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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue D ::: December 1999

Focus on Research: Home Literacy Practices

Victoria Purcell-Gates and her research team are finishing the data collection for a NCSALL study that examines whether learners' literacy practices — the way learners use reading and writing — change as a result of participation in literacy programs. In the research, a change is considered the adoption of a new practice, such as reading the newspaper or writing letters, or engaging more often in a practice they already had done.

"We are looking at the relationship between change in practice and two dimensions of instruction that theoretically might affect literacy practices," Purcell-Gates explains. "The first dimension is the degree to which the activities and materials that the students use in their literacy programs are reflective of the kinds of materials people use outside of the classroom." The research team is now calling that dimension "authentic" vs. "school only." For example, using the newspaper [as reading material in class] would be more authentic if it was a real newspaper, one that was brought in so learners could read about an event that just happened and get their questions answered. Less authentic would be bringing in a newspaper that is a month old and reading about a certain issue. The other end of the continuum is if a teacher brought in a newspaper and had people underline all the verbs.

The second dimension is the degree to which the teachers and the students collaborated as equals in creating the program. "In other words," says Purcell-Gates, "how much influence the student actually had on the program." At one end of that spectrum is "dialogic," with the student greatly involved in decisions regarding curriculum, assessment, and policy; at the other end is "teacher-directed." [For more on these dimensions, see Focus on Basics, Vol 2 B, p. 11.]

Data Collection
Working with 230 learners and about 75 teachers or tutees, Purcell-Gates says, "we had to collect two kinds of data. The first was a description of the class (or tutor/tutee pair) in terms of where it sits on the two dimensions. We triangulated on three sources of data: a questionnaire that the teacher filled out; class observation by the data collector, who used a protocol to get at those dimensions; and interviews with students in the class." This gave them information that let them assign each class in their study a position along the "authentic" vs. "school-only" and "dialogic" vs. "teacher-directed" axis.

They also collected information about the learners' home literacy practices. "We just finished the home questionnaires: going into the homes of the participating students every three months for as long as they are in their programs." Using an extensive questionnaire, they examined the kinds of literacy practices the learners engaged in that week, whether they had engaged in them before, whether they began the practice since starting their literacy class, or if they were doing that type of reading or writing more often since beginning the class. Administering the questionnaire took at least an hour, sometimes two.

The questionnaire depended on reports from the learners on their own activities, or self report. The problem with self report is that people often answer what they think the researcher wants to hear, or they provide erroneous answers because of faults of memory. To alleviate some of these problems, the research team insisted on interviewing people in their homes, so the learners wouldn't directly connect their answers with their literacy programs. The team also hopes that because they are asking about life literacy practices rather than academic practices, the participants don't feel that their answers are a judge of their programs. And, when someone mentioned engaging in a literacy practice, the data collectors asked for specific examples.

The research team learned a lot about the difficulties of doing quantitative research with adult basic education populations. "Just to 'hold what you've got still" while you're doing the research is almost impossible..." says Purcell-Gates. "Data collectors, programs, people disappeared..." And analysis is difficult, too. "There is such variation in terms of program, program stability, program quality, students, needs, backgrounds, purposes for going, for leaving, and all the different things that can happen to students' lives that affects what they do. I think it would be helpful to come up with a different paradigm for research, where you combined as hard data as you can get with really good qualitative research."

Statistical analysis will start soon. "Theorists might say that the more authentic the class and the more participatory the program, the more you'll see transfer to the home," remarks Purcell-Gates. "We're not sure what the data will tell. Based on our findings, we will create portraits of instructional activities and materials, as well as of teacher and student relationships, that appear related to change in home and community literacy practices. We make these giant curricular pronouncements about what the best way to do things is, but we base that on no evidence. In academia and in workshops, people talk about the best way to teach adults to read and write, and there's only theoretical defense. This is an attempt to try to look at some of these issues empirically."

For more information on the home literacy practices study, please contact Victoria Purcell-Gates at

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL