement. Identifying these children through longitudinal research could add depth to the understanding of the effects that family child care, as a preschool experience, has on academic achievement.


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Sharryn Larsen Walker

Stephens College
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Author:Walker, Sharryn Larsen
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Date:Sep 22, 2004
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