Longitudinal literacy programming pays dividends for all ages

Blog post Stephen Pruitt, President, Southern Regional Education BoardFelicia Cumings Smith, President & CEO, National Center for Families Learning

Veronica Valencia didn’t know many people when she moved to southwest Detroit from Michoacán, Mexico in 2005. So, when her nieces and nephews had the chance to be part of a new family literacy program at their school, Valencia jumped at the chance to be there and support them.  

The family literacy program, made possible by Kentucky’s National Center for Families Learning with support from Toyota, relied on NCFL’s signature four-component family literacy model, which seeks to impact a family’s long-term trajectory through a multigenerational approach.

Children receive literacy services during school time while parents learn strategies to support their child’s learning at home and to promote their own workforce and education goals. Children and parents then come together in the classroom to learn alongside one another through scheduled activities.  

Almost immediately, Valencia began to see improvement in the children’s lives. 

“When I started getting involved, for my niece, it was a huge accomplishment,” Valencia said. “I was able to understand (what she was doing in school) and she felt comfortable because I was there in the class with her teacher. I was seeing what she was learning. I was providing that commitment.”  

What Valencia wasn’t expecting was the difference the family literacy program made in her own life. 

“I was able to connect with more people, meet new people,” she said. “It helped me to create my own goals to connect so I didn’t feel so alone.” 

Bolstered by a new sense of community, Valencia was able to achieve her goal to start and grow a business as a massage therapist.  

Impacting a Family 

Years later, when Valencia’s own children started school, the lessons she learned through family literacy programming paid dividends again.  

“The program gave me more security, more safety, more strength to say that I can get involved and I can be in my children’s school for their well-being,” Valencia said. “I would remember how the teacher would work with my nieces and nephews, and how I could talk to my daughter when she’s doing her homework so that she could understand why it’s so important to read. It helped me so much.”  

This kind of multigenerational literacy programming can leave a long-lasting impact on a family’s trajectory. Family literacy doesn’t just provide a solid educational foundation for children and youth; it also supports adults with their own learning goals, which leads to continued economic gains for the whole family over time. This impact can then be passed down across generations, with learning and prosperity gained in one generation providing a legacy to the next.   

The need for this type of programming has never been greater. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, found that 37% of fourth-graders and 30% of both eighth- and 12th-graders were unable to meet basic reading standards in 2022. Results for adults are similarly sobering, with nearly 20% of U.S. adults reading below a third-grade level.  

Not Just for Fourth Graders 

We must act now–to address our literacy crisis in a way that recognizes that this multigenerational problem will require multigenerational solutions. It’s not enough to focus only on reading scores in our elementary schools; the workforce of today can’t wait for this year’s fourth-graders to graduate in 2032. Instead, we must invest in longitudinal literacy— community-based solutions that simultaneously target literacy education for learners across the age spectrum.  

Through our work, the National Center for Families Learning and the Southern Regional Education Board are both tackling the challenge of longitudinal literacy. NCFL family literacy programs, like the one the Valencias participated in, have been ongoing across the United States for decades. These programs have consistently demonstrated gains in student attendance and achievement alongside increased parental involvement and parent progress towards workforce goals. 

Similarly, SREB’s Literacy Ready program, developed to help high school seniors make a successful transition into postsecondary education or the workforce, has been implemented in hundreds of schools across a 16-state region. Results have shown significant improvement on ACT English and reading exams, with Literacy Ready students expressing newfound confidence in their skills.  

“This course has expanded my reading techniques,” said one participant, “and helped challenge me with obstacles that I thought were impossible.” 

Other programs in SREB states, like North Carolina’s Basic Skills Plus, provide similar success. The program co-enrolls students in basic literacy courses alongside employability skills and occupational training instruction, and has been featured in research reports and presented as a model at conferences across the country. 

As our nation continues to automate basic retail and manufacturing jobs, it is seeing an increase in “middle-skill jobs,” those that require more than a high school credential but less than a college degree.

These workers will need stronger literacy skills to train for more advanced positions that are emerging. By focusing literacy efforts longitudinally with programming targeted to children, youth and adults, it is possible to create demonstrable literacy gains for the workforce of today while also investing in the workforce of tomorrow.  

This effort is not one that schools can undertake alone, however. Longitudinal literacy requires a network of community partners — including schools, libraries, adult education centers, community and technical colleges, and nonprofits —to create coordinated and overlapping services that can assist learners at any stage of life. 

It is a daunting challenge, but each day, millions of people in communities across the country work to succeed despite their low literacy skills.  

We owe it to them to act.  

Stephen Pruitt, Ph.D., is president of the 16-state Southern Regional Education Board. An interstate compact and a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Atlanta, SREB was created in 1948 by Southern governors and legislatures to advance education and the social and economic life of the region.

Felicia Cumings Smith, Ed.D., is president of the National Center for Families Learning. Established in 1989, NCFL is a national nonprofit that works to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families. She serves as vice chair of the Southern Regional Education Board.