Literacy Homework Year 1999

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]

Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students

Trevor H. Cairney and Jenny Ruge
School of Lifelong Learning and Educational Change
University of Western Sydney Nepean

The purpose of the Community Literacy Practices and Schooling project[1] was to explore differences in the language and literacy practices of schools, families and community groups. In particular, it examined matches and mismatches between the discourse practices of home and school and the impact that differences have on students' school success.

The project was motivated by strong evidence indicating that schools inconsistently tap the social and cultural resources of society, inadvertently privileging specific groups by emphasising particular linguistic styles, curricula and authority patterns (Bourdieu, 1977; Gee, 1990). Another important premise was that involving parents more closely in school education may assist both parents and teachers to develop greater knowledge of the other's specific language and literacy practices. This in turn may well enable both teachers and parents to understand the way each defines, values and uses literacy (Cairney, 1994; Moll, 1993). The project sought to:

  • observe and analyse innovative attempts to create school curricula and learning environments that meet the needs of specific students and which facilitate effective partnerships between home, school and community
  • identify matches and mismatches between the literacy practices of specific families and their children's schools, and the impact of these on school.
The study involved detailed analysis of family, community and school contexts, and focused on families with children in primary and secondary schools. Observation of home, school and community literacy practices, the collection of literacy artefacts, interviews with all participants, and discourse analysis of a range of literacy events all informed the exploration of these issues.

The key findings are contained in the two-volume final report of the project (Cairney & Ruge, 1998). One of the most striking findings was that school literacy has a significant impact on home literacy. In many families it was found that specific types of literacy associated with schooling were prominent in home activities. This was often associated with homework, and with younger children, 'playing schools'. In contrast, home literacy practices did not have the same impact on school literacy.

While for many families there was a strong match between home and school in relation to some forms of literacy, there were also fundamental differences in the purposes for which literacy was used, and the interactional structures in which literacy was embedded and discussed. As well, children retained greater control of their literacy at home, where literacy tended to be better suited to their interests and it could in some instances be more challenging. However, these mismatches were inconsistent across families, as were their consequences. This is an important finding because it highlights the fact that the failure of some children to succeed at school cannot be simply attributed to deficits in children, their families or their home environments.


The National Plan for Literacy and Numeracy (DEETYA, 1998) recognises that the early years of schooling have a vital part to play in children's ultimate success in school. It also acknowledges that parents and the community need to know more about their children's schooling. While the Plan does not specifically acknowledge the vital role that parents and families play in ensuring that the goals of education are achieved, there is implicit acknowledgement of their importance.

The findings of this study suggest that the attainment of national benchmarks for all children would be facilitated with more attention to the vital relationship between home and school. Indeed, the success of schools in ensuring that a majority of students attain national minimum benchmarks will require schools to give careful attention to the specific characteristics and needs of their communities and families. This will require further funding to support key home school community initiatives and policy development to ensure that the close relationship between home and school is considered as part of major curriculum initiatives.

The role of homework also needs to be given special attention because of the key role that it has in 'transferring' literacy from home to school. There is a need to understand more fully the impact that homework has on children's school success as well as any unforseen negative consequences that it might have in excluding specific community literacy practices from schooling.


As a consequence of the language and cultural diversity within communities, all schools in this study had attempted to build closer relationships with their students' families. Detailed case studies of four schools conducted in the first phase of the research revealed a number of key elements essential as a starting point for any school's attempt to respond to the cultural and linguistic diversity of its community. These included:
  • an acknowledgment of the need to change
  • the involvement of the whole school in any response
  • high teacher expectations for students irrespective of their background
  • key staff who acted as change agents
  • strong community participation
  • adequate time for professional development to occur
  • planned attempts to match approaches to teaching and learning to the specific needs of students.
These findings are consistent with those of other researchers including Lucas, Henze and Donato (1990), Ladson-Billings (1995) and Cummins (1986), all of whom argue strongly for responsive curricula that consider the relationships between teachers and students, and schools and communities. What these findings suggest is that schools and educational systems need to be willing to examine closely their own programs and practices. An essential element of school improvement in this area is the recognition and acceptance of the need for change. Consequently, the report recommended that existing school-based and system-based reviews be expanded to include evaluation of the programs and strategies currently in use to recognise and respond to cultural and linguistic diversity.

The project also revealed that many effective programs in schools hinge on the presence and involvement of one or two key personnel. Often, when key personnel are promoted or transferred to other schools, there is disruption to the programs, or they may cease altogether. Attention needs to be given to formally recognising and mandating approaches or programs that have proven to be effective. Principals were found to be one key group of staff who need ongoing professional development to raise their understanding of the language and cultural diversity present within schools and community.

It was recommended that schools be supported in their attempts to recognise and respond to cultural and linguistic diversity. One suggestion for supporting this is the establishment of a funding program by DEETYA, to be implemented through state education authorities, with the purpose of supporting innovative professional development programs that encourage whole-school involvement.

There is also a need for schools to continue to explore innovative ways to build effective partnerships between home and school. Programs which attempt to bridge home and school literacy have frequently consisted of parent education packages designed by schools to lead parents to accept school definitions of literacy (Cairney, Ruge, Buchanan, Lowe & Munsie, 1995). As Auerbach (1989) points out, family literacy programs that do no more than teach parents to do school-like activities at home are simply new applications of deficit views on learning.

As Ellsworth (1989) has pointed out existing power relations in education at any level will not be 'interrupted' until teachers are able to step out of their classrooms to allow themselves to see the social relations (for example, who can say or do what to whom) that perpetuate inequality of access and authority (that is, who has opportunities to learn and whose knowledge is validated). In order to do this, schools need access to professional development opportunities that challenge them to analyse classroom discourse, and consider options for developing more responsive approaches to teaching.

Our research shows that teacher knowledge of families and the impact of social and cultural diversity on school learning is critical. Teachers need to understand the difference between the literacy of home and school and the impact that such differences can have on school success for some children.

Like other major Australian studies of literacy (for example, Christie, Devlin, Freebody, Luke, Martin, Threadgold & Walton, 1991; Cairney, Ruge, Buchanan, Lowe & Munsie, 1995; Freebody, Ludwig & Gunn, 1995) this study recommends that teachers be given a comprehensive introduction to an understanding of the relationship between the literacy of the school and the literacy of the wider community. As a result, our report recommended that all teacher education programs include a subject that addresses the need for teachers to acquire knowledge of:

  • the social, cultural and linguistic diversity of families
  • the effect that matches and mismatches between the literacy of home and school have on success at school
  • strategies for building more effective relationships between home and school
  • strategies for developing more socially, culturally and linguistically responsive curricula.


The families who participated in this research came from a broad range of social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Of all groups, however, it was the Aboriginal families for whom the data collection methods were least successful. Many factors contributed to this, not least of which were the social and economic circumstances of most of these families. Frequent school absences, difficulty in maintaining regular and frequent contact with families and the difficult circumstances of some family members all contributed to the problem of adequately exploring the literacy practices of Aboriginal students and their families. Future research needs to take account of these difficulties and develop (in particular) data collection methods that are sensitive to the social economic and cultural diversity of families. It is clear that additional research into the home and school literacy practices of students from diverse cultural backgrounds is necessary. The development of appropriate methodology for such research should be developed in consultation with members of relevant communities.

As found by Freebody, Ludwig and Gunn (1995), our study indicated considerable variation in parents' attitude to homework and knowledge of how to deal with it. The major link or 'common ground' between home and school contexts in this study was clearly homework. Although homework generally takes place in homes or community contexts, it differs from other familial and community uses of literacy in one important respect: family members are accountable for homework in the same way that students are accountable for their literacy in classrooms. Teachers sometimes judged the effectiveness of students' home support on the basis of whether or not homework tasks were regularly and satisfactorily completed.

Homework activities can serve as an important link between students' home and school worlds. If teachers and parents do not understand the importance of this potential link, then homework becomes just another task to be completed in any way possible. Taking responsibility for ensuring that homework tasks are completed away from families (for example, in homework centres), denies families the opportunity to become familiar with school ways of using literacy.

As a result of our research we recommended that further research be conducted into the role of homework in supporting students' school success. Schools should be encouraged to examine, with their communities, the purposes for assigning homework, as well as the types of homework activities assigned.


