Educating Mothers to Increase Family Literacy

By Tom Sticht, International Consultant in Adult Education (Ret.)
In 1890, speaking about the formation of  human capital,  the economist Alfred Marshall wrote,  “The most valuable of all capital is that invested in human beings; and of that capital the most precious part is the result of the care and influence of the mother” (cited in Cunha & Heckman, 2009, p. 2). Marshall’s focus on the importance of mothers in the development of human capital has echoed across time and has a firm place in understanding the role of adult literacy education in the development of literate families.
One hundred years after Marshall’s prescient focus on the importance of capital invested by mothers, Sticht & McDonald (1990, p. 5) wrote: “It is the thesis of this paper that significant reductions in adult illiteracy can be achieved most cost-effectively by focusing a larger percentage of world educational resources on the education of women. In particular, it is argued that money spent on the education of women who are or are about to become mothers can produce ‘double duty’ effects. Monies spent on the education of women contribute not only to the development of the women, but also to the educational participation and achievement of their children.”
Almost a decade and a half later, Karleka (2004) edited a book about a major literacy campaign in India in which it was noted that women participated in large numbers (40 million) and there were gains in social and political status for women and, importantly, this included a strong demand by mothers for the education of their children. This was clearly a demonstration of how investments in the literacy education of women can contribute to the elevation of the literacy level of a family. 
Much additional research indicates that the educational levels of parents, especially mothers, influence the ways in which they interact with their children (Sticht, 2011). This in turn leads to how these children will develop into adulthood. Some children from families with less well educated parents will grow up without developing the levels of literacy and education they need for living very well. Some of these adults will enroll in adult education and increase their basic skills of oracy, literacy, and numeracy. Frequently, they will also develop noncognitive traits such as motivation to persist in learning, improved self-confidence, including the self-confidence and motivation to  engage in educationally important parenting activities with their children. This in turn raises the literacy level of the newly educated adult’s family. 

Adult Literacy Education for Mothers Raises Family Literacy Levels

Adult literacy educators have long known about the importance of educating mothers or mothers-to-be for the educational development of children. In 1929, Cora Wilson Stewart, founder of the famous Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, wrote a book called “Mother’s First Book: A First Reader for Home Women.” In this book she said, “This book is a first reader for women who cannot read or write. … There are many women who can attend school, there are many others who cannot. Those who are unable to join a class or to enroll in school may be taught at home. … Never was there a finer, nobler task for a volunteer who wants to render a patriotic, helpful, constructive service. … The lessons are centered around the home and the daily activities … they aim not only at teaching women to read and write, but at leading them to better home practices and higher ideals in their home and community life” (Stewart, 1929, pp. 5-6).
Sixty years later, research by Wider Opportunities for Women found that mothers enrolled in basic skills (literacy, numeracy) education, often integrated with job training, reported that they spoke more with their children about school, they read to them more, they took them to the library more and so forth (Van Fossen & Sticht, 1991). In one visit to a single mother’s home, the mother’s second grader said, "I do my homework just like mommy" and thrust his homework into the researcher’s hand. These increases in cognitive and non-cognitive behaviors of the mothers’ children happened even though there was no teaching of these types of parenting activities. These types of changes in the parenting behaviors of the mothers was obtained for free as a spin-off of adult basic skills programs. 
Three years later I had the opportunity to further test the idea that investing in the education of adult language, literacy, or mathematics could improve both the skills of the employees and the educability of children (Sticht, 1994). In several manufacturing plants in the Chicago area staff of the Center for Education Resources in Des Plaines, IL, had developed literacy programs integrated with job-related materials and I was asked to serve as an external evaluator of the programs in six plants. I found that not only were large improvements in job-related English language, literacy, or mathematics achieved, but with those workers who were parents, some 40 percent reported that they now read more to their children. This result, which is typically one of the goals of pre-school or family literacy programs, was again obtained as a spin-off of the adult literacy programs. 

Elsewhere, I have argued for what I call early parenthood education (Sticht, 2011). An important point for considering what I call a multiple-life-cycles education policy is that we need to stop thinking in terms of a single life span, sometimes called lifelong/life-wide learning, and pay more attention to the intergenerational transfer of language, literacy, cognitive, and noncognitive aspects of development from parents to their children.

During Adult Education and Family Literacy week, we need to be mindful that when we invest in the education and training of adults, we may improve the educability of children, and hence elevate the literacy levels of entire families. By investing in education for adults, especially mothers or mothers-to-be, we get double duty from our education dollars. We elevate both adults and their children at the same time. From the point of getting a good return on investments (ROI) in education, that seems to make good “cents” to me.

From a multiple life cycles education policy point of view, the real head start for children starts with the heads of the parents. As it turns out, adult literacy education may also act as preschool education for children, with their parents as their first teachers!

Cunha, f. & Heckman, J. (2009). The Economics and Psychology of Inequality and Development. (Available online using a Google search)
Karleka, M. (Ed.).  (2004). Paradigms of Learning: The Total Literacy Campaign in India. New Delhi, Sage.
Stewart, C. (1929). Mother’s First Book: A First Reader for Home Women. (Available online using a Google search). 
Sticht, T. (2011, Fall). Getting it right from the Start: The Case for Early Parenthood Education. American Educator. (Available online using a Google search).
Sticht, T. (1994, June). Workplace Literacy Programs for Ten Manufacturing Companies Near Chicago, Illinois: A Report of Process and Outcomes. In: Mrowicki, L. & Others. Workplace Literacy in a Total Quality Management Environment for the Manufacturing Industry in Chicago and Northern Illinois. (Available online using a Google search). 
Sticht, T. & McDonald, B. (1990). Teach the Mother and Reach the Child: Literacy Across Generations. Paris: UNESCO, International Bureau of Education, (Available online using a Google search).
Van Fossen, S. & Sticht, T. (1991, July). Teach the Mother and Reach the Child: Results of the Intergenerational Literacy Action Research Project of Wider Opportunities for Women. Washington, DC: Wider Opportunities for Women. 


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Steve Reder paper2

New research proves the correlation between obtaining literacy skills and the return on investment related to improving an adult’s life and future.