Family literacy kits let parents help children to read and learn English

The worst part about watching her six-year-old daughter struggle to read was that Felisbela Festa could do nothing to help. A year after moving here from Portugal, the 30-year-old mother knew little English.

TORONTO— The worst part about watching her six-year-old daughter struggle to read was that Felisbela Festa could do nothing to help. A year after moving here from Portugal, the 30-year-old mother knew little English.

But when her daughter’s school sent home a family reading kit last fall with a recording of the books being read out loud, it helped decode English spelling for both Clara and her mother.

“It was hard for Clara to get enthusiastic about reading when she was so far behind,” Festa said through an interpreter.

“Because these books come with a CD, I could hear how the words were supposed to sound.

“It’s still hard, but now we take turns reading to each other.”

They are among 5,000 families this year across some of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods using new “family literacy collection” binders created for parents who face demographic hurdles — grinding shift work, poverty, language barriers — to help their children learn to read.

Designed by the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the kits are being used in 80 schools where need is high and achievement low, many in Portuguese, Hispanic and Jamaican neighbourhoods where parents often cannot provide academic help and where dropout rates are highest in the city.

“We distributed them across the so-called horseshoe of poverty — down the Jane Street corridor, across the downtown and in parts of Scarborough — to help parents be able to read together with their children and show them it is important,” said Enir Bassani, a community relations officer with the board.

The project is a bid to level the playing field for families that often lack the tools to coach their budding readers at home, an advantage proven to help children of more affluent and education-savvy parents.

The six family-friendly binders of stories, a CD and worksheets — each focused on different letter combinations — are lent to students for two weeks at a time after the teacher covers those sounds in class.

They cost about $100 each to make with one-time literacy funding from the Ontario government, and more than 99 per cent of children send them back completed, having read the package on average at least twice.