Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #4: Digital Literacies

By Janine M. Schall and Luz Murillo

This is the fourth post in a series that shares results from a year-long research project exploring family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. This research was funded by the UTPA C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship.

Travel DVD player

“Mi hija, la mayor ahorita [usa el internet] para las tareas. Los muchachos…el otro niño también busca información ahí para las tareas también, y pues a veces como todo muchacho, verdad, pues se ponen ahí a platicar por, con medio de sus amigos…pero más que nada también para eso. [My daughter, the oldest, right now uses the internet for homework. The boys, the other boy also looks for information for homework and at time, like all children, you know, well, they begin to talk with all their friends. But more than anything it’s for homework.]” Sra. Puente

Digital literacies are increasing in importance as technology becomes more deeply embedded in daily life. While the families involved in this research are all working class or low income, parents recognize the importance of technology and digital literacies pervade family life. The families told us that they:

  • Paid bills online
  • Used computers at home or at the library
  • Made online purchases
  • Searched the internet to get ideas for home businesses
  • Used the internet for homework
  • Used social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace
  • Used chat programs to talk with friends
  • Played videogames online

 In the Llanas family the children used computers and the internet for homework:

“Ahí van [a la biblioteca] y hacen sus trabajos en la computadora. O antes, si tenían su computadora, y nada mas íbamos a imprimir. [They go to the library and do their homework on the computer. Or before, when they had their computer, we went only to print.]” Sra. Llanas

 Because the family didn’t always have internet access or the necessary technology at home, they also depended on being able to use computers at the public library in their town.

The mother of the Puente family described her major use of the home computer:

 “El internet; bueno, lo que pasa que yo lo, la uso más que nada para buscar, este, ideas como hacer arreglos florales porque me apasiona, me gusta mucho eso. Hago cualquier tipo de arreglo floral, tanto para arreglos para eventos, para piñatas, para baby showers, despedidas de solteros. Me apasiona, eso me gusta mucho también…y próximamente mi, mi meta, mi, mi proyecto es, este, poner negocio de eso. [The internet, well, what happens is that I use it more than anything to look for, well, ideas for floral arrangements because I love, I like that very much. I make any kind of floral arrangement, like arrangements for events, for piñatas, for baby showers, bridal showers. I love it, I enjoy it very much…and next my goal, my project is to set up a business for this.]” Sra. Puente

 As she prepared to open her own small business, the computer became necessary for both creative ideas and business information.

 Mr. Morales shared how the internet serves various purposes in his family:

 “Y utilizamos el internet para buscar esa pieza, la ordenamos, y la pagué, y pues yo diría que lo uso primordialmente nomás para, pues como para tipo research, como dirían. O también noticias, o de vez en cuando utilizar el facebook. [And we use the internet to look for this item, we order it and pay for it, well, I would say that I use it primarily for some type of research, like I said. Or also news, or sometimes I use Facebook.]” Sr. Morales

 In the Morales family, use of the computer and the internet has been integrated throughout daily life, as a source for communication with friends and family, a way to keep up to date on the news, for shopping purposes, and to learn new information.

 What does this mean for schools and teachers? Not only do are children from these families experienced with traditional print texts, they are also experienced with digital texts. While they may be immigrants to the United States or the children of immigrants, in terms of digital literacies they are natives and likely know more about technology than their parents and teachers do. Schools should be building on this knowledge and helping students learn to use both traditional texts and digital texts in more sophisticated ways.

Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #3: Religious Literacies

By Janine M. Schall and Luz Murillo

This is the third post in a series that shares results from a year-long research project exploring family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. This research was funded by the UTPA C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship.


“Los ponen a hacer trabajos, los ponen a leer también algunos pasajes de la Biblia, y en base a esos hacen trabajos, y le gusta mucho también ir. [They give her work to do, they have her read passages from the Bible and based on these they do work, and she really likes to go there.]”

The Gomez parents discussing the literacy in their daughter’s Sunday School

Prayer written in notebook

While some people claim that Spanish-speaking, low-income families in the Rio Grande Valley lack experience with literacy, during our year-long study of family literacies family after family shared the various literacies that they participated in. These families didn’t lack literacy—they were immersed in it. In this post we will discuss some of the religious-based literacies that the families shared with us.

 Every family we spoke with participated in some form of literacy based in religious practice. For most of these families, religion was extremely important and their church played a central role in their family life. Families told us that they:

  • Read the Bible in church and at home
  • Discussed, questioned, and constructed meaning from Bible readings
  • Memorized and recited prayers
  • Sang hymns in church
  • Read religious magazines
  • Listened to religious radio stations
  • Used study guides when reading the Bible
  • Prepared lessons and taught Sunday School classes
  • Took notes as they read the Bible

 The Llanas family participates in church activities at least three times a week. In their family it is common and expected to read the Bible at home and at church:

 “Sí, tienen sus Biblias. Todas sus Biblias…Leo mi Biblia, todos los días leo mi Biblia. Escribo, tengo apuntes.[Yes, they have Bibles. Everyone has a Bible. I read my Bible, every day I read my Bible. I write, I take notes.]” Sra. Llanas

 This family values reading the Bible so much that they own multiple copies, one for each member of the family. Sra. Llanes also participates in a Bible study group that involves reading, discussion, and note-taking.

