Literacy Instruction and Positive Teacher-Family Communication


Literacy Instruction and Positive Teacher-Family Communication

William Kerns, Ph.D.,

College of Education,

Harris-Stowe State University


A child’s experiences in reading activities are foundational in helping or hindering future development of literacy skills. Partnerships between parents and teachers are linked to gains in early literacy development (Snow et. al, 2001). This brief article describes strategies for building positive communication between teachers and families to foster the development of reading skills.  The approach draws on positive psychology (Seligman Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), which stresses the importance of communication between teachers and parents related to the development of students’ strengths by “helping them find niches in which they can best live out these strengths” (p. 6).


Avoid deficit models of communication with families. Teachers need to strive to overcome deficit model approaches that inhibit communication with families. Many teachers view the families and home communities of their students as obstacles to their students’ success and therefore distance themselves from families and community members (Hyland & Meacham, 2004). Yet, increased student achievement is related to parent involvement (Davis-Kean, 2005; Galindo & Sheldon, 2012; Jeynes, 2005). A key obstacle to parent involvement in schools is that many teachers struggle to overcome negative attitudes toward working with families (Deslandes & Rousseau, 2007). The literacy skills of a parent, language or dialect can also be a significant obstacle to communicating with teachers (Dodd & Konzal, 2002). This gulf leads many families to feel reluctant to communicate with teachers.


Actively listen. Teachers foster positive communication by demonstrating compassion in responses when a parent or other family member

expresses concerns related to the education of a child. This form of compassion is often referred to as presence, or “a state of alert awareness, receptivity, and connectedness to the mental, emotional, and physical iterations of the individual and the group with the world and each other, and the ability to respond with a considered and compassionate best next step” (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006, p. 266). The teacher who shows presence in communication with families is alert to the expressed needs and has a heightened sense of self-awareness. Dialogue that is open to an exchange of ideas is an important aspect of presence. The philosopher Martin Buber identified differences in dialogue between I-Thou relationships, I-You relationships, and I-It relationships. An I-It relationship with a parent would damage communication because the parent would feel “othered”, treated as an object or a thing, with nothing to add to the conversation of value to the teacher. An I-You dialogue is increasingly positive in that there is mutual respect and an exchange of ideas, but there is still an overall difference in the power dynamic. A parent would still dialogue with a clear sense of lacking power in the dialogue in relation to the teacher. Finally, in an I-Thou dialogue, there is a full exchange of ideas, an openness to learning from one another, and a sense of equality between those in communication. Buber recommended that people strive for an I-Thou relationship with one another to improve communication.


Find constructive and strategic avenues of communication. Teachers improve communication with families by frequently reaching out in constructive dialogue, rather than waiting until there is a problem. In discussions with families, teachers should seek to identify the following qualities about a child’s way of learning to work in partnership with families to improve the child’s reading skills: (a) in what areas does the child exhibit confidence and competence? How can the child be provided with a sense of challenge within the child’s existing skill level? (b) What goals should be set? Focus on clear and immediate goals. (c) How can we provide ongoing meaningful feedback to the child? (e) What activities promote the possibility of the child being intrinsically motivated, focused, and engaged?

Set goals together. When families and teachers do not share a common vision of each other’s goals, it can lead to friction. Goals that are collaborative set with families should help the child reach his or her full potential even when the child may be experiencing a problem in school. The teacher and parent can then identify strengths of the child, and discuss how these strengths can be used to help the child improve in an area where there may be a weakness (Peterson, 2009).

Provide useful feedback based on data. Successful reading interventions share certain common characteristics that serve as guideposts for positive teacher communication with families, including: (a) regular, ongoing assessment that is tied to constructive feedback and goal-setting; (b) quality texts with natural language; and (c) balanced text and word level strategies, including instruction in phonemic awareness, repeated reading, fluency, and word identification strategies along with reading connected texts. Assessment that isn’t tied to useful feedback becomes merely an exercise in record keeping. Teachers should provide regular, ongoing feedback to families (and students) after assessment. This helps to forge mutual responsibility for improving the child’s learning. Teachers should employ regular and systematic assessment and use evidence as part of efforts to improve student performance. Feedback based on this assessment should then be regularly communicated with parents. Planning should be guided by reflection on changes that need to be made. Analysis is conducted on the effectiveness of the implemented plans. This assessment iteratively leads to further feedback and reflection on possible needed changes. Teachers can build communication with families that includes ongoing efforts to address the following question: Does evidence of learning outcomes align with and confirm learning goals? This way, teachers and parents collaborate to ensure that goals are met, implemented, and evaluated in an accountable and transparent manner (Walvoord, 2010).

Families and teachers can work together in the growing of a child’s mind. The approach detailed in this article shifts the focus of the teacher away from family deficits such as a lack of time for parent conferences, and toward finding avenues to take advantage of strengths that may exist. A teacher who has a positive relationship with a family – in the sense of encouraging and fostering growth and generativity for the child in a collaborative manner – is more likely to seek communication work within the family’s time constraints.  


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