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Engaging family and community in children's literacy education

Sharon Butler
Sharon Butler is Chair of 100 Story Building and Director of Silent Partners, a leadership development consultancy that works extensively in education.

Decades of research and practice show that when parents engage with their children’s learning, outcomes improve and schools perform better, irrespective of family income or student background (Butler 2010). When bridges are built between families and schools, parents and teachers learn more about one another’s strengths, experiences and expectations for children and young people.

Community organisations can play a pivotal role in facilitating the development of these bridges. 100 Story Building is one such organisation. 

100 Story Building

100 Story Building is a social enterprise located in Melbourne’s west. Its mission is to provide opportunities for the most marginalised children and young people in its community to build the literacy skills, confidence and sense of belonging that are fundamental to future success. It carries out this work in close contact with these children’s families and other local community organisations.

The organisation has its roots in the model developed by Dave Eggers at 826 Valencia, a writing centre in San Francisco which supports students aged 6 to 18 to develop their writing skills, and helps teachers get their students excited about the literary arts. 100 Story Building has adapted this model to meet the needs of children and young people in its own local community.

The literacy focus

100 Story Building provides a range of literacy programs, within schools and at the organisation’s recently opened centre for young writers, located in the heart of Footscray, in Melbourne's west.

Individual programs vary according to the age or cultural backgrounds of the children they target, or the specific literacies they are enhancing; however, all programs aim to increase engagement in learning and love of literacy. The programs provide an opportunity for children and young people to develop the creative voices they already possess, and to tell their stories in diverse ways, for example by creating short stories, comic zines, narrative films, radio plays, literary magazines and DIY worlds.

The role of family engagement

100 Story Building’s work is informed by the belief that children’s literacy develops best with involvement from their families and local communities.

Research clearly shows the benefits of family engagement in the whole of a child’s learning, rather than just in their schooling (Harris & Goodall 2007). In addition, family involvement in reading-related activities with children outside of school is strongly related to children’s reading performance (Harvard Family Research Project 2006/07).

Similarly, community involvement in children’s learning is positively correlated with children’s and young people’s educational outcomes. West-Burnham et al. (2007) describe the benefits of school–community partnerships, drawing on Robert Putnam’s research on social capital. Community involvement fosters collective engagement in learning, and connects students to people and resources not otherwise be open to them. Such involvement builds the confidence of the community to engage meaningfully with young people, fosters social entrepreneurship in both young people and the community, and promotes shared community accountability and responsibility for children and young people.

In Other Words: a storytelling program

In Other Words is a storytelling program that has been undertaken for the past two years by 100 Story Building, Dinjerra Primary School and Maribyrnong Council as part of the River of Words Literacy Initiative.

Through this program, professional storytellers have provided inspiration and exposure to diverse storytelling crafts. Contributors have included author Alice Pung, performance poet Tariro Mavondo, Kamishibai storyteller Bernard Caleo and creative director and drama teacher Cale McLaren. This has enabled the children to explore a variety of ways in which to tell their own stories, with the final versions recorded on iPads. 100 Story Building has worked with the teachers within the school to design and deliver the program, which is now embedded within the core curriculum.

The program has drawn actively on family and community knowledge to engage students in language, learning and storytelling, in the home environment. Children interviewed their families as a means of creating and developing their stories which they then shared through a variety of oral and written forms. Family members also participated in fortnightly workshops where they assisted their children with their project at the school.

The 2013 program culminated in a film premiere and visual display of all of the stories, at a red carpet event attended by students and their families and friends.

Evaluation of the program

The In Other Words program was evaluated in 2012 (Molyneaux 2013) using qualitative case study methods that included observation of workshops, interviews with key stakeholders, and analysis of students’ storytelling in terms of linguistic, structural, content and visual features.  Findings from the evaluation informed the refinement of the program.

The evaluation report included the following findings:

  • The In Other Words initiative has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the participating students’ language and literacy skills, and some impact on their ICT skills
  • The benefits for the students in terms of their engagement in meaningful learning and with each other were major outcomes of the project
  • The participating teachers were both major contributors to the success of the program, and major beneficiaries in terms of developing confidence to build on the successes in 2013
  • Successful home-school-community partnerships, as well as excellent three-way school-council-partner organisation collaboration were characteristics and outcomes on this project. (Molyneaux 2013, 21–24)

Overall, the program was found to increase the engagement of families with their children’s learning at home, the oral storytelling skills of the students, and the capacity of the school to deliver the program independently in future years.

Other programs

100 Story Building offers a diverse range of programs for children and young people that reflect commitment to family and community engagement. Programs include:

  • Daily school workshops supported by trained volunteers.
  • The Paper Fire program, which brought together Footscray Primary School students and young media mentors from SYN Media and Express Media, who worked together in groups each week, learning from each other.
  • Early Harvest, an after-school publishing project. It enabled young people from five different schools to develop skills in editing and producing a literary magazine targeted at other young readers and featuring the work of young writers.

Families have been enthusiastic champions of these programs, providing practical support and ongoing encouragement for their children. The programs have also provided an opportunity for children and young people to showcase their skills and talents, reinforcing high expectations for learning and engagement.

A range of daily workshops and after-school programs will be provided in 2014, and opportunities for strengthening partnerships will continue to be explored.

Over the next five years, 100 Story Building aims to provide adult writing workshops, school holiday programs for children and young people across Melbourne, and consultancy services to schools, local government and other organisations interested in enhancing children and young people’s literacy outcomes. Income from this work will help to sustain the organisation as a social entreprise.


In Other Words, along with other programs offered by 100 Story Building, provides a model for engaging families and the community in children’s literacy education. As the evaluation processes become more embedded in the work of the organisation, a rich evidence base will further inform and support the programs offered.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless seas. – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

100 Story Building exists to teach learners, old and new, to yearn for the vast and endless seas.

For further information, visit 100 Story Building  www.100storybuilding.org.au


Butler, S 2010, ‘Family–school partnerships make a difference’, Professional Voice 8 (2), 11–17

Eggers, D 2008, My Wish: Once Upon a School, TED talk at www.ted.com

Harris, A & Goodall, J 2007, Engaging Parents in Raising Achievement: Do Parents Know They Matter?, Research Report DCSF-RW004, Department for Children, Schools and Families, UK

Harvard Family Research Project 2006/7, Family Involvement in Elementary School Children’s Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Boston MA

Molyneaux, P 2013, ‘In Other Words’ Evaluation of a storytelling project undertaken  by 100 Story Building and Dinjerra Primary School with the support of Maribyrnong City Council, The University of Melbourne

West-Burnham, F, Farrar, M & Otero, G 2007, Schools and Communities: Working together to transform children’s lives, Network Continuum Education, London


Subject Headings

Socially disadvantaged
School and community