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British Educational Research Journal
Vol. 35, No. 2, April 2009, pp. 167–185
Fathers’ involvement in young
children’s literacy development:
implications for family literacy
programmes
Anne Morgana, Cathy Nutbrown*b and Peter Hannonb
a
Centre for Education Research, Sheffield Hallam University, UK; bSchool of Education,
University of Sheffield, UK
Relatively few studies of family literacy programmes have investigated parents’ experiences and
whilst a number of such programmes have been specifically aimed at fathers, little is known about the
involvement of fathers in programmes which target both mothers and fathers. This article reports
fathers’ involvement in a family literacy programme and their home literacy practices with their
young children. The article provides a definition of family literacy and describes the context of the
study, which was carried out in socio-economically disadvantaged communities in a northern
English city. Fathers’ participation in their children’s literacy was investigated through interviews at
the beginning and end of the programme (n585) and home visit records made by teachers
throughout the programme. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of these data indicate that, while
fathers’ participation in the family literacy programme was not easily visible, almost all fathers were
involved to some extent in home literacy events with their children. During the programme, teachers
shared information about literacy activities and the importance of children having opportunities to
share literacy activities with their parents. Data indicate that fathers who were not mentioned by
mothers as having been involved in their children’s literacy were significantly more likely to be on a
low income than those who were reported as being engaged with their children in home literacy
activities. Fathers in the study were involved in providing literacy opportunities, showing recognition of
their children’s achievements, interacting with their children around literacy and being a model of a
literacy user. Although involved in all four of these key roles, fathers tended to be less involved in
providing literacy opportunities than mothers. While fathers and sons engaged in what might be
described as traditionally ‘masculine’ literacy activities, fathers were more often reported to be
involved with their children in less obviously gendered home literacy activities. The article concludes
with discussion of implications for involving fathers in future family literacy programmes.
Introduction
Much research has been carried out into the relationships between parental
involvement and children’s academic achievement and it is now widely accepted that
*Corresponding author. University of Sheffield, 388 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2JA, UK.
Email: [email protected]
ISSN 0141-1926 (print)/ISSN 1469-3518 (online)/09/020167-19
# 2009 British Educational Research Association
DOI: 10.1080/01411920802041996
168 A. Morgan et al.
children whose parents are actively involved in their development are more likely to
succeed in school (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). Recently, however, it has been
acknowledged that studies using the term ‘parent’ often refer only to mothers
(Nichols, 2000; Fletcher & Daly, 2002; Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003) even though
there is a growing body of research into fathers’ involvement which has shown that
children whose fathers are involved benefit from higher academic achievement and
social and emotional well-being (Nord et al., 1997; Amato, 1998; Brooks, 2002;
Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 2002; Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2004). The long-term
benefits of fathers’ involvement have also been investigated; one recent study found
that fathers’ involvement in their children’s education at age seven predicted
educational attainment by age 20 (Flouri & Buchanan, 2004).
The extent to which fathers are involved in their children’s early development has
been the subject of debate. Some contend that fathers’ involvement in housework
and child care is lacking (Hochschild, 1989; Thompson & Walker, 1989; Shelton,
1990) and that fathers tend to avoid such responsibilities (Walkerdine & Lucey,
1989); much of this literature is influenced by feminist theories. Some have argued
that women may be reluctant for their partners to become more involved in family
work and child care, fearing that they may lose their traditional power over home
activities (Polatnik, 1974; Lamb, 1997; Bonney et al., 1999). Others contend that
fathers’ involvement in children’s development is increasing, focusing on the
changing nature of fatherhood and the ‘new father’ image (Lamb et al., 1987; Lewis
& O’Brien, 1987) which emerged during the 1980s. The ‘new father’ is more
involved in family life than fathers of earlier generations; he assumes multiple roles,
including not only ‘breadwinner’, but also carer and educator. More recently, the
term ‘fatherhoods’ (Hobson, 2003) has been used to describe the increasingly
diverse ways fathers can be involved in families.
Family literacy studies of family members using literacy as part of their daily
routines (Heath, 1983; Taylor, 1983; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988) show that
children’s early understanding of literacy is learned socially and culturally within
their family and community, and that the types of literacy experience children
encounter differ according to families’ social and cultural practices. Family literacy
practices have been studied using ethnography (Heath, 1983; Taylor, 1983; Taylor &
Dorsey-Gaines, 1988), interviews with parents (Weinberger, 1996; Nichols, 2000),
interviews with children (Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003), observation (Teale, 1986;
Minns, 1990; Purcell-Gates, 1996) and case studies of individual children
(Baghban, 1984; Bissex, 1990; Schickedanz, 1990; Whitehead, 2002). Taken
together, these studies provide insights into family literacy as the set of literacy practices
found within families (Hannon, 2000).
Family literacy programmes are educational programmes which focus on literacy,
and acknowledge, and make use of, learners’ family membership. Such programmes
have focused mainly on disadvantaged communities, since it is children from these
communities who are thought to have most difficulties with school literacy (White,
1982; Heath, 1983). Family literacy programmes are usually evaluated in terms of
literacy outcomes for children (Whitehurst et al., 1994; Wagner et al., 2002).
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 169
Participants’ views and experiences of programmes are rarely considered (Nutbrown
et al., 2005; Hannon et al., 2006).
The present study concerns fathers’ involvement with children’s home literacy
activities. It arose out of a study of children’s perspectives of family literacy in which 148
five-year-old children were interviewed. In that study, 39% of the children said that their
fathers shared some literacy activities with them at home (Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003).
Building on the children’s reports, we were interested in learning more about fathers’
literacy practices with their children, from the perspective of the adults involved,
especially in the light of conflicting reviews regarding the extent to which fathers
participate in such activities with their children. Some studies have reported reluctance
among fathers to read to their children (Solsken, 1992) and in the United States a survey
found that over 40% of fathers never read to their children (National Center for
Fathering, 1999). Possible explanations for this perceived reluctance have included the
suggestion that fathers’ involvement in family literacy practices often involves men
entering into practices that are valued and have already been established by mothers
(Nichols, 2000). It has also been suggested that such practices may not hold the same
value for men (Fletcher & Daly, 2002) and that mothers may have stronger beliefs than
fathers in their own ability to help to improve children’s reading skills (Lynch, 2002).
However, other studies have found that many fathers do engage in literacy
activities with their children (Ortiz et al., 1999; Nichols, 2000; Nutbrown &
Hannon, 2003, Nutbrown et al., 2005). The middle-class mothers in Nichols’s
(2000) study tended to delegate story reading to fathers, a finding which challenges
the assertion that mothers may be reluctant to encourage fathers to engage with their
children (Polatnik, 1974; Lamb, 1997; Bonney et al., 1999). It has been suggested
that fathers who engage in literacy activities with children strengthen relationships
with them in the process (Ortiz et al., 1999).
A number of studies have shown strong links between demographic variables and
father involvement. For example, fathers with higher education levels are more likely
to be involved with their school-aged children (Goldschieder & Waite, 1991; Blair et
al., 1994; Nord et al., 1997). On the other hand, Ortiz (1996), who explored fathers’
involvement in pre-school literacy activities, found only a weak relationship between
education and income and involvement in literacy practices. To explore further the
relationships between demographic variables and father involvement in pre-school
literacy activities, the study reported here investigated the extent of fathers’
involvement in socio-economically disadvantaged communities by comparing the
characteristics of fathers who were mentioned by mothers as being involved in their
children’s home literacy with those who were not mentioned.
One of the aims of the present study was to investigate the roles adopted by fathers
and to understand more about the types of home literacy activities in which they
engaged. Traditionally, the types of literacy activities pursued by men have
conformed to perceptions of masculinity; such as ‘Do-It-Yourself’ books, car
maintenance manuals and sports magazines about such interests as football or
biking. Where men’s chosen literacy activities reflect such interests they might, for
example, look through car manuals or football magazines, thus acting as powerful
170 A. Morgan et al.
models for their children. Fathers may also share this type of reading material with their
children, particularly their sons, leading some to suggest that reading between fathers
and sons may be associated with masculine bonding (Biddulph, 1994; Nichols, 2000).
Fathers have also been found to engage with their children in literacy activities that are
not so obviously gendered, including reading environmental print and newspapers,
using dictionaries, reading maps and bedtime stories (Ortiz et al., 1999).
Programmes aimed at increasing father–child involvement in children’s literacy
development have been implemented in recent years with varying degrees of success
(Millard & Hunter, 2001; Green, 2003; Lloyd, 2004). Most have experienced
difficulties in recruitment and participation and, while some have been specifically
aimed at fathers, the role of fathers in family literacy programmes aimed at both
mothers and fathers remains under-researched. It remains the case that in most family
literacy programmes targeting mothers and fathers, the majority of participants are
women (Mace, 1998). It has been suggested that the under-representation of men in
such programmes may be due to practical reasons; the fact that most are provided
during the working day means they are less accessible to men (who are more likely to be
in full-time employment than women) (Cairney et al., 1995).
A further aim of the study reported here was to investigate the extent to which
fathers participated in a flexible family literacy programme (in terms of time and
location) where the primary participants were mothers and to identify and describe
the types of home literacy fathers shared with their children.
Setting for the research: a family literacy programme
The REAL (Raising Early Achievement in Literacy) Project family literacy
programme aimed to promote pre-school children’s literacy through the implementation and evaluation of a parental involvement programme. Ten teachers in a
north of England city worked with 80 families for the duration of the 18-month
programme. The project was based on the ORIM conceptual framework (Hannon,
1995; Nutbrown et al., 2005) in Figure 1, which views parents supporting their
child’s developing literacy through four key roles. They provide opportunities for
literacy: giving children pens and paper, joining the library, making a space in the
home where literacy can take place, placing books and writing equipment in an
accessible place. They can show recognition of the child’s achievements: displaying
some writing, discussing with the child what they have achieved, e.g. ‘you found all
those letters yourself didn’t you?’. Parents can share times of interaction with the
child in literacy activities: reading a book together, playing an alphabet puzzle,
writing a birthday card. Finally, and subtly important, parents can provide a model of
a user of literacy in everyday life: reading a recipe, doing a crossword, completing a
form, writing a note. Four strands of literacy formed the main focus of the REAL
project programme: environmental print, books, early writing and aspects of oral
language. The programme included a combination of home visiting by teachers and
group meetings. Teachers kept records of contacts with parents. There was also an
optional adult learning component leading to accreditation of parents’ learning.
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 171
Figure 1. The ‘ORIM’ framework used in designing the family literacy programme
A sample of 160 families with three-year-olds was drawn at random from
waiting lists of 10 schools in areas of social and economic disadvantage, ensuring
that families were representative of their communities. All schools were in electoral
wards above the national median on the Government’s index of multiple
deprivation, and five were in the most deprived 2% of such areas nationally.
The families whose children attended these schools were mainly white
monolingual. Families agreed to participate in a University research study on
the understanding that half of them, selected entirely at random, would be invited
to join a family literacy programme, with the remainder serving as the control. The
main outcomes of the family literacy programme for children and parents and the
views of the children who participated in the project have also been reported
elsewhere (Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003; Nutbrown et al., 2005, Hannon et al.,
2006). The study reported here draws on data which were collected from the
programme group only because a key source of data, the teachers’ records of home
visits and group meetings, was not available for the control group because they did
not participate in the programme.
Research questions and methods
The purpose of the study was to ascertain whether and to what extent fathers were
involved in their children’s early literacy development. The research questions were:
1.
2.
3.
What is the extent of fathers’ involvement in a family literacy programme?
What is the extent of fathers’ involvement in family literacy practices?
What are the characteristics of fathers who are not mentioned by mothers as
involved in their children’s literacy?
172 A. Morgan et al.
4.
5.
How do fathers participate in home literacy activities with their children?
How do mothers and fathers perceive the father’s role in children’s literacy?
There were two main sources of data: teachers’ records of home visits and group
meetings, and post-programme interviews.
Records of home visits and group meetings
Records of each home visit and all group meetings were kept by programme
teachers. The family literacy programme was designed to involve fathers as well as
mothers and the term ‘parent’ was used consistently in planning and implementation. However, in practice, perhaps because fathers tended to have more daytime
employment outside the home, teachers interacted more with mothers.
Teachers made notes of their conversations and interactions with families when
they recorded home visits. These were recorded in three parts: ‘review what
parents and child have been doing’, ‘focus on a planned aspect of literacy and
parent’s role’ and ‘anticipate what parent might do following the visit’. In the
‘review’ section, teachers asked parents (almost always mothers) what they had
been doing with their children around literacy since the last visit. They might talk
about a book which had been borrowed, or look through a page or two of a
scrapbook which the parent and child had been compiling together. In the ‘focus’
part of the home visit the teacher would offer some input which paid particular
attention to a strand of literacy and aspects of the parents’ role, for example, a
focus on environmental print might involve a walk to the local shops with a
camera, taking photographs of street and shop signs for later use. Before the
teacher finished each home visit he or she would ‘anticipate’ with the parent what
the parent and child might do together in the period between visits, such as, make
an alphabet snap game, visit the library, go on another ‘print walk’ and so on
(Nutbrown et al., 2005). Since this was a parental involvement programme,
teachers did not specifically ask what fathers had been doing—the aim was to find
out what experiences the child had shared with adults in the family. Information
about fathers’ involvement was usually volunteered rather than solicited, and it is
therefore likely that these data, if anything, underestimate the amount of literacy
going on between fathers and their children. Since the home visit notes generally
concerned conversations between mothers and teachers (rather than between
fathers and teachers), the voices of fathers rarely appeared directly. The records
do, however, provide evidence that many fathers were involved and offer valuable
insights into the ways in which, according to mothers’ reports, children’s fathers
were involved in their home literacy practices.
Interviews
At the conclusion of the programme, parents were interviewed by independent
interviewers; all were early childhood professionals who had experience of working
and talking with parents. They were not known to the parents and had pre-interview
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 173
training which included discussion of strategies for ensuring that parents were
comfortable during the interview experience, that they knew they could stop at any
time and the interviewers made it as easy as possible for parents to make negative
comments if they wished to. The interviewers reported that parents appeared to be
only too happy to participate in the interviews. Around 90% of the interviews were
conducted with mothers only, and about 10% of interviews included fathers as well.
No interviews were conducted with fathers only (Hannon et al., 2006). Family
characteristics (mothers’ and fathers’ socio-economic classification, mothers’
educational level and free school meal eligibility) were ascertained and family
literacy practices explored. Interviews were extensive but the study reported here
focused on the following questions which gave the respondent(s) the opportunity to
talk about father involvement in children’s literacy. Parents were asked: ‘Who reads
with your child?’, ‘Does anyone else read with him/her?’, ‘Who writes with him/her?’,
‘Who says nursery rhymes with him/her?’, ‘Who tells stories to him/her?’ and ‘Who
helps your child most with reading and writing at home?’ There were also questions
as to whether parents provided a model of literacy and who provided such models.
Analysis
Research question 1 asked: ‘What is the extent of fathers’ involvement in a family literacy
programme?’ Details of the number of fathers who visibly participated in the programme
were obtained by counting the number of fathers present at home visits or centre-based
meetings. To investigate research question 2, ‘What is the extent of fathers’ involvement in
family literacy practices?’ the two data sets (home visit records and interview responses)
were analysed in combination and separately, and reports of involvement noted. Chisquared analyses were used to investigate the significance of differences between
characteristics of fathers for whom there were reports of involvement and those for whom
there were few or no reports of involvement. This provided some answers to question 3,
‘What are the characteristics of fathers who appear to be minimally involved in their
children’s literacy?’ Research question 4, ‘How do fathers participate in home literacy
activities with their children?’ was addressed by analysing the extent to which fathers
participated in aspects of the parent’s role, as conceptualised by the ORIM framework
(Hannon, 1995; Nutbrown et al., 2005). The main analysis involved qualitative analysis of
data sets in combination, with the aid of a software package (NVivo), although interview
questions relating to interaction and modelling were also analysed quantitatively. Finally,
research question 5, ‘How do mothers and fathers perceive the father’s role in children’s
literacy?’ was answered using qualitative analysis, again using NVivo, of home visit
records.
The sample
This study was concerned with resident (or actively present) fathers’ involvement in
children’s literacy development. Since one of the main data sets (home visit records)
was based on mothers’ reports of family literacy practices, it was not possible to
174 A. Morgan et al.
include absent fathers. Male partners who lived in the family home were also
included; for example, mothers typically spoke of partners, boyfriends and children’s
stepfathers—these men are considered, throughout this article, as ‘fathers’. At
interview, nine of the 80 families who participated in the REAL project were families
with a lone parent, always the mother; these families were excluded from the
analysis. Ten per cent of fathers were present at final interview with mothers; no
fathers were interviewed alone. One family had moved to another city by the end of
the programme; another two ‘disappeared’ and contact was lost (hence n568).
Results
1. What is the extent of father involvement in a family literacy programme?
Fathers’ visible participation in the programme was low. Fathers were more likely to
be involved in home visits than centre-based meetings; records showed that while
16% of fathers had been present during at least one home visit only 9% had attended
at least one group meeting or event. It is relevant to note, however, that in general,
centre-based meetings were not as attractive to parents (mothers or fathers) as home
visits; while all were happy to receive home visits, fewer parents (86%) attended one
or more centre-based meeting.
2. What is the extent of father involvement in family literacy practices?
Almost all fathers were reported to engage with their children around literacy to some
extent. Analysis of home visit records and interview data revealed that 93% of families
reported some literacy activity between fathers and children (in only five families was there
no reported involvement of fathers with their children). However, this analysis does not
give an indication of the extent to which fathers were involved, since it includes fathers who
may have engaged only sporadically in their children’s literacy. In interviews 77% of
fathers were mentioned as involved in their children’s literacy. For the remaining 23% (16)
there was no mention of involvement, even though 11 of them were noted (at least once
and in some cases up to three times), in home visit reports, to have had some involvement.
When asked ‘Who helps [child] most with reading and writing?’ 29% of families
interviewed said both mother and father helped with the same level of frequency,
while two-thirds said the mother helped most. (The remaining 4% said another
relative helped most, usually a grandparent or sibling. No respondents reported that
the father helped most.) This finding supports the contention that, while it is
typically mothers who assume primary responsibility for young children’s literacy
(Nichols, 2000), many fathers also play a role.
3. What are the characteristics of fathers not mentioned in interviews as involved in their
children’s literacy?
While the majority of fathers were reportedly involved in their children’s literacy to
some extent, we were interested in the 16 fathers (23%) for whom there was no
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 175
mention of involvement at final interview. No mention of involvement cannot be
taken, uncritically, as an indication of ‘no involvement’. What can be inferred,
however, is that either these fathers were not involved or that their involvement was
not salient from the perspective of the mothers interviewed.
We investigated the socio-economic characteristics of all the fathers in the study
using the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC) (National
Statistics Online, 2004). Results are shown in Figure 2, which shows that, though
the families were living in areas of social and economic disadvantage, just over half
of fathers (36) were classified in the higher socio-economic groups, 1 to 5. Slightly
less than half (30) were in groups 6 to 8, with the majority of fathers in the sample
being in group 6 (semi-routine occupations). Data for two fathers were missing. The
fathers not mentioned in interview as involved appeared twice as likely to be in
groups 6 to 8, as shown in Figure 3, but the difference fell short of statistical
significance, x2(1)53.52, p5.061.
The characteristics of fathers mentioned as involved and those not mentioned
were investigated further by exploring the relationship with children in receipt of free
school meals (an indicator of low family income). Of the 21% of children who
received free school meals, a high proportion had fathers who were not mentioned as
involved in their children’s literacy, as shown in Figure 4. This difference was
statistically significant, x2(1)54.28, p5.039, and suggests that fathers not
mentioned as involved in their children’s literacy were significantly more likely to
be on a low income than fathers who were reported to engage in literacy activities
with their children.
There were no significant differences in fathers’ involvement in relation to
mothers’ educational qualifications (x2(1)50.127, p5.722) or to mothers’ socioeconomic classification (x2(1)50.253, p5.615). We were also interested in whether
fathers’ likelihood of being mentioned was related to the gender of their children.
Figure 2. NS-SEC profiles of resident fathers in the study sample (n566)
176 A. Morgan et al.
Figure 3. Fathers’ NS-SEC groupings and whether they are mentioned as involved in children’s
literacy (n566)
Fathers might be more likely to engage in literacy activities with daughters than sons,
since literacy is often perceived as a feminine pursuit. Although fathers who were not
mentioned were over twice as likely to be fathers of boys than girls (see Figure 5),
this was partly a result of there being slightly more boys in the sample than girls, and
the difference was not statistically significant (x2(1)51.11, p5.292).
4. How do fathers participate in literacy activities with their children?
Fathers’ involvement was analysed in relation to the ORIM conceptual framework
(Hannon, 1995; Nutbrown et al., 2005) shown in Figure 1.
(a) Providing literacy opportunities. Providing literacy opportunities refers to the ways
parents provide permission to engage in literacy activities and access to literacy
resources such as books, writing materials, literacy games and somewhere to write.
Figure 4. Receipt of free school meals and mention of fathers as involved in literacy activities
(n567)
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 177
Figure 5. Child’s gender and mention of fathers as involved in literacy activities (n568)
While providing these opportunities might necessitate purchasing resources (books,
pens, paper), many such resources can be obtained for free (borrowing books from a
library, making use of print in the environment, providing envelopes from ‘junk mail’
for writing, providing somewhere for children to write and draw). In these data,
there were very few explicit examples of fathers providing literacy opportunities for
their children. This could be because, in these families, mothers were mostly
responsible for shopping (for food, clothes, toys and educational materials) and
therefore more likely to purchase such resources. There was only one explicit report,
from one teacher’s home visit notes, of a father providing his daughter with writing
materials, not from a shop, but from his place of work. The mother reported:
[Her] dad has brought her an old diary from work which she’s enjoying writing in.
The lack of examples of fathers providing opportunities for their children suggests
that it was mothers who selected and provided literacy resources; thereby
‘supervising’ opportunities for literacy activities (Nichols, 2000).
(b) Recognising children’s literacy achievements. This relates both to parents’
awareness of children’s literacy achievements and also to parents’ awareness that
literacy activities they involve their children in can enhance literacy development.
While there were few reports of fathers providing literacy opportunities for their
children, fathers were frequently reported as showing recognition of their children’s
literacy achievements around various strands of literacy. For example, they
recognised children’s achievements with books:
Mum reported how impressed Adrian’s dad is with how much he knows about books.
in writing:
Dad was there and was very pleased that over the summer Craig has learnt to write his
name.
178 A. Morgan et al.
Julian wrote a Christmas list at nursery and later that evening he recalled the list to his
daddy.
in phonological awareness:
He has nursery rhymes in a blue file and dad observed him singing each one to himself
as he turned the pages, ‘and he sang the right one on each page!’
and in ‘talk about literacy’:
Mark’s dad asked him to read the numbers off the back of the book, and Mark could
identify them.
Dad spent most of session with us and said how they played ‘I Spy’ a lot.
While these examples highlight fathers’ spoken recognition of their children’s
achievements, there were also examples of fathers recognising achievements through
their actions:
Angela found the letters from letter templates and drew around them and cut them out.
When the poster was finished Angela’s father put it up on the chimney breast. He said
he would transfer it to her bedroom later.
Angela’s father showed that he wanted to value his daughter’s achievement by
displaying the poster she had made. The following example also demonstrates a
father’s recognition through his actions, with the father using what might be
described as typically ‘masculine’ skills and resources to display his daughter’s work
more permanently:
Karen and dad had made the letters of her first name into a plaque following the last
visit and the dough we used to make her name, we had left it to go hard. Dad had
varnished it and stuck it on a piece of wood (already stained); put cord at the back and it
was hanging on her bedroom door! She proudly showed it to me when I went in.
(c) Interacting with children around literacy. Almost two-thirds (65%) of fathers were
reported to read with their children and almost half (45%) were reported to help
their children with writing. Though fewer fathers were reported to engage with their
children in oral language activities; almost a quarter (24%) sang nursery rhymes
together and 9% were said to have told stories to their children.
A number of reports of fathers and sons sharing literacy activities could be
interpreted as having what might stereotypically be viewed as subject matter of
‘masculine interest’. One teacher reported on such activities:
We spent a great part of the visit looking through Sheffield United programmes.
Andrew and his dad are keen fans and go to all the home matches together. Mum told
me Andrew recognised many of the players’ names in the programme. When he showed
me the programme he went through all the names and could even read them out of
sequence. He and dad sit and look through programmes together; they have quite a
collection. He also recognised sponsorship logos of opposing teams!
Another teacher was told of a father’s attempts to reinforce his son’s knowledge of
phonological awareness by modifying the lyrics of a nursery rhyme to fit with the
name of his football team’s home ground:
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 179
Dad has been singing nursery rhymes with Keith; last line of Baa baa black sheep to
‘One for the little boy who lives down Bramall Lane’ (dad is an ardent Sheffield United
fan). We recorded this on the tape.
There were no examples of fathers and daughters interacting around subject matter
which might be considered to be typically ‘masculine’, but the two examples above
suggest that some fathers may interact with their sons in ways which are compatible
with their notions of masculinity. These activities may reinforce boys’ perceptions of
masculine sex-role identities (Connolly, 2004). In contrast, there were no examples
of mothers interacting with children (girls or boys) around literacy activities relating
to their own interests, ‘feminine’ subject matter (such as fashion or home magazines)
or otherwise. Instead, they tended to focus on child-oriented literacy activities that
were often somewhat contrived. This is in contrast to the fathers in the examples
above, who engaged with their children in real literacy activities relating to their own
genuine interests.
While some fathers interacted with their children in what might be considered
more typically masculine ways, there were many examples of fathers interacting in
activities which were less obviously gender influenced. Fathers read to both sons and
daughters. For example, one mother of two girls said:
Their dad reads a story every night before they go to bed. Even when he comes home
from work he’s on the floor reading to them!
Teachers also made observations regarding fathers reading with their children:
As I left, Shaun was taking books to dad to read.
There were several examples of fathers and children writing together, such as:
Nancy had written a Mothers’ Day card with her dad.
On holiday he drew letters in the sand with dad.
They had collected small shells from holiday and there was a caption underneath:
‘Daddy and Bridget have been collecting shells at the seaside’. Also cut out pictures and
put initial sound underneath.
As already noted, relatively few fathers were reported to engage in oral language
activities with their children. However, home visit records provided some evidence
of fathers and children playing literacy games together, such as ‘alphabet snap’,
which enhances children’s understanding of phoneme/grapheme relationships:
Mum says that dad will enjoy playing alphabet snap with him ‘but Michael will have to
let him win!’
Sarah loves alphabet snap; mum says it has really helped her with recognising letters
and says she’s going to get some. Sarah has played a lot with dad.
There were two reports of oral language activities occurring on car journeys with
fathers, such as:
Mum said they practise nursery rhymes in the car. Dad makes his own words up, she
says. He changes the words to fit in with situation.
180 A. Morgan et al.
Such activities increase children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes, thereby developing
their understanding of onset and rime (Goswami & Bryant, 1990). Other oral
language activities include storytelling; there was one report of a father telling stories
to his son:
Mum says she sometimes makes up stories but usually prefers to read them. She said
Andrew’s dad makes stories up more than her.
(d) Providing a model of a literacy user. Almost two-thirds (63%) of programme
fathers in this study modelled reading behaviour at home. Reported activities
included reading letters, maps, television guides, newspapers, special interest
magazines (relating to, for example, astrology, electronics, snooker and football),
reading library books, pop-music books and studying. Over half (54%) the fathers
provided a model of writing, with reported activities including paperwork, studying,
writing time-sheets, cheques, telephone messages, crosswords, letters, computing
and diary writing. Most of these activities are not necessarily stereotypically ascribed
to one gender or another and, generally, examples reported fathers acting as models
in similar ways to mothers; for example:
He’s been making photo-books of their holidays with dad—photographs with captions
underneath.
Mum told me dad often writes with Suzy; he’s been teaching her the alphabet and
numbers. Evidence of this is in one of the books mum showed me. Dad had been
writing a few sentences and Suzy had written hers underneath. Mum commented that
dad sits and helps Suzy a lot.
How do mothers and fathers perceive the father’s role in children’s literacy development?
In the majority of families, mothers were primarily responsible for young children’s
literacy, although most fathers were reported to play a significant role and, in 29% of
families, were said to assume equal responsibility. However, in two cases, mothers
reported reluctance on the part of fathers to become involved in literacy activities
with children. One mother said that her partner viewed sharing books with their
child as her role, and another implied this to be the case, saying that in her family, it
was unusual for her partner to read to his children. The teachers noted:
Mum commented that dad does not read; he will now spend time with Tina (although
he didn’t used to), but he puts videos on. He regards reading/teaching to be mum’s job!
They enjoyed the books. Dad even read ‘Alfie gets in first’ to Nancy—this is a rare
event.
There appeared to be a change in Tina’s father’s behaviour, however, and four
months later, the teacher wrote:
Mum reported that dad now reads books to Tina (previously dad regarded Tina’s
education as mum’s job).
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 181
Three mothers reported that fathers’ involvement in literacy activities with their
children was due to the fact that they themselves were not available, usually due to
work commitments. Teachers reported:
Mum said dad was doing more at night with him because she (mum) had to go out to
work at tea time.
Mum had been happy to read the stories and said that when she was at work and
couldn’t, dad had read them and everybody had really enjoyed them.
Mum is expecting her fourth child in about 5 weeks. I have told her we are having a
workshop session at the end of March; she will send dad with Karen if she is
unavailable!
While these examples suggest that the mothers viewed themselves as primarily
responsible for literacy activities, they also provide evidence of a practicality and
flexible sharing of roles within families.
Of the many fathers who frequently engaged in literacy activities with their
children, some had special routines, usually relating to specified reading times, as in
the following examples:
Shared ‘Jasper’s beanstalk’ with dad. Dad read it to her because he reads her bedtime
stories.
Mum and dad read stories to James. They all read together when older brother Thomas
reads his school book.
The findings described above in relation to fathers’ involvement in children’s literacy
are consistent with those reported by their children (Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003);
that is, while the interviews with children indicated that their mothers played a
prominent role in home literacy practices, many children also frequently mentioned
their fathers’ involvement with them.
Discussion and conclusions
The majority of fathers are reported to be involved in their young children’s literacy
development. This is a key finding of the present study; there were numerous reports
of shared literacy activity between fathers and their children in the duration from one
home visit to the next. Almost all fathers were reported to participate in literacy
activities with their children to some extent, and just over a quarter of parents said
that both mothers and fathers were equally involved in such activities. Only five
(7%) were not reported to be involved. Fathers were reported to be involved in all
four key aspects of the parent’s role; opportunities, recognition, interaction and
modelling. These findings corroborate the reports of the children in the study, who
said that they were involved with literacy activities with their fathers at home
(Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003). While this study challenges findings from other
research which suggests that fathers are not involved in their children’s home
literacy, the amount of fathers’ involvement may be lower than that of mothers.
182 A. Morgan et al.
Mention of fathers as involved in literacy activities with pre-school children is associated
with socio-economic status. The second clear finding of this study is that fathers in
receipt of higher incomes are more likely to be mentioned as involved in literacy
activities with their children.
These findings carry with them two main implications for the future development
of family literacy programmes which aim to increase father participation.
(i) Family literacy programmes need to acknowledge that they are building on families’
existing knowledge, skills and cultures (Auerbach, 1989; Nutbrown & Hannon, 1997;
Nutbrown et al., 2005); this must include recognition of fathers’ contributions. The study
indicates that fathers are often involved in family literacy practices with their children,
although they are much less likely to be visible participants in family literacy programmes.
Researchers and practitioners need to be aware that just because fathers’ participation is
not highly visible it does not mean that it does not happen.
(ii) Family literacy programmes may need to review their modes of delivery in order to
increase fathers’ involvement. In this study, an emphasis on flexible home visiting was
more successful than centre-based meetings for encouraging father involvement;
indeed, centre-based meetings were poorly attended by fathers and mothers in
comparison to home visits. Home visits were arranged to fit in with the preferences
and needs of each family, with some taking place, on request, in the early evening.
All group meetings took place in the daytime as this fitted with the majority
preference. A flexible way of working was the key for all families involved in the
programme; the majority of mothers also preferred home visits to centre-based
meetings. A review of programme practices may need to examine the kinds of
activities in which fathers and mothers are asked to participate. We are not
suggesting that specific activities are designed ‘for fathers’; rather, we believe that in
order to take account of the diversity of interests and abilities within families a range
of activities and opportunities to share literacy with young children is explored with
all family members in mind.
Caution must be exercised in interpreting the findings of this study, which rely
heavily on mothers’ reports of fathers’ involvement, rather than data which allow
analysis of the fathers’ own voices; some have noted that mothers’ and fathers’
reports of their respective involvement may differ significantly (McBride & Mills,
1993; McBride & Rane, 1997). We can only speculate on how findings may differ if
fathers had been interviewed; perhaps further evidence of fathers’ involvement may
have been found, or it is possible that fathers may underestimate their level of
involvement. A further study would be necessary to answer this question. However,
the findings reported here are corroborated in a separate study of children’s
perspectives (Nutbrown & Hannon, 2003) that provided an insight into fathers’
involvement in family literacy practices and highlighted the need for future research
which should seek to involve fathers as informants. Although largely invisible to
outsiders, in many families the fathers’ presence in their children’s literacy became
apparent to teachers in the project. As one teacher commented:
Whatever Beth makes or does, she likes to show dad (although I have never met him).
He obviously takes a keen interest in activities she has done.
Fathers’ involvement in literacy development 183
It is would be regrettable if educators, researchers and policy makers were to
underestimate this, often unseen, contribution of fathers to their young children’s
early literacy development.
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