QJER logo 2
[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]

Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students

Trevor H. Cairney and Jenny Ruge
School of Lifelong Learning and Educational Change
University of Western Sydney Nepean

The purpose of the Community Literacy Practices and Schooling project[1] was to explore differences in the language and literacy practices of schools, families and community groups. In particular, it examined matches and mismatches between the discourse practices of home and school and the impact that differences have on students' school success.

The project was motivated by strong evidence indicating that schools inconsistently tap the social and cultural resources of society, inadvertently privileging specific groups by emphasising particular linguistic styles, curricula and authority patterns (Bourdieu, 1977; Gee, 1990). Another important premise was that involving parents more closely in school education may assist both parents and teachers to develop greater knowledge of the other's specific language and literacy practices. This in turn may well enable both teachers and parents to understand the way each defines, values and uses literacy (Cairney, 1994; Moll, 1993). The project sought to:

The study involved detailed analysis of family, community and school contexts, and focused on families with children in primary and secondary schools. Observation of home, school and community literacy practices, the collection of literacy artefacts, interviews with all participants, and discourse analysis of a range of literacy events all informed the exploration of these issues.

The key findings are contained in the two-volume final report of the project (Cairney & Ruge, 1998). One of the most striking findings was that school literacy has a significant impact on home literacy. In many families it was found that specific types of literacy associated with schooling were prominent in home activities. This was often associated with homework, and with younger children, 'playing schools'. In contrast, home literacy practices did not have the same impact on school literacy.

While for many families there was a strong match between home and school in relation to some forms of literacy, there were also fundamental differences in the purposes for which literacy was used, and the interactional structures in which literacy was embedded and discussed. As well, children retained greater control of their literacy at home, where literacy tended to be better suited to their interests and it could in some instances be more challenging. However, these mismatches were inconsistent across families, as were their consequences. This is an important finding because it highlights the fact that the failure of some children to succeed at school cannot be simply attributed to deficits in children, their families or their home environments.


The National Plan for Literacy and Numeracy (DEETYA, 1998) recognises that the early years of schooling have a vital part to play in children's ultimate success in school. It also acknowledges that parents and the community need to know more about their children's schooling. While the Plan does not specifically acknowledge the vital role that parents and families play in ensuring that the goals of education are achieved, there is implicit acknowledgement of their importance.

The findings of this study suggest that the attainment of national benchmarks for all children would be facilitated with more attention to the vital relationship between home and school. Indeed, the success of schools in ensuring that a majority of students attain national minimum benchmarks will require schools to give careful attention to the specific characteristics and needs of their communities and families. This will require further funding to support key home school community initiatives and policy development to ensure that the close relationship between home and school is considered as part of major curriculum initiatives.

The role of homework also needs to be given special attention because of the key role that it has in 'transferring' literacy from home to school. There is a need to understand more fully the impact that homework has on children's school success as well as any unforseen negative consequences that it might have in excluding specific community literacy practices from schooling.


As a consequence of the language and cultural diversity within communities, all schools in this study had attempted to build closer relationships with their students' families. Detailed case studies of four schools conducted in the first phase of the research revealed a number of key elements essential as a starting point for any school's attempt to respond to the cultural and linguistic diversity of its community. These included: These findings are consistent with those of other researchers including Lucas, Henze and Donato (1990), Ladson-Billings (1995) and Cummins (1986), all of whom argue strongly for responsive curricula that consider the relationships between teachers and students, and schools and communities. What these findings suggest is that schools and educational systems need to be willing to examine closely their own programs and practices. An essential element of school improvement in this area is the recognition and acceptance of the need for change. Consequently, the report recommended that existing school-based and system-based reviews be expanded to include evaluation of the programs and strategies currently in use to recognise and respond to cultural and linguistic diversity.

The project also revealed that many effective programs in schools hinge on the presence and involvement of one or two key personnel. Often, when key personnel are promoted or transferred to other schools, there is disruption to the programs, or they may cease altogether. Attention needs to be given to formally recognising and mandating approaches or programs that have proven to be effective. Principals were found to be one key group of staff who need ongoing professional development to raise their understanding of the language and cultural diversity present within schools and community.

