Magazine article American Libraries

Public Libraries and Early Literacy: Raising a Reader: ALA's Preschool Literacy Initiative Educates Librarians on How to Play a Role in Teaching Reading to Children

Magazine article American Libraries

Public Libraries and Early Literacy: Raising a Reader: ALA's Preschool Literacy Initiative Educates Librarians on How to Play a Role in Teaching Reading to Children

Article excerpt

It's Saturday morning at Multnomah County Library's Belmont branch in Portland, Oregon, where a librarian leads a lively crowd of 30 babies and their parents through an interactive routine of stories and songs. A 7-month-old stares at the librarian's hands, entranced by her rhythmic and animated motions. A 1-year-old toddles around the circle, seemingly oblivious to the adults' enthusiastic singing.

At the same time, a group of day-care providers gathers at Phoenix (Ariz.) Public Library's Ocotillo branch to learn new research-based ways to work with their 4- and 5-year-olds. The caregivers laugh at the interactive games designed to sharpen preschoolers' phonological sensitivity and are intrigued with the six skills that researchers have identified as early-literacy building blocks.

Are public libraries helping to teach these new parents and caregivers how to get their children ready to read, or are these families just having a good time? Will research-based practices and library workshops really change the behaviors of overworked and underpaid daycare providers? Can libraries really become key players in the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind goals? How will public libraries document their impact and know whether they are successful players in preparing children to read?

In 2000, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and ALA's Public Library Association created the Preschool Literacy Initiative. The project is designed to link reading research to action; to get the word out to parents and caregivers that learning to read is not instinctual, but must be taught; and to assess the ability of libraries to effect the desired change. ALA's Association for Library Service to Children joined the effort in 2001, to create accompanying project materials and to form a joint division task force.

Since 2001, 20 demonstration public-library sites have used a variety of ways to encourage parents and caregivers to actively participate in their children's literacy development. Through subtle changes in regular library story hours and the addition of parent-education classes, the libraries have introduced adults to new concepts and strategies to help prepare children for reading. A sampling of participants has completed testing to determine the impact on caregivers' behavior.

Six essential skills

According to NICHD's National Reading Panel, children should enter kindergarten with six early-literacy skills that begin to develop at birth: vocabulary, print motivation, print awareness, narrative skills, letter knowledge, and phonological sensitivity (see Figure 1). The Preschool Literacy Initiative focuses attention on activities to foster these emergent-literacy skills and on the parents or adult caregivers--the essential participants in children's learning.


For many years, traditional library story hours have encouraged children's vocabulary, print awareness, narrative skills, and print motivation through developmentally appropriate picture books, songs, rhymes, and finger-plays. Using a Story-time Early Literacy Self-Observation Checklist, librarians at the demonstration sites utilized stimulation activities in each category or age group that answered such questions as: Did I... Sing rhyming chants and songs (phonological sensitivity)? Allow children to participate in retelling the story (narrative skills)? Encourage children to clap out the syllables of words (phonological sensitivity)? (See Figures 2, 3, and 4.)


Provo (Utah) City Library inserted emergent-literacy components in each of its age-specific storytimes for children. Children's Services Manager Carla Morris said, "Patrons have increased respect and confidence in the librarians and storytellers who use and understand correct emergent-literacy terms. They are pleased to take part in storytimes that 'have substance. …

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