It is clear from the evidence provided in this study that families and schools differ markedly in their literacy practices and values. What is also clear is that there are significant differences amongst families in the way they define and use literacy. Thus, knowing that a student is a member of a particular subgroup (for example, a member of a socioeconomically disadvantaged family, a recent Vietnamese immigrant, a third-generation Australian-born 'native' Arabic speaker, etc.) does not entitle us to assume anything about that student's literacy practices or 'ways of participating' in the cultural practices of the group.

Consistent with the findings of Gutierrez (1994), the study found that there is a close relationship between patterns of interaction among members of groups and context. Both are constructed and reconstructed as participants engage in specific literacy practices. The context and the scripts that shape interaction are mutually reflexive. This reflexivity in turn shapes the nature of the literacy opportunities and practices.

The data from this research show that participants (students, teachers and family members) adopted different roles and relationships, norms and expectations, and ways of participating in literacy-related events. These three elements contributed to the construction of differing views of literacy and differing notions of what constitutes literate action.

The study also strongly supports Connell's (1994) argument that it is misleading to assume that problems in school achievement concern only a disadvantaged minority of students. Educational change is not something to be 'done to' minority groups, and effective programs cannot exist as 'add-ons' to the 'real' work of schools. What is needed is fundamental change in student-teacher-parent relationships.

Similarly, this research supports Corson's (1991) contention that 'education can routinely repress, dominate and disempower language users whose practices differ from the norms that it establishes. ... Whoever has the power to define the context and the language code that describes it is empowered; all others who accept that definition without question accept their own disempowerment in that setting' (p. 236).

It is clear from the evidence provided in this study that families and schools differ markedly in their literacy practices and values. What is also clear is that there are significant differences amongst families in the way they define and use literacy.

The findings of this project raise a number of additional questions about the relationships between home and school literacy practices. For example, further exploration is required of the role that children play as mediators between home and school. We need to ask, how do students construct the role of mediator? How do students respond to differences between home and school? Is there any evidence that children from different cultures respond in different ways?

We need to go beyond simply recognising that our students are diverse socially and culturally, and begin to rebuild the curriculum so that it acknowledges, builds on and celebrates the different 'funds of knowledge' (Moll, 1993) they bring. We need responsive curricula and the development of mutual understanding between parents and teachers, what Harry (1992) has called a 'posture of reciprocity'. The challenge is for schools to learn more about the language, literacy and culture of home and community. This needs then to be used to effect changes to the way literacy is supported at school. Schools need to capitalise on the rich diversity of language and culture to build more effective partnerships with families and their communities.


Auerbach, E. (1989). Toward a social-contextual approach to family literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 59, 165-181.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A.H. Halsey (Eds), Power and ideology in education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cairney, T.H. (1994). Family literacy: Moving towards new partnerships in education. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 17(4), 262-275.

Cairney, T.H., Ruge, J., Buchanan, J., Lowe, K. & Munsie, L. (1995). Developing partnerships: The home, school and community interface (Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEET.

Cairney, T.H. & Ruge, J. (1998). Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students (Vols 1 & 2). Canberra: DEETYA.

Christie, F., Devlin, B., Freebody, P., Luke, A., Martin, J.R., Threadgold, T. & Walton, C. (1991). Teaching English literacy: A project of national significance on the preservice preparation of teachers for teaching English literacy (Vol. 1). Darwin: Northern Territory University.

Connell, R.W. (1994). Poverty and education. Harvard Educational Review, 64(2), 125-149.

Corson, D. (1991). Language, power and minority schooling. Language and Education, 5(4), 231-253.

Cummins, J. (1986). Empowering minority students: A framework for intervention. Harvard Educational Review, 56, 18-36.

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn't this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.

Freebody, P., Ludwig, C. & Gunn, S. (1995). Everyday literacy practices in and out of schools in low socio-economic status urban communities: A descriptive and interpretive research program. Canberra: DEETYA.

Gee, J. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: The Falmer Press.

Gutierrez, K.D. (1994). How talk, context, and script shape contexts for learning: A cross-case comparison of journal sharing. Linguistics and Education, 5(3 & 4), pp. 335-365.

Harry, B. (1992). An ethnographic study of cross-cultural communication with Puerto Rican-American families in the special education system. American Educational Research Journal, 29, 471-494.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491.