It was recommended that schools be supported in their attempts to recognise and respond to cultural and linguistic diversity. One suggestion for supporting this is the establishment of a funding program by DEETYA, to be implemented through state education authorities, with the purpose of supporting innovative professional development programs that encourage whole-school involvement.

There is also a need for schools to continue to explore innovative ways to build effective partnerships between home and school. Programs which attempt to bridge home and school literacy have frequently consisted of parent education packages designed by schools to lead parents to accept school definitions of literacy (Cairney, Ruge, Buchanan, Lowe & Munsie, 1995). As Auerbach (1989) points out, family literacy programs that do no more than teach parents to do school-like activities at home are simply new applications of deficit views on learning.

As Ellsworth (1989) has pointed out existing power relations in education at any level will not be 'interrupted' until teachers are able to step out of their classrooms to allow themselves to see the social relations (for example, who can say or do what to whom) that perpetuate inequality of access and authority (that is, who has opportunities to learn and whose knowledge is validated). In order to do this, schools need access to professional development opportunities that challenge them to analyse classroom discourse, and consider options for developing more responsive approaches to teaching.

Our research shows that teacher knowledge of families and the impact of social and cultural diversity on school learning is critical. Teachers need to understand the difference between the literacy of home and school and the impact that such differences can have on school success for some children.

Like other major Australian studies of literacy (for example, Christie, Devlin, Freebody, Luke, Martin, Threadgold & Walton, 1991; Cairney, Ruge, Buchanan, Lowe & Munsie, 1995; Freebody, Ludwig & Gunn, 1995) this study recommends that teachers be given a comprehensive introduction to an understanding of the relationship between the literacy of the school and the literacy of the wider community. As a result, our report recommended that all teacher education programs include a subject that addresses the need for teachers to acquire knowledge of:


The families who participated in this research came from a broad range of social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Of all groups, however, it was the Aboriginal families for whom the data collection methods were least successful. Many factors contributed to this, not least of which were the social and economic circumstances of most of these families. Frequent school absences, difficulty in maintaining regular and frequent contact with families and the difficult circumstances of some family members all contributed to the problem of adequately exploring the literacy practices of Aboriginal students and their families. Future research needs to take account of these difficulties and develop (in particular) data collection methods that are sensitive to the social economic and cultural diversity of families. It is clear that additional research into the home and school literacy practices of students from diverse cultural backgrounds is necessary. The development of appropriate methodology for such research should be developed in consultation with members of relevant communities.

As found by Freebody, Ludwig and Gunn (1995), our study indicated considerable variation in parents' attitude to homework and knowledge of how to deal with it. The major link or 'common ground' between home and school contexts in this study was clearly homework. Although homework generally takes place in homes or community contexts, it differs from other familial and community uses of literacy in one important respect: family members are accountable for homework in the same way that students are accountable for their literacy in classrooms. Teachers sometimes judged the effectiveness of students' home support on the basis of whether or not homework tasks were regularly and satisfactorily completed.

Homework activities can serve as an important link between students' home and school worlds. If teachers and parents do not understand the importance of this potential link, then homework becomes just another task to be completed in any way possible. Taking responsibility for ensuring that homework tasks are completed away from families (for example, in homework centres), denies families the opportunity to become familiar with school ways of using literacy.

As a result of our research we recommended that further research be conducted into the role of homework in supporting students' school success. Schools should be encouraged to examine, with their communities, the purposes for assigning homework, as well as the types of homework activities assigned.


It is clear from the evidence provided in this study that families and schools differ markedly in their literacy practices and values. What is also clear is that there are significant differences amongst families in the way they define and use literacy. Thus, knowing that a student is a member of a particular subgroup (for example, a member of a socioeconomically disadvantaged family, a recent Vietnamese immigrant, a third-generation Australian-born 'native' Arabic speaker, etc.) does not entitle us to assume anything about that student's literacy practices or 'ways of participating' in the cultural practices of the group.

Consistent with the findings of Gutierrez (1994), the study found that there is a close relationship between patterns of interaction among members of groups and context. Both are constructed and reconstructed as participants engage in specific literacy practices. The context and the scripts that shape interaction are mutually reflexive. This reflexivity in turn shapes the nature of the literacy opportunities and practices.

The data from this research show that participants (students, teachers and family members) adopted different roles and relationships, norms and expectations, and ways of participating in literacy-related events. These three elements contributed to the construction of differing views of literacy and differing notions of what constitutes literate action.

The study also strongly supports Connell's (1994) argument that it is misleading to assume that problems in school achievement concern only a disadvantaged minority of students. Educational change is not something to be 'done to' minority groups, and effective programs cannot exist as 'add-ons' to the 'real' work of schools. What is needed is fundamental change in student-teacher-parent relationships.

Similarly, this research supports Corson's (1991) contention that 'education can routinely repress, dominate and disempower language users whose practices differ from the norms that it establishes. ... Whoever has the power to define the context and the language code that describes it is empowered; all others who accept that definition without question accept their own disempowerment in that setting' (p. 236).

It is clear from the evidence provided in this study that families and schools differ markedly in their literacy practices and values. What is also clear is that there are significant differences amongst families in the way they define and use literacy.

The findings of this project raise a number of additional questions about the relationships between home and school literacy practices. For example, further exploration is required of the role that children play as mediators between home and school. We need to ask, how do students construct the role of mediator? How do students respond to differences between home and school? Is there any evidence that children from different cultures respond in different ways?

We need to go beyond simply recognising that our students are diverse socially and culturally, and begin to rebuild the curriculum so that it acknowledges, builds on and celebrates the different 'funds of knowledge' (Moll, 1993) they bring. We need responsive curricula and the development of mutual understanding between parents and teachers, what Harry (1992) has called a 'posture of reciprocity'. The challenge is for schools to learn more about the language, literacy and culture of home and community. This needs then to be used to effect changes to the way literacy is supported at school. Schools need to capitalise on the rich diversity of language and culture to build more effective partnerships with families and their communities.


Auerbach, E. (1989). Toward a social-contextual approach to family literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 59, 165-181.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A.H. Halsey (Eds), Power and ideology in education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cairney, T.H. (1994). Family literacy: Moving towards new partnerships in education. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 17(4), 262-275.

Cairney, T.H., Ruge, J., Buchanan, J., Lowe, K. & Munsie, L. (1995). Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface (Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEET.

Cairney, T.H. & Ruge, J. (1998). Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students (Vols 1 & 2). Canberra: DEETYA.

Christie, F., Devlin, B., Freebody, P., Luke, A., Martin, J.R., Threadgold, T. & Walton, C. (1991). Teaching English literacy: A project of national significance on the preservice preparation of teachers for teaching English literacy (Vol. 1). Darwin: Northern Territory University.

Connell, R.W. (1994). Poverty and education. Harvard Educational Review, 64(2), 125-149.

Corson, D. (1991). Language, power and minority schooling. Language and Education, 5(4), 231-253.

Cummins, J. (1986). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. Harvard Educational Review, 56, 18-36.

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn't this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.

Freebody, P., Ludwig, C. & Gunn, S. (1995). Everyday literacy practices in and out of schools in low socio-economic status urban communities: A descriptive and interpretive research program. Canberra: DEETYA.

Gee, J. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: The Falmer Press.

Gutierrez, K.D. (1994). How talk, context, and script shape contexts for learning: A cross-case comparison of journal sharing. Linguistics and Education, 5(3 & 4), pp. 335-365.

Harry, B. (1992). An ethnographic study of cross-cultural communication with Puerto Rican-American families in the special education system. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 471-494.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Lucas, T., Henze, R. & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of Latino language-minority students: An exploratory study of six high schools. Harvard Educational Review, 60(3), 315-340.

Moll, L. (1993). Community-mediated educational practices. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Atlanta (USA), 12-16 April, 1993.


  1. Cairney, T. & Ruge, J. (1998). Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students (Vols 1 & 2). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1998_community.html
Author details: Professor Trevor H. Cairney,
Office of Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research,
UWS Nepean, P.O. 10, Kingswood, NSW, 2747.
Phone: (02) 47 360 036 Fax: (02) 47 364 186
Email: t.cairney@uws.edu.au
Homepage: http://tcairney.cadre.com.au/ [verified 1 Jan 2005 at http://www.trevorcairney.com/]

Please cite as: Cairney. T. H. and Ruge, J. (1999). Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 25-33. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cairney2.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 1 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cairney2.html