Literacy Practices of U.S. Migrant Workers with Young Children in Head Start

Principal Investigator:
Canada Research Chair in Early Childhood Literacy
University of British Columbia

This ethnography examines the literacy practices of migrant farm workers in southern Michigan, all of whom had placed their children, ages 8 weeks to 5 years, in one Migrant Head Start program. The analysis is focusing on ways that reading and writing for these families are patterned by their social lives as marginalized from mainstream U.S. life, yet as central to U.S. economics. Important dimensions of this analysis are language status, literate status, citizenship status, and family mobility tied to labor status. Also patterning literacy practice for these families are cultural constructions of family and education. The migrant worker families read and write (fill-in) most often texts that serve a documentation purpose, e.g. legal working papers, immigration documents, records of childrenŐs vaccinations, pay status, reports of playground injuries, etc. The next most common type of text is that which serves regulatory purposes, such as lists of rules for camp life. The central role of the extended family within Hispanic culture is supported by the literacy practice of personal letter writing and reading, although this is diminishing with increased access to cell phone technology. The relational aspect of Hispanic cultural construction of family is also evident in the relatively high use of such texts as greeting cards for special occasions like birthdays, graduation, weddings, etc. Religion also patterns some literacy practices, in particular Bible and songbook reading, and print on religious calendars and religious objects. The families had access to texts in both Spanish and English, while the vast majority of them spoke only Spanish. Approximately 30% of migrant farm workers cannot read or write in either language.

There is very little alignment between the literacy practices of the families and the literacy practices the children experience in their Head Start programs. The only textual overlap was that of calendars, but the calendars in the school were completely different in images, layout, and use than those in their homes. While storybook reading is the primary literacy practice in school, there is no evidence of it at home. Greeting cards occasionally occur in the preschool classroom but as art projects rather than literacy learning opportunities. Analysis is continuing.

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