ELL children act as ‘literacy brokers’ for parents

iStock_000006341912XSmallGetting a permission slip from home is one example of the “literacy brokering” that a child from an immigrant family engages in to help family members understand the unfamiliar texts and literary practices of their new home, writes Kristen Perry in a recent study in Reading Research Quarterly. Children, themselves often English Language Learners (ELLs), not only help families with language but also with unfamiliar texts such as coupons, sweepstakes tickets, crossword puzzles, phone books, etc., writes Perry.

“Literacy practices are the everyday ways in which people use reading, writing, and texts in the world,” she writes. “Rather than emphasizing literacy as a skill to be possessed, literacy practices focus on what people actually do with written language.”

Educators should be aware that children play the role of literacy broker as parents try to meet the demands of their new environment. Many educators express frustrations with parents who are not more involved with schooling, Perry says. They should be aware that rather than being disinterested or lazy, parents actually may not understand the schools’ expectations for parental involvement.

For her study on literacy brokering, Perry followed 3 Sudanese families in Michigan for 18 months. The researcher visited each family an average of once a week. She selected families of different educational levels for her study: low, moderate and high. Each family had at least one member who could communicate with her reasonably well in English. Because she was interested in the ways young children negotiated various practices, she sought families with children in kindergarten or 1st grade. Even at that young age, she says, children acted as literacy brokers.

The majority of brokering events observed by Perry revolved around responding to school-related texts. The schools that the children attended sent home many papers. The children’s homework folders usually contained a variety of different genres: New homework, completed schoolwork, library books, permission slips, order forms, advertisements, newsletters and other flyers, some of which were for nonschool organizations.

In one family, the mother, who had grown up in a highly educated family, received a form for ordering yearbooks from her boys’ school, but she was not familiar with yearbooks. The researcher herself explained the purpose of a yearbook.

Although the children in the study could not actually read most of the texts themselves, they seemed to be able to guide their parents in the school’ literary practices, she writes.

“Parent signatures, in fact, appeared to be a particularly common expected response for the genres sent home by the schools,” she reports. “The children had quickly learned that this was an important function of these texts.”

One child brought home a “Turn off the TV Tuesdays” reading log. The program was intended to encourage children and parents to read together. The child told his mother he would get into trouble if she did not fill in and sign the reading log form.

“In doing so, he provided information about U.S. values regarding television and about his teacher’s expectations regarding parent support for reading at home,” she writes.

“Without knowledge of U.S. cultural beliefs and values surrounding television, education, and parenting, it was not immediately obvious to Viola what turning off the television had to do with reading with her children.”

Parents’ socioeconomic background or education level doesn’t seem to make a difference in the amount of literacy brokering they seek from their children and others, reports Perry, Children often play the role of cultural brokers in communicating to their parents the beliefs, values and practices common in the U.S. as well as its expectations. Children might help their parents understand U.S. holidays, historical events and national symbols or prepare for questions in the citizenship interview such as “Why did the Pilgrims come to America?” or “What do the stripes on our flag mean?”

Based on observations and interview data from her study, Perry says she identified 257 instances of different types of brokering involving culture, language and texts. Literacy brokering not only benefits parents but the children as well, Perry writes.

“As parents relied upon children to help them with texts, they drew them into authentic literacy practices, exposing the children to multiple texts and real-world purposes for reading and writing,” she writes.

“Genres, Contexts, and Literacy Practices: Literacy Brokering Among Sudanese Refugee Families,” by Kristen Perry, Reading Research Quarterly, Jul-Sep., Volume 44, Number 3, pp. 256-277.

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