Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Funds of Knowledge in Multicultural Homes: Looking Beyond the Bedtime Story to Support Literacy Development

One of the greatest challenges for teachers who work with linguistically & culturally diverse students and English Language Learners (ELLs) is the lack of English language support in the students’ homes. The prevailing perception is that students are at a disadvantage if their parents do not or cannot read to them in English. Indeed, research indicates that parents play a crucial role in a child’s language acquisition and literacy development, and that providing a language-rich environment is essential (Kiel, 1998). In “At Home With the Johars: Another Look at Family Literacy,” Jim Anderson and Selina Mui (2008) explore the alternative literacy and language practices of an Indo-Canadian family. Anderson and Mui challenge existing notions that literacy in the home is based almost exclusively on parents reading to their children, and they provide insight into the various forms of literacy support that families of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds can provide for children in the home.
In their research, Anderson and Mui (2008) chronicle the literacy practices of the “Johars,” a family of English-and-Punjabi-speaking Indo-Canadians who live in Western Canada. The Johars’ living situation is relatively unique: the extended family resides jointly; grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins (fifteen in all) live together. At the center of the study is “Genna,” one of the younger children in the family (the children range in age from three to 13). Genna’s fist language is Punjabi; however, it has not interfered with her acquisition of English or academic literacy. Although Genna’s mother, “Helen,” is “proficient” in English and speaks both English and Punjabi to her children, Helen does not read to her children, and she rarely reviews their writing because she believes this is their teachers’ duty. Instead of the customary bedtime story, flashcards, workbooks, and social interactions (specifically play) promote literacy development in the Johar home.
Literacy in the Johar household is supported primarily by “more knowledgeable others” (Vygotsky, 1987), namely the older children in the family. Learning is a social event as all the children engage in dramatic and structured play: The children “play school” (older children act as teachers and younger ones as students); they play board games, card games, and counting games; and the older children often involve the younger ones in the completion of actual school assignments. These interactions supplement academic literacy instruction; they also provide another venue in which the children can “take the linguistic risks necessary for their [English] language development” (Bouchereau Bauer & Manyak, 2008).
Despite the fact that Genna’s parents do not read to her, her teachers report that she and her cousins all perform above grade level. Mui and Anderson suggest that this is largely due to the fact that literacy is “highly valued” in the Johar home; albeit, it is supported in alternate forms. Interestingly, both English and Punjabi are spoken and esteemed in the home. This affirms conceptions that second-language instruction is more effective when children continue to receive support in their first language (McLaughlin, 1992).
As the student populations in classrooms across the country become increasingly more culturally and linguistically diverse, teachers must become resourceful with “Funds of Knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992)—the accumulated body of knowledge available in a home that students and their families possess. Furthermore, as Anderson and Mui (2008) suggest, educators must “become familiar with the literacy practices of the families with whom we work.” Teachers who work with students whose cultures are communal (e.g. Latin-American and East-Asian cultures) should consider communicating and collaborating with their students’ siblings and members of their extended family (in addition to parents or immediate guardians). Anderson and Mui suggest inviting relatives into the classroom or to open-school night. ELLs should be encouraged to share the day’s lesson(s) with siblings, relatives, or close friends as a means of supplementing classroom & home instruction.
Although it might be a teacher’s first instinct to ask parents of ELLs to speak and read to their children often in English, studies indicate that encouraging support of the primary language and respect of the home culture promotes second-language acquisition and overall success across content areas (Nieto, 1992). The Johar case study (Anderson & Mui, 2008) provides evidence to validate these findings; and it further offers practical alternatives for literacy and language support outside the classroom and beyond the bedtime story.


Anderson, J., & Mui, S. (2008). At Home with the Johars: Another Look at Family Literacy.
The Reading Teacher, (62)3, 234-243.

Bouchereau Bauer, E., & Manyak, P. (2008). English Learners: Creating Language-Rich Instruction
For English-Language Learners. The Reading Teacher, (62)2, 176-178.

Kiel, J. (1998). How language is learned: From birth through the elementary years and beyond.
In C. Weaver, ed. Lessons to share: On teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH:

McLaughlin, B. (1992). Myths and misconceptions about second language learning:
What every teacher needs to unlearn. University of California, Santa Cruz: National
Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a
Qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 3(1), 132-141.

Sonia (1992). We Speak in Many Tongues: Language Diversity and Multicultural
Education. In Carlos P. Diaz, Ed., Multicultural education for the twenty-first
century. Washington, DC: NEA.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1987). Collected works (Vol.1). New York: Plenum.

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