Understanding the Literate Lives of Borderlands Families #5: Vernacular Literacies

By Janine M. Schall and Luz Murillo

This is the fifth 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.


“Leemos desde la hora en el despertador. Leemos todos los recados que haya que cumplir con lo que manda la escuela. Leemos, bueno, yo en lo particular tengo mi librito de oraciones que leo, también lo hago. De repente les doy nada más un vistazo a los titulares del periódico, porque no me da más tiempo. [We read from the time the alarm goes off. We read all the notices about what we need to do for school. We read, well, I especially have my little prayer book that I read, I do that. Lately I glance at the newspaper headlines, I don’t have time for more than that.]” Sr. Sanchez

Family Calendar

Do low income, Spanish-speaking families in the Rio Grande Valley provide a strong foundation in literacy for their children? Our research shows that the families we interviewed have deeply integrated literacy practices in their daily life. This includes both school based literacies brought into the home and vernacular literacies that may not be valued by schools and teachers. Our families told us that they participated in school based literacies such as:

  • Parents helping children with homework
  • Going to the library and checking out books
  • Owning a variety of books
  • Reading alone and as a family
  • Using textbooks to study for GED exams

In the Williams family, children interacted with books from a young age:

“Desde chiquitita, desde antes de que supiera leer ella agarraba los libritos que le compraba de los de Disney. Ella no sabía leer, pero ella decía ‘aquí Mickey Mouse va al agua y está jugando con su amiguito, su hermanito.’ [From the time she was little, before she knew how to read she would get the little books that I bought her, Disney books. She didn’t know how to read, but she would say, ‘Here Mickey Mouse is going into the water and he’s playing with his friend, his little brother.’” Sra. Williams

 Mrs. Williams purchased inexpensive books based on Disney characters and her daughter began learning to read by interacting with the books and making up stories based on the illustrations.

Nutritional Information on Food Packages

Families also described a wide variety of literacy practices that would not necessarily be recognized and valued by schools:

  •  Reading nutritional  information on food packages
  • Reading instructions for medications
  • Reading and paying bills
  • Entering sweepstakes
  • Reading newspapers
  • Reading a variety of magazines
  • Collecting and using cookbooks
  • Reading and discussing self-help books
  • Creating shopping lists
  • Budgeting
  • Running home-based businesses such as selling tamales and candied apples
  • Keeping detailed calendars and schedules 

The Gomez family described reading product information:

Sr. Gomez: Mi esposa lee mucho lo, los, ¿como se llaman? La tabla… [My wife reads a lot, the, what do you call it? The table…]

Sra. Gomez: La información nutricional de los productos. [Nutritional information for products.]

Luz: Todas las mujeres. [All women do that.]

Sra. Gomez: Si, soy muy fan de hacer eso. [Yes, I’m very much a fan of doing that.]

Sr. Gomez: Si, este, lo que contiene; en el caso de las medicinas, por ejemplo, este, lo que nos va a ayudar a bajar la fiebre de la niña, o a quitarle la tos. [Yes, well, what it contains, in the case of medicines, for example, well, what’s going to help us lower our daughter’s fever or help her stop coughing.]

 They read product labels and information to make informed decisions about what foods were healthy and what medicines were useful when their children were ill.

 What does this mean for teachers and schools? It means that assumptions about a lack of literacy in low income homes are very often mistaken. Educators need to reconsider stereotypes about low income, Spanish-speaking families and to learn about the home literacy practices of their students. Once teachers know about the rich literacy practices that go on in student homes, they can build on the literacy knowledge that their students bring to school.


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