Larry Ferlazzo

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                       (excerpt from August/September 2007 issue of “Reading Today”)


        Family Literacy Project earns IRA technology Award



What began atLuther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California, as an after-school project to help Hmong refugees learn English, has grown to become a successful community outreach and education effort called the Family Literacy Project. The project’s originator, Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English at the inner-city high school, is the 2007 winner of the International Reading Association’s Presidential Award for Reading and Technology.


In January 2005, Ferlazzo started an after-school computer lab specifically to help school-age Hmong—approximately 2,000 have settled in the Sacramento area over the past two years. The Hmong are an ethnic group of China and Southeast Asia who helped the United States during the Vietnam War. When the Vietnam War ended, many Hmong came to America to start a new life. California, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest populations of Hmong.


Many of the young Hmong have never attended school and they and their families are unaccustomed to an advanced industrial and technological society. Ferlazzo’s creative initiative used computer technology to assist these beginning English language learners; the project has since expanded to include students from other cultures including Vietnamese, Russian and Latino.


A reading intervention program in academic reading and writing taught throughout the school was incorporated by Ferlazzo into his work with the Hmong and he expanded his website ( to include free audio and animated stories with text. There are links to thousands of activities geared to English language learners from pre-literate to advanced levels. Ferlazzo also recruited peer tutors—Hmong students who were bilingual or were more advanced in their command of English—to help the newcomers access the Internet and work on their literacy skills.

The program resulted in substantially increased students’ reading assessments—a 33% greater reading assessment improvement than in those students who did not participate in the program. More than 100 students participate  in the lab each year.

The Family Literacy Project (FLP) was born from the success of the after-school computer lab. Parents participated in several in-school events where their children demonstrated how they used the Internet to improve their literacy skills. In follow-up conversations, many of the families identified language and transportation (difficulty in getting to English classes) as their primary challenges. The families were enthusiastic about the possibility of getting a home computer and Internet access to overcome barriers to learning.


Parents also expressed interest in participating in other activities such as doing language learning activities together at home, inviting other families into their homes to see what they are doing, helping organize and lead meetings to share what they are learning, and identifying other community concerns and how to respond to them.


The school was able to obtain a small grant to begin paying for an Internet connection and donated some recently replaced computers from the computer lab. Families, who keep logs of their time on the ESL website, repeatedly have said the reading, speaking, listening, and writing exercises they used on the computer helped them to increase their ability and self-confidence in speaking English. They also spoke about how much they enjoyed doing the same exercises with family members.  Students with home computers had almost twice the improvement in English reading assessments than a control group of students without home computers.


The School District has now funded the project to triple its size, and now forty-five Hmong Latino, and Pacific Islander families, including over 200 students, are participating in the project.


“The key to the success of the project is that we use technology to help our students and their families deepen face-to-face relationships, not just relationships with the computer screen,” said Ferlazzo.  “In the Computer Lab students from different ethnic groups do projects and play language games in groups and in pairs, and at home families can ‘read’ stories together.”


In addition to technology support, the Davis (CA) Friends of the Library provides a home library, selected by the students, to each family in the project.


A local community organization, the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association (SMHA), has joined with the FLP to further expand the ESL computer programs. The programs promote cross-cultural community communication using computers available at SMHA’s housing developments. The FLP also is raising money to expand the project and hire an outreach coordinator.


Ferlazzo, who holds a Master’s degree in leadership and community development, has been using his talents for the last 20 years to help others. He has worked with low-income families through religious congregations, neighborhood groups, and labor unions to create affordable housing, find good-playing jobs, and obtain citizenship. He began his organizing career working with the United Farm Workers Union. The son of immigrants (his mother came from Trinidad and his father from Italy), Ferlazzo was born and raised in New York City 



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