Zooming in: A Close Look at Literacy Practices in Low-Income Latino Homes

Dual language learners (DLLs) come from linguistically, culturally, and economically diverse families. Considering that culture and communication are close cousins, DLLs’ early communication styles are likely shaped both by their distinct home cultures and their interactions with family members. So how do the communication styles of DLLs’ parents shape the ways they expose their children to literacy and language at home?

In a recently released research paper titled “Print-Related Practices in Low-Income Latino Homes and Preschoolers’ School-Readiness Outcomes,” NYU researchers Adina R. Schick and Gigliana Melzi take up this question. Specifically, they looked at 127 low-income Latino homes with DLLs enrolled in bilingual preschools. The study looked at DLLs’ primary caregivers to determine the activities they used to promote their children’s literacy — that is, their ability to read and write — and with what outcomes.

Schick and Melzi focused on parents’ use of print material. They looked at the number of children’s books in the home, the frequency of library visits, the frequency and styles of book sharing, and the use of “environmental print” — or pointing out street signs and food labels, or talking about recipes and asking DLLs to write their names or other words.

So what did the study find? All DLLs had language skills — in their dominant language — within the same range as non-DLL students of the same age. In other words, children who speak non-English languages at home appear to be developing in their home languages at similar rates — and in similar ways — to non-DLLs.

Like previous studies, this one found that some Latino communities do not routinely engage in parent-child book sharing — oftentimes because Latino mothers view reading as a school-based, rather than a home-based, activity. Instead, caregivers in the study preferred to engage their children in activities using environmental print — though at discouragingly low levels. Just 66 percent did so once or twice a week, and even fewer did so daily. The rest did so only once or twice a month. Interestingly, the study found some positive effects of parents’ use of environmental print — it resulted in better outcomes on DLLs’ language, literacy, and socioemotional skills. Still, this finding needs further exploration, given the overwhelming evidence of the implications of the 30 Million Words Gap and the greater exposure to words that children likely receive from frequent book-sharing versus the infrequent interactions with street signs and food labels.

What’s more, when participants shared a picture book with their DLLs, most preferred to narrate, rather than encourage their child’s participation. These practices differ from what research indicates are effective literacy practices. In fact, research demonstrates that when mothers encourage their children’s participation during book-sharing, the children show more advanced vocabulary and comprehension skills just a few years later, compared to children of mothers who didn’t encourage participation.

Although the study analyzed parents’ reading styles, the authors grouped two very different strategies — narrating a story and encouraging their child’s participation by asking them questions about the story — as an “elaborative” approach. This grouping is troublesome, since it leaves no way of distinguishing between the effects of using elaborative why questions and simple narration, on DLLs’ skills. And this is consequential for the study’s findings, since researchers frequently identify those questions as a key strategy for encouraging children’s participation. So although the authors found that the broadly defined elaborative approach had no outcomes on DLLs’ skills, they might have found different outcomes had they analyzed elaborative questioning and simple narration separately.

That said, it’s worth noting that the study’s findings can’t be generalized to all low-income, Latino families — the sample size was small and consisted of mostly Mexican families from the same community.

The authors of this study steer clear of making recommendations that impose best practices that have been researched and created for families of other cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic groups, to low-income Latino families. Instead, they claim to take a “strengths-based approach” — meaning they identify participants’ literacy practices, explain them through a cultural perspective, and frame them as assets rather than deficiencies. But by shying away from suggesting that low-income Latino families engage in more of the practices that support children's’ literacy development, they might dissuade these families from seeing whether these practices can work for their children too.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”"

Author:

Isabella Sanchez is a former intern for the Education Policy program at New America with the Dual Language Learner National Work Group.