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Magazine Feature

Growing Like a Read: Early Literacy Summer Programming in Central Oklahoma

by Jenny Stennis & Valerie Kimble on January 8, 2014

Pioneer Library System (PLS) in Central Oklahoma offers Growing Like a Read (GLAR), an early literacy program based on Every Child Ready to Read @ your library (ECRR), an initiative of PLA and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), divisions of the American Library Association (ALA). The goal of GLAR is to increase parents’ and caregivers’ knowledge and behaviors that positively impact pre-reading skills development in children from birth through age four. Incentives provided by community partners and branded giveaways provided through a foundation grant are offered as part of the program. Strong community partnerships are an integral part of the GLAR program from development through operation.

In December 2009, the GLAR program was only five months old. In tiny Tecumseh, Okla., just twelve families had enrolled for this early literacy program. The local First United Bank had agreed to sponsor a twice yearly savings bond drawing, and Bank President D. R. Shipley was on hand for the final storytime of the year to draw the first name. As babies, toddlers, preschoolers, parents, grandparents, and librarians waited eagerly for storytime to begin, children’s librarian Sue Walker (Tecumseh’s own “Miss Sue”) introduced their guest. Shipley picked up the jar of paper slips containing the names of all the children enrolled in the program, and stated the importance of parents and grandparents reading to their children. He said that the bank felt it was important to support programs that encouraged reading, which is why they were proud to partner with the library on the GLAR program. Shipley said that First United wanted to encourage all the families present to continue with the program; then he reached into the jar and drew all the names. Every child got a savings bond from the bank for participating in GLAR that Christmas!

Basis of PLS’s Early Literacy Programs

GLAR grew out of ECRR and Raising a Reader (RAR), another nonprofit, early literacy initiative that targets daycare providers and Head Start organizations. RAR is used by such organizations as Success by 6, Cleveland County (Okla.), and Smart Start of Central Oklahoma.

In the first edition of ECRR, PLA and ASLC incorporated the latest research on early literacy and brain development into a series of parent and caregiver workshops to provide public libraries with vital tools to help prepare parents for their critical role as their child’s first teacher. These tools, developed by Grover C. Whitehurst and Christopher Lonigan, well-known researchers in emergent literacy, have been tested and refined by library demonstration sites around the country.1

Research indicates that it is never too early to prepare children for success as readers, and that parents of newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers must be properly informed.2 PLS librarians, serving three suburban and rural counties in Central Oklahoma with ten branches, gathered best practices from other public libraries around the nation. They attended training sessions of both ECRR and RAR. PLS librarians brainstormed together to determine the best methods of disseminating early literacy information to parents, childcare providers, early childhood educators, children’s advocates, and political decision-makers in their communities.

The first program to come out of this local work was the Family Literacy Kit project. Parenting kits were already part of the PLS collection. Begun in 1980, these kits were geared toward parents of young children. Over the years they had lost their focus and were in need of much refurbishing. With a grant funded by the Inasmuch Foundation, an Oklahoma organization, the parenting kits were turned into the Family Literacy Kits, which are large tote bags containing children’s books, with a DVD, a music CD, a puzzle and a toy (based on a theme with a folder of songs), finger plays, activities, and information for parents. Their focus is dialogic reading and early learning through play. Information and guidelines for practicing dialogic reading with children are provided in English and Spanish in the kits. Family Literacy Kits may be checked out from the ten PLS branch libraries. The kits are very popular with parents and caregivers—some of the titles are repeatedly checked out by the same families, but they are circulating materials and must be returned, limiting access to one week at a time.

Building on Success

GLAR was developed to address the need for ritual and repetition through one-to-one interaction with a caring adult for the most effective early learning.3 PLS Children’s Center staff members worked with PLS Development Director Jana Moring on securing the grant. The Inasmuch Foundation again funded the materials, which families and daycare centers may keep to use repeatedly with children from birth through age four, when children enter four-year-old programs in area schools.

Materials provided to parