The Role of After-School Programs in Children’s Literacy Development

After-school programs have the potential to foster literacy among low-income children.  Program operators, funders, parents, and policy makers all want to see after-school programs supporting literacy development. A number of aspects of after-school programs make focusing on literacy complicated, however.  These include the importance of other goals for children’s development, the limits of available time and space, staffing and other resources, general quality problems in the field, and children’s own activity preferences after a day at school. In response to this combination of potential, pressures, and questions, we undertook a study designed to provide a basic picture of the after-school field’s ability to foster low-income children’s literacy.

What we did

The study had two main components: a survey of the literacy practices and environments of more than 200 after-school programs in two distinct urban areas, Chicago and Seattle, and case studies of 16 after-school programs with exemplary or innovative approaches to children’s literacy in Chicago, New York City, and Seattle.  The case study sites included a number of programs that are doing interesting work with low-income school-age children in the area of literacy, the arts, and/or cultural enrichment. The study also included key informant interviews with selected agency directors, foundation representatives, trainers, and literacy specialists.

What we found

  • Material literacy environments: After-school programs varied widely in their physical and material resources, but most provided some literacy programming. Most after-school programs provided display areas for children’s art work and writing—for example, poems, home-made books, and book reports—although the quantity and quality of these display areas varied enormously.
  • Literacy Activities: The most common literacy activities in after-school programs were homework and independent reading. Literacy activities in after-school programs were often social, including book discussions or games that required reading. Book discussions and literature circles have become increasingly common, but can be difficult to put into practice as staff can lack needed experience and skills.
  • Homework: Programs differed in their policies about homework completion being optional or required. The climate for homework time varied widely—from strict and school-like, to purposeful but relaxed, to noisy and chaotic.
  • Exemplary Approaches: Exemplary approaches shared these common characteristics: clear goals for children’s development; shared reading and book discussions; regular story times; deliberate attention to language and vocabulary; and opportunities for children to read and perform their writing.
  • General Principles: We found these principles in practice at exemplary programs: a supportive but active adult role; respect for children’s choice of reading material; activities to make reading and writing personally meaningful; and a balance of seriousness and playfulness in literacy activities.
  • Challenges: After-school programs sited a range of challenges to effective literacy programing, including time, space and material resource constraints; lack of staff skill and experience in fostering literacy; and lack of support for a coherent approach to literacy activity.

What it means

After-school programs provide a potentially strong base for nurturing children’s literacy development and providing a variety of literacy experiences.  The role of after-school programs should be to provide complementary and perhaps very different kinds of literacy purposes and experiences than those provided by school.  After-school programs are well suited to foster the social dimensions of literacy, with children sharing ideas, collaborating and helping each other. They are also well suited to address the cultural dimensions of literacy, such as helping children explore the literacy traditions of their families and communities. Within the after-school field, much work needs to be done if they are to fulfill their distinctive potential in enhancing literacy among low-income children.

Role of After-School Programs in Children's Literacy Development