Mrs. Puente sharing a religious magazine.

 The Puente family describes the multiple literacies that they access to express their religious beliefs:

“Recibo también por correo una revista verdad, este, pues, que se llama En Contacto, es una revista cristiana…. Supe de ella por medio de la radio cristiana. Radio Manantial, si, y ahí fue donde yo la ordené. Entre, verdad, a la página de internet, lo busque y le dije a mi hijo, verdad, porque no tengo mucha habilidad con la computadora, pero le dije a mi hijo que me ayudara a inscribirme. [I also receive a magazine through the mail, this, well, it’s In Contact, it’s a Christian magazine. I learned about it through a Christian radio station. Radio Manantial, that was where I ordered it. On an internet page, I looked for it and told my son, well, because I don’t have much ability with the computer, but I told my son to help me subscribe to it.]”  Sra. Puente

 This family reads religious magazines, listens to religious radio, and uses the internet to access religious material. Later in the interview, Sra. Puente also discussed how she shares the information and advice in the magazine articles with her children and friends.

If children and families are immersed in literacies based on religious beliefs, what, then, does this mean for schools and teachers? It means that children are entering school with deep experience and knowledge of various religious texts. From these experiences, children know that reading is important and purposeful, that printed text holds meaning, and that it can sometimes take work to understand a text but such work is worthwhile. It means that children have experience with difficult texts and vocabulary. It means that children know that the act of reading and understanding a text is often social.

 Schools need to recognize the knowledge that their students bring with them. Schools also need to acknowledge that children are willing and able to tackle difficult text—the Bible is hardly easy reading—when there is a clear purpose and a strong motivation to do so.

Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #2: An Overview of the Family Literacies Project

By Luz Murillo and Janine M. Schall

This is the second post in a series that shares results from a year-long research project exploring family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. This research was funded by the UTPA C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship.

 What are the family literacy and numeracy (math) practices of bilingual learners in the Rio Grande Valley? We explored this question for the purpose of helping our students understand the richness of home literacies. Although researchers have asked this question in other bilingual settings, we couldn’t find research from the Rio Grande Valley. We hoped that our answers would help these future and current teachers see bilingual family practices as legitimate forms of knowledge, and motivate teachers to use them as resources in literacy and math instruction with bilingual learners.

Using ethnographic methods to open our eyes to the new and the strange, including in our own practices of literacy (Nabi, Rogers & Street, 2009), we visited with families in border colonias and other communities in the Rio Grande Valley to document their everyday literacy and numeracy practices. During our visits we interviewed bilingual parents and children and documented a range of different uses of reading, writing and math at home, including parents helping children with homework; religious literacy practices in the home and in church; digital literacies such as using cell phones, text messaging, and playing videogames; and the literacy and numeracy practices required for household management. In return, we gave for parents on workshops on how to read and write at home with their children using bilingual books.

The results of our study support what other researchers’ have found about bilingual children: those who read and write with their families in the language(s) they speak at home become more accomplished readers in English as well as developing academic biliteracy (De la Luz Reyes, 2001; Reyes, 2010; Flores, 2007; Moll & Dworin, 2001). We learned that children in bilingual families are often exposed to and sometimes participate in the math and literacy activities that take place in their homes. Sometimes, these activities were based on school practices, such as doing homework and using computers and the internet for school projects. At other times, children were involved in family financial literacies that involved an integration of reading, writing, and math, such as making tamales and candy apples to sell at school, or deciding whether to invest in a special permit to cross the border without waiting in long lines every day.

Another finding that we think is important for teachers to know about concerns bilingual parents’ advocacy for their children’s education. We often hear teachers claim that bilingual parents in the Rio Grande Valley don’t participate in or support their children’s literacy learning. The reasons we have heard teachers give include that bilingual parents cannot contribute because they speak only or mostly Spanish and the schools teach only or mostly in English, or that because many immigrant parents attended school in a different system (Mexico) or dropped out of school for financial reasons, that they are uncomfortable talking to their children’s teachers. Finally, we’ve also heard teachers and students repeating deficit theories about immigrant and working class bilingual families (Flores, 2005). We are happy to report that in our study we found many examples of bilingual parents and families directly supporting their children’s literacy and math development and learning in general.

The next posts in this series will focus on different kinds of literacy practices we documented, including religious literacies, digital literacies, and family literacies. We will also discuss how these families advocated for their children and supported their school-based educations. Finally, we’ll wrap up with a discussion of what this all means for Rio Grande Valley educators.


Flores, B. (2005). The intellectual presence of the deficit view of Spanish speaking children in the educational literature during the 20th Century.” In P. Pedraza & M. Rivera (Eds.) Latino Educational Research Agenda. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Flores, B. M. (2007). Biliteracy as social practice in schooling: A bilingual first grader’s journey in learning to read and write in L1 and L2. In Yetta Goodman and Prisca Martens (Eds.), Critical issues in early literacy. Research and pedagogy (pp. 31-46), London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nabi, R., Rogers, A., & Street, B. (2009). Hidden literacies: Ethnographic studies of literacy and    numeracy practices. Bury St Edmonds, UK: Uppingham Press.

Reyes, M de la L. (2001). Unleashing possibilities: Biliteracy in the primary grades. In M. de la Luz Reyes & John J. Halcón (Eds.), The best for our children (pp. 96-121). New York: Teachers College Press.

Reyes, I. (2010). Learning from young bilingual children’s explorations of language and literacy at home. In Patricia L Anders (Ed.), Defying convention, inventing the future in literacy research and practice. Essays in tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman (pp. 144-159), New York: Routledge.

Moll, L.C., & Dworin, J. (2001). Two students case examples of writing as social practice.  Elementary School Journal, 100, 435-450.

Red Rovers Readers Online Training

By Readingintheborderlands

RedRover Readers is getting ready for their next online teacher training for credentialed Texas teachers. This is a self-paced course open between October 17, 2011 and November 4, 2011. The cost is $55 and teachers will receive 5 CPE hours.

This five-hour course will train participants to implement the RedRover Readers curriculum, designed to help children develop compassion and empathy while building their listening and critical thinking skills.”

To register, contact Manager Karly Gould at kgould@redrover.org.

Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #1: Rejecting the Deficit Perspective

By Janine M. Schall and Luz Murillo

The borderlands that we live and work in are located in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas along the Texas/Mexico border. This is one of the poorest areas of the United States, with large numbers of immigrant families. One of the reasons that this area struggles economically is because the population is undereducated, with school dropout rates that approach 40%. The Rio Grande Valley is also one of the most bilingual regions of the United States: while many people speak English at work and/or at home, almost 80% of the residents speak Spanish at home.

Many people look at the facts in the paragraph above and immediately focus on what the children growing up in local families lack. Many don’t have educated parents, they probably don’t have academic English, they don’t have the economic resources that provide travel and books and computers at home. And often people go on to make further assumptions: the parents are uneducated, so they must not be able to help their children with school. The families speak Spanish at home, so the children will struggle with learning English literacy. The families lack financial resources, so they must not be able to care for their children. The deficit perspective is alive and well in public schools in the United States, including in the borderlands. Speaking Spanish is a problem; it gets in the way of learning English. Being poor makes a child “at-risk” for school failure. Uneducated parents don’t care about their children’s school success.

While the deficit perspective is deeply engrained in U.S. schooling, it is misguided at best, and is often deeply damaging to children and their families. When schools and teachers believe that children are deficient—for whatever reason, including their economic status, home language, or cultural background—it leads to lower standards, watering down the curriculum, and accepting poor quality work as ‘the best they can do.’

 And, of course, the deficit perspective is 100% wrong.

 In September 2010 we were named UTPA College of Education C. Bascom Slemp Faculty Fellows. This fellowship funded a year-long research project focused on family literacy in the Rio Grande Valley. Throughout the month of September we will publish  eight blog posts that share some of the findings from this research. We will discuss the rich literacy experiences of borderlands families and show how parents support the education of their children. Finally, we will explore what these findings mean for teachers and schools in the borderlands.

Our thanks to the University of Texas-Pan American and the C. Bascom Slemp Fellowship for supporting this research.

La Epoca de Oro: Media Exhibit at MoSTH

By Readingintheborderlands

On September 11, 2011 La Epoca de Oro: The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema in the Rio Grande Valley exhibit opens at the Museum of South Texas History. The museum newsletter gives some background:

In the early 1930s, talking pictures became a global phenomenon, and the Mexican movie industry entered what is now termed the Golden Age of Cinema, or La Epoca de Oro, finding a ready audience for its products in the United States, with its expanding Spanish-speaking population.

Nowhere was that more obvious than in Texas, and expecially the Rio Grande Valley, where there were Hispanic families who had lived in the region for generations, as well as an influx of Mexican workers supporting the burgeoning growth in the area before, during, and after World War II. At one point, more than 30 theaters operated in South Texas, showing nothing but Spanish-language films.

The exhibit will tell the story of these theaters and will display original Mexican movie posters from the 1930s-1960s as well as lobby cards, publicity photos, artifacts, and movie trailers.

On the opening day of the exhibit there will also be a presentation by Rogelio Agransanchez Jr., author of Mexican Movies in the United States: A History of the Films, Theaters and Audiences, 1920-1960.