Lucas, T., Henze, R. & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of Latino language-minority students: An exploratory study of six high schools. Harvard Educational Review, 60(3), 315-340.

Moll, L. (1993). Community-mediated educational practices. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Atlanta (USA), 12-16 April, 1993.


  1. Cairney, T. & Ruge, J. (1998). Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students (Vols 1 & 2). Canberra: DEETYA.
Author details: Professor Trevor H. Cairney,
Office of Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research,
UWS Nepean, P.O. 10, Kingswood, NSW, 2747.
Phone: (02) 47 360 036 Fax: (02) 47 364 186
Homepage: [verified 1 Jan 2005 at]

Please cite as: Cairney. T. H. and Ruge, J. (1999). Community literacy practices and schooling: Towards effective support for students. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 25-33.

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 1 Jan 2005.

Literacy-Linked English Homework Sheets

This is a collection of homework sheets that I’ve written.
They can be used to support the “Literacy Hour”.
I’ve had lots of feedback from other teachers
who have used the sheets. Many have found a use
for the activities in the classroom as well as for homework.


To help you do this homework it might be a good idea to gather together some examples of adverts from newspapers and magazines.

Look at the adverts in the press. How do they try and make you buy the thing they are selling? Look out for slogans and phrases that they use. How is the advert set out? How big is the writing on the advert? Where is it? Does the advert use a picture to get your attention?

For homework I would like you to design a magazine advert for one of the following:

a new chocolate bar

a fizzy drink

a shampoo

a toothpaste

a toy

Advertising Slogans

You’ll need to watch a small amount of television (or flick through some magazines) to do this homework!

There are lots of adverts on TV and in magazines. Companies fight for your attention in an effort to sell you their products. What adverts can you remember seeing recently on TV? Sometimes the most memorable adverts are the ones where something funny happens in them or the ones that have a catchy theme tune. Often, though, you remember the products featured in the advert because of the phrase used at the end of the advert. “Only . . .  have the answer” is an example of an advertising slogan.

For your homework I would like you to make a collection of advertising slogans. You could ask members of your family about any they can remember. You could build up your collection from using adverts on TV or in magazines. Bring your collection of slogans into school.



Crazy Commentary

If you’ve ever seen any sport on television then you’ll know that the job of a sports commentator is to tell the viewer exactly what’s happening even when the viewer can see what is happening!

Your homework is to imagine that you are a commentator. Instead of talking about a football match or motor race I want you to commentate on an everyday activity.

So you could do the commentary on someone washing the dishes, making the dinner or doing something completely different. It’s up to you.


It might help you if you listen to some commentators on the television or radio.

You don’t have to write down your commentary . . . you could record it if you wish!

Schooldays Interview

For your homework this week I would like you to conduct an interview with a member of your family about their time at school. You’re going to ask them questions about their schooldays.

Before you start your interview I would like you to prepare about ten questions to ask them. Write them down in advance so you don’t forget them. Try and make the questions interesting and try and avoid questions that will just produce “Yes” and “No” answers.

Tape the interview if you can, as this will help you write down the questions and the answers. Bring your written versions (your ‘transcripts’) of the interview into school.



My Favourite food

What foods do you like eating the most? What do you like having best for tea?

For your homework I want you to plan your perfect meal. It has to be the meal that you would most want to eat.

Think carefully about what dish you want for the main part of your tea. What would you like for pudding? Do you want a drink with your tea? Would you like to begin your tea with a starter (e.g. soup)?

When you’ve decided on your meal write the meal down in the form of a menu. Think carefully about what a menu looks like. You may have seen menus on trips to pubs or restaurants. Places like McDonalds also have a type of menu.




You may have heard people say, “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” and wondered what they are talking about. That is an example of a proverb. It’s a saying that has been passed on, generation by generation, from a long time ago.

Below are the starts of some proverbs. For homework I would like you to see if you can find out how they finish. You’ll have to ask people at home to help you. When you bring your answers back to school we’ll be talking about what each proverb means.

A stitch in time . . .
A bird in the hand . . .
Look before . . .
You can’t teach an old dog . . .
Look after the pennies . . .
A miss is . . .
Don’t look a gift horse . . .
Can you find any other examples of sayings or proverbs?


Class Talk

Next week I would like everyone to give a short talk to the rest of the class on something that they like doing.

Your homework is to prepare for this talk. You will only have to speak for around 5 minutes. Your talk could be on one of your hobbies, on a favourite book or film, on your computer, or on something that really interests you. It’s up to you what subject you choose.

Try and work out carefully what you’re going to say. You could write a few notes on a piece of paper to help you. It’s a good idea to write the order that you’re going to talk about things.

Visual aids will make your talk more interesting. Visual aids are things like pictures, posters, objects or props. You can even write on the class board if you wish.




Design a Machine

Are there any jobs that you don’t like doing around the house?

Are there any tasks that other people in your family don’t like doing?

Imagine that you could buy special machines to do the tasks that nobody likes doing. I want you to invent a machine to do one of those tasks.

Draw a picture of your machine and label your picture to show what parts do what. Write down why you’ve decided to invent the machine and tell me a little bit about how it works.




Mythical Monsters

At school you’ve been looking at myths and legends. The myths and legends of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were dominated by tales of heroes, gods and monsters.

For this homework you will be looking at the monsters of myth and legend. I would like you to create your own monster. Draw a picture of it and label your picture to tell me what each part does. Then write a paragraph telling me about your monster. Tell me about where it lives, what it does, how it behaves and what it has done to the heroes that have come across it.

If you’re having trouble creating your monster, try the old Greek myth trick… simply take the head of one animal and combine it with the body of another. You can always add wings and a tail.



Alien Explanation

If an alien came down to Earth from another planet he would probably be very confused by a lot of things he would find here.

Look around your house. There are a lot of things in your house that would confuse an alien. You probably take a lot of these things for granted. Things like a television, a video recorder, a computer, a vacuum cleaner, and a washing machine would probably be unknown to the alien.

Imagine an alien did land on Earth and that you made friends with it. Choose an item from the list above, or use an idea of your own, and explain what it is to the alien. Write your explanation down. Think about what the thing is used for, how you use it and how it works. You could draw a labelled diagram to help you explain things.


A Day After

Have you ever read a book and wondered what might have happened to the characters in the book after the story had finished?

If you haven’t then now it is your chance to think about it.

Use the storybook that you are reading at home at the moment. I want you to continue the story from where the book ends. What happens to all the people in the story the day after the end of the book? Maybe they have another adventure.

Use your imagination!



Once Upon A Time

Can you remember a story that you particularly liked when you were younger? Perhaps it is a story that your parents read to you or that you heard in the infants at school.

For your homework I would like you to try and remember as much about the story as possible. Write down, in order, the main events that happen in the story.

Remember to think how the story starts and how the story ends. Make a note of all the people (the characters).



TV Conversation

Choose two characters from a TV program that you watch (or from a book that you’ve read). Imagine the two characters talking together.

I want you to write down the conversation that they would have, in the form of a script.

For example:


I don’t think we should do that, Tommy.


You’re just scared, Chuckie.


Yeah, but what if they find us?

You can make the conversation up or you can use one that you’ve heard them actually have. Try to write the dialogue in the way that they speak. Listen carefully to how they say things.

Bring your script into school. Don’t tell anyone which two characters you’ve chosen as we may well try and guess.

Are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?” is a phrase young children often say on long car journeys.

I would like you to imagine a family that is going on holiday. They are inside their car driving down the motorway. Imagine what is happening in the car. Think about what they might be doing and what they might be talking about.

What I want you to do is write down part of this car journey. Instead of writing it as a story I would like you to write it in the form of a script. Imagine that you are writing it as part of a TV programme.

Think about what the children might want to know about the holiday. How might they behave on a long car journey? What are their parents doing?

Start off your script with . . . .


Are we there yet?


[glancing backwards] No!


When will we get there?

End your script with . . .


Are we there yet?

When I was Younger

Ask your parents if they have a funny story they can tell you about something that you did when you were younger.

If they can’t think of a funny or strange thing that happened to you then have they got a story about someone else in the family? The story could be about something that happened to them when they were younger.

Ask them questions about the story so that you know as much about it as possible.

Write the story down, in as much detail as you can, and bring your work into school.


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