Family literacy project

The family literacy project (STEP 2015) investigated how family literacy initiatives might benefit mobile communities in Scotland through the design and implementation of three pilot programmes.  In partnership with families, the pilot programmes sought to identify relevant content and structures for literacy workshops in order to develop a framework for effective programme delivery. The project involved three different mobile cultures: Gypsy/Traveller, European Roma and Showpeople families. Pilot programmes ran for up to 16 weeks and involved a range of participatory and creative methods the structure and content of activities.  The programmes had immediate and long-term benefits for all those involved.

Why literacy matters

Many families from mobile communities have poor literacy (Franks and Ureche, 2007; Jordan and Padfield 2003; Lloyd and Stead 2002) and children and young people from these communities are known to have some of the lowest levels of literacy and educational attainment in the country (Bhopal, 2004; Cemlyn et al 2009; National Literacy Trust 2011; Wilkin et al. 2010). These issues can be attributed to factors such as financial deprivation, interrupted education, low levels of parental literacy and, sometimes, low family aspirations for academic attainment. Some families may have English as an additional language which can impede effective communication. Without adequate literacy and language support, families may be unable to access or understand information and find written texts significantly challenging (McCaffery, 2009). Parents can often feel unable to provide their children with academic support or home education due to lack of ability and confidence in their own literacy. These issues greatly impact aspects of children’s learning and engagement with formal education and can lead to greater gaps in learning during periods of mobility.

Shared family literacy activity has been shown to mitigate some of these issues and can impact positively on literacy levels for both parents and children (e.g. Carpentieri et al. 2011; Hannon et al. 2006; Hirst e al. 2010; Rose, 2013). It can also have far-reaching effects, including increased engagement with schools and other services such as health and housing. Given the private nature of many mobile communities’ lives, it can be difficult to gain understanding of how families might engage with programmes to support their literacy.

The project


The pilot programmes ran in three different locations across Scotland with three groups of families: (1) Slovakian mothers in a Primary school in Glasgow, (2) Gypsy/Traveller families on a Traveller Person site in an educational outreach portacabin, Fife, and (3) with Gypsy/Travellers in a nursery/Primary school in the Highlands.  The aim of the project was to identify approaches for programme delivery that would be relevant and meaningful to each specific community.  For this reason, the structure and content of each pilot programme was designed in collaboration with participating families.  Early consultation was achieved through a range of methods, such as informal social gatherings and activity sessions.  The groups made suggestions that they felt would benefit their own situations and these were used to guide and structure the design of the activities.

A central aim of the family literacy project was to find out more about barriers to participation. Families gave a variety of reasons which they felt contributed to poor or non-engagement. When planning similar programmes it is useful to consult families to identify obstacles prior to the planning stage. We found that each group identified specific obstacles. By addressing these at an early stage, measures can be set in place to ensure equity of opportunity for all involved.


Site 1: Primary School, Glasgow

This programme was based within a Primary school in Glasgow. The school has a diverse demographic with over 10 different languages spoken by enrolled families. To launch the project the school sent personal invitations to families in their native language inviting them to attend an information session about how to ‘support children’s learning at home’. Participating parents were able to design the structure and content of the sessions – they wanted to begin with practical activities such as baking and cooking while thinking about strategies to develop language (activity sequences, stories, recipes, local research). As the programme progressed, activities were extended to create more literacy-focused sessions such as English language lessons. Each session included a range of resources, refreshments and a translator. The pilot programme ran for 16 sessions (14 x 1.5 hours, 2 x full day sessions) with regular attendance by eight Slovakian mothers.  The highest turnout was 19 participants on a field trip focusing on the use of environmental print, which included extended family members and children.   The structure of sessions was a flexible – mothers could drop-in when they were free and leave if they had appointments.  The programme had a positive impact on families, and was praised by the school for improving relationships and communication with parents.  The school has continued hosting the family group with its membership ever expanding.

Site 2: Gypsy/Traveller site, Educational outreach portacabin, Fife

This project was based on a site run by a local authority with pitches for 20 Gypsy/Traveller families. The project was led by the Traveller education teacher and was based in the on-site portacabin which is used for teenagers’ learning support, homework sessions, and short-term preparation and assessment for school and nursery. The focus of sessions was improving literacy within and through the family. Workshops were initially based around art and craft activities to produce children’s characters. They were then extended to language activities focusing on creating stories about the characters that had been created. iPads were introduced, initially to take photographs around the site, then various story-making apps were explored to understand their potential in sequencing pictures to tell a story. The simple sequences developed into audio stories and finally, with teaching support, by adding text to make books, which could be shared with others. The sessions were well attended by family members and all enjoyed the experience of family working. The use of iPads to develop reading in this way was new to all participants. Although all had access to apps and the internet via their phones, and some owned iPads – none used this technology to support learning.

Site 3: Gypsy/Traveller Person's site, Nursery and Primary School, Highlands

This pilot was initiated by the Interrupted Learning Teacher, who has responsibility for education and young Gypsy/Travellers. The project was based on an established partnership with the local Primary School. Additional Support for Learning and pre-school staff from the Primary School worked with the Interrupted learning officer to develop a series of literacy sessions for mums and young children. An overarching aim was to develop ‘school or nursery readiness’ in both parents and children. Parents were verbally invited to come along and find out about the sessions. The programme was structured as a 5-week block of 30 min sessions, which took the main points from the Shared Reading information folder. Each week, one adult would work with parents, and the other person would work with the children. Some of the shared literacy activities included, finding out about the history of print, using environmental print when out and about, how to read along with your child, and using rhyme in early literacy. Bookstart Bookbug materials were used to support the activities. The children were able to take their book bag home at the end of group sessions. The programme made a positive impact as several of the mums have enrolled their children in the primary school for the following term.

Programme outcomes


Provided a safe and trusting forum to share views and personal experiences.

Barriers to engagement and participation were identified and addressed through listening and pro-active approaches.

Parents gained confidence in their own skills and ability to support their children’s literacy.

Provided opportunities for parents to express interest and concerns about their children’s education.

Provided a space to develop the skills and confidence to co-produce culturally meaningful resources for life-long and autonomous learning in the home environment.


In partnership with parents, a Framework for Effective Programme Delivery was developed as a template for designing and implementing meaningful and relevant literacy programmes for mobile communities.


The programme has acted as a catalyst for positive relationship building between practitioners and parents, and between families and wider community.

Where parents had previously been unsure of their children attending school and their ability to support this, having built positive relationships with practitioners through the programmes, and grown familiar with school settings, several children are now attending the local Primary and Secondary schools.

Many of the mothers are now involved in the life of the school, for example they will visit classrooms and supervise school trips and events. Staff have commented that they have seen improved engagement and communication between the parents and the school – all vital components for strengthening home-school partnerships to support children’s and parents’ learning.

Although families were initially reluctant to engage with other services (nursery, library, language courses), as the programmes developed, and they became more familiar with staff they felt confident to pursue other routes.