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

By Arnold, Renea | American Libraries, September 2003 | Go to article overview

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

Arnold, Renea, American Libraries

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.' One child told his mother that he likes to go to 'library school,' referring to storytimes."

To call adults' attention to the techniques that support early-literacy techniques used during storytime, librarians in Portland inserted taglines or comments for parents and caregivers such as "Children learn the most from books when they are actively involved, so be sure to ask them questions" or "Your child doesn't need worksheets or flashcards to learn to read; instead, make up silly words, rhyme words, and clap syllables in words."

Educating caregivers

Recognizing that parents and caregivers are children's primary teachers, the Preschool Literacy Initiative offers three age-specific classes for parents and caregivers of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Each class has the latest information on reading development in easy-to-understand terms and incorporates practical, hands-on activities. Each participant was asked questions before and after class sessions to help assess whether libraries made a difference in parents' behavior.

The first class, Bonding with Baby, encourages the use of wordless books to talk about the pictures, and encourages singing songs and reciting rhymes such as "Eensy Weensy Spider." The Montgomery County (Md.) Public Libraries worked with the public school's English as a Second Language Department to adapt the workshops for families whose first language is Spanish. Following one of the workshops, the mother of an 8-month-old said she would start singing and talking more with her daughter. She wanted her daughter to learn English despite her own limited English-speaking skills that resulted in her hardly speaking at all to her baby. Following the workshop, she realized the importance of talking with and reading to her child.

A dialogic reading class at Multnomah County Library known as Hear and Say encourages interactive reading techniques with toddlers. Reading aloud has maximum learning potential when children are given opportunities to actively participate and respond. Asked why she came to the parent class, a 32-year-old Hispanic mother from Portland replied, "I came because I want to learn better ways of helping my daughter learn. I want her to be a good reader someday." Four weeks later, the mother was asked about how she had changed her interactions with her toddler after attending early-literacy classes. Her response: "I used to correct her pronunciation. Now, I ask her questions and she has more fun."

The Sound Awareness session for preschoolers teaches how to play language games to help children hear the different phonemes in words--phonological sensitivity. Sue Tracy, early childhood specialist at Hennepin County Library in Minnetonka, Minnesota, coached Head Start parents and caregivers as well as teen parents in high schools. After teaching a phonological awareness class she noted, "Many parents left excited and felt empowered to try new literacy interactions with their children."

Readying a reader

The most significant research to impact library programming is the clear evidence that phonological sensitivity and letter-knowledge skills are highly predictive of later reading success. Although children need direct instruction to gain these skills, the skills are not reached through drills, but by engaging them in fun, interactive, age-appropriate activities.

Literacy development can be greatly enhanced by simple interactions. Repeated reading of rhymes, poems, or stories with rhyming words help children notice sound patterns. Clapping out the syllables in their names or characters in a book helps children begin to separate sounds in words. Other fun games include searching for things on a page that begin with the "n" sound, or singing songs like "Willoughby, Wolloughby Woo" to heighten awareness of speech sounds.

The NICHD National Reading Panel reports that a minimal amount of phonemic instruction could have a positive effect on word-reading outcomes. It indicates that "the best effects of phonemic awareness instruction were found within programs that used between 5 and 18 hours total in the course of a school year." Libraries are well suited to provide this amount of instruction as part of existing programming.

In the past decade, library staff may have shied away from formally introducing the alphabet because it seemed too school-like. But now libraries are introducing letter-sound relationships by sharing appropriate children's books as well as encouraging play with felt or foam letters, or reading from alphabet books.

Positive evaluations

Second-year evaluation analysis, conducted by Sara Laughlin and Associates, shows that parents of every age, educational background, income level, and ethnicity who participated in the early-literacy programs significantly increased their literacy behaviors. Teen parents and those parents or caregivers without high-school degrees exhibited the fewest literacy behaviors at the beginning of the program, but showed significant improvement across all behaviors at the conclusion. One teen parent asked at the intake interview:

"What books are good to read to children?" At the follow-up interview, she reported that she was involved in such activities as "using the library card, singing to my daughter more, playing with her, and talking to her about her toys."

Participating libraries and their various community partners in the literacy effort described how they built on existing relationships. Several partners admitted that they were not aware of the library's knowledge of research-based literacy practices. They are now enthusiastic about the impact of the library's training and interested in continuing and expanding their partnerships.

Future plans

The PLA/ALSC Emergent Literacy/Early Childhood Task Force is committed to promoting children's literacy development through the Preschool Literacy Initiative and demonstrating that public libraries are valuable partners in preparing children for learning to read. They are excited to share the parent-education programs, materials, and resources with all libraries and have created a five-year plan to make that happen. For more information about the project and the demonstration sites, visit

RENEA ARNOLD is program manager for Early Childhood Resources at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon.

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