Family literacy in the francophone community

by Jacqueline Chartier

In the late 1990s, Margo Fauchon was the provincial coordinator for francophone literacy programs in Alberta. She faced many of the same issues and challenges as those practising in English-language literacy programs, but knew about the uniqueness of the francophone situation in Alberta and throughout western Canada. Of Alberta’s 2.9 million inhabitants, approximately 560,000 have a mother tongue other than English. Francophones make up slightly over 2 per cent of the population (58,645 according to the 2001 census).

Fauchon strove to raise awareness of the history, demographics and geography of the francophone population in Alberta, and the impact that such factors have on planning and implementing French literacy services. “My work to sensitize the general public and lobby key individuals within the education department helped to make people more open to francophones communicating and learning in their mother tongue,” she said.

During this period, Fauchon became intrigued by an innovative family literacy program that had originally been developed in English. While attending a conference, she met Laureen MacKenzie and Elaine Cairns, the Calgary-based creators of Literacy and Parenting Skills (LAPS). Fauchon saw a strong need for a family literacy program in French and sensed that the LAPS curriculum could be successfully translated and adapted.

The original LAPS manual, published in the fall of 1996, outlines twelve sessions based on the needs and concerns relevant to parents, such as building children’s self-esteem, positive discipline and anger management. By 1999, the LAPS program was well established throughout English Canada. The LAPS team had developed an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) version and an Aboriginal version. These adaptations reflected cross-cultural approaches and cultural sensitivity appropriate to the participants. Most significantly, two new sessions had been added to deal with concerns specific to ESL and Aboriginal participants: Passing on Our Values and Dealing with the School. Fauchon was impressed.

Meanwhile, Laureen MacKenzie and Elaine Cairns had been approached by some French-speaking parents who wanted LAPS materials redesigned for the francophone population. In response, the pair consulted informally with francophone literacy practitioners from various regions of Canada. The results were exciting, and validated the fact that there is a widespread demand for family literacy services. In addition to their more conventional clients, practitioners frequently mentioned dealing with clients who were educated but whose French skills were poor. They also noted that in the past decade a greater number of parents have been enrolling their children in French first language and French immersion schools. Consequently, there was an increasing need for parents to improve their own reading and writing skills in French so that they could be directly involved in their children’s education and better support their children’s learning.

About two years after Fauchon first met MacKenzie and Cairns, a formal partnership was launched. Funding from the National Literacy Secretariat supported a nationwide French version of LAPS to be called Grandir avec mon enfants—LAPS. The partners in the project were the Further Education Society of Alberta, Bow Valley College, the Centre d’educatif communautaire de l’Alberta and Eduk, another provincial francophone organization.

Louise Joly of Saint Paul, Alberta, working in close association with the original authors, adapted the content to address francophone needs. She also developed a manual that embraced the philosophy and integrity of the original program. Like Fauchon, she was delighted with the overall content of the English Literacy and Parenting Skills program and was anxious to see how it would be received in various francophone communities. “It’s a strength-based program,” Joly explained. “It builds on the strengths parents have already instead of focusing on their shortcomings.”

At this stage, the Grandir team interviewed practitioners in a cross-section of community settings across Canada. They received valuable input about the target audience. The adapted version therefore addresses the needs of francophone and francophile parents in all regions of Canada who are interested in improving their parenting and literacy skills. This group has many common elements as parents and francophones. They also have different socio-economic, geographic and cultural needs. Certain people are isolated and feel the need to meet with other francophones to share and discuss their parental role. Others face numerous challenges in maintaining their language and culture, while others want to improve their literacy skills.

The next phase was to select sites in which to pilot the fledgling program. In 2001, Grandir was piloted in francophone communities in four provinces: two sites in New Brunswick, one site in Ontario (Ottawa), one site in Manitoba (Saint-Laurent) and one site in Alberta (Saint Paul).

The Grandir team hired an outside evaluator to solicit feedback and document participants’ responses. The outside evaluators found that participants were very satisfied with their progress on a personal level. They felt more confident in their roles as readers and writers. For example, one participant stated that after having completed the program his vocabulary had improved. Another stated that because of her participation in the program, she felt more motivated to improve her reading and writing skills in French. The participants also felt more confident in their role as parents.

With demand for the new Grandir program high, the current issue is providing enough qualified facilitators. While Margo Fauchon has moved on to other projects, Louise Joly is recruiting and training individuals to facilitate the program. The partnership between Further Education Society of Alberta and Centre d’educatif communautaire de l’Alberta no longer exists but has evolved into a new partnership. Today the Further Education Society of Alberta is collaborating with Eduk with support from the National Literacy Secretariat (NLS). Partenariat Interministeriel Avec Les Communautes de Langue Officielle (PICLO) has joined NLS in supporting this latest Grandir project. Louise Joly intends to have thirty or forty trained facilitators throughout Canada by the end of 2004.

Today, members of the Grandir team look back on the creation of Grandir avec mon enfant–LAPS with pride and look forward to its future. There is a sense of accomplishment and a tremendous degree of enthusiasm for what they have produced. Perhaps a statement from their final report summarizes it best:

To our knowledge, there exists no other program in French that offers parents the possibility of improving reading, writing and parenting skills in one comprehensive program.

Sidebar: Researching Family Literacy

Learning Together: Read and Write with Your Child Program is a six-year longitudinal study of the effectiveness of family literacy programs. It started in 2000 and aims to discover whether participating in the Learning Together program benefits (1) children’s literacy development, (2) parents’ literacy development, and (3) parents’ ability to assist in the development of their children’s literacy. This is the only experimental longitudinal study of adult and family literacy in the world. The goal of Learning Together is to demonstrate that appropriate interventions can make a positive difference, particularly for children that have a limited language and literacy experiences. Results from the study will be released in 2006.

The Learning Together program is an outreach program offered by Alberta’s Centre for Family Literacy in public schools and community literacy organizations in Edmonton and two outlying communities, Millet and Wetaskiwin. It targets children who are three to five and their lower-income parents with less than a grade twelve education.

The research is led by Linda Phillips and Ruth Hayden at the Centre for Research on Literacy at the University of Alberta. Sponsored by Alberta Learning, The Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, and the National Literacy Secretariat, the research is now into its fifth year. Approximately half of the preschool children and their parents have had the opportunity to engage in the Learning Together program for three half days each week over twelve weeks. The remaining 112 children and their parents make up the control group and do not participate in the program. Rather, they get on with what they normally do each day.

Three doctoral students and eight research assistants assessed the literacy skills of children and their parents before taking the Learning Together program. After completing the program, parents are interviewed and assessed each year on their attitudes toward literacy and the kinds of activities they participate in with their children. The same interviews and assessments are conducted each year with parents in the control group.

The research team is also assessing whether the program has had a positive impact on the children, most of who are now in kindergarten and grade one.

The data from the standardized tests administered to the children and adults will be used to measure the effects of the intervention. The regular interviews and observational data will be used to complement the quantitative data to offer a more complete and robust picture of the Learning Together program and the lives of the families. To date, we have learned from the qualitative data that it is critical to understand that many of these families live difficult and complex lives, to listen to what the families have to say about their wishes, hopes and dreams for their children, and to rethink the importance of home/school collaboration for sustained literacy development.

For more information about the research, contact the Centre for Research on Literacy at the University of Alberta (



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