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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s