Family literacy programs provide more than schooling, research finds

University Park, Pa. -- Women enrolled in family literacy programs in both rural and urban areas benefit in meaningful social ways in addition to the academic and vocational skills they receive, according to a new Penn State study. The study indicates that literacy programs provide low-income women a space to interact with empathetic and supportive peers and teachers; in turn, the social support they receive enhances their psychosocial well-being.

"Family literacy programs play a very important social function that's not recognized," said Esther S. Prins, assistant professor of adult education in Penn State's College of Education. "Teachers and staff know it, and the participants know it, but it's never documented; it's been anecdotal. There's this whole other dimension that is rarely recognized."

Prins collaborated with doctoral candidate Blaire Willson Toso and Kai A. Schafft, assistant professor of education at Penn State, to publish the article "It Feels Like a Little Family to Me: Social Interaction and Support Among Women in Adult Education and Family Literacy," which was printed in Adult Education Quarterly. Situated in the literature on social networks and support among women in poverty, the article used data from two studies of family literacy programs in Pennsylvania.

The co-authors identified four social dimensions in the family literacy setting that the women benefit from in addition to their formal education: It gives them the opportunity to get out of the house, giving them something meaningful to look forward to; it provides them with a place for social contact and support where the women and their children can meet new people, make friends and socialize; it fosters supportive relationships with teachers, giving the women access to confidants and the reassurance that they are not "the only ones who have that problem;" and it creates opportunities for self-discovery and development. Because many of the women had delayed their education for the sake of their family, they saw the family literacy setting as their space, a place where they could do something for themselves.

While the study's findings indicate these benefits, the co-authors clarify in the article, "We are not suggesting that women are inherently nurturing and automatically become good friends, that conflicts never emerge, or that women or people in poverty share some innate solidarity." The findings are nonetheless important because the women in the studies, like many other low-income mothers with young children, tended to be have limited social support and social ties.

"In some ways our results could be seen as a critique of the very instrumental approach to adult education that just sees adult education as being valuable if participants get a job or a GED diploma," Prins said. "At a policy level the study points to the need to consider the value of other outcomes like those highlighted in our research."

Prins is collaborating with graduate assistants to follow up on this study by examining how women in poverty use family literacy and adult education programs to build social support networks and how these relationships affect their mental health. The follow-up study is funded by the Spencer Foundation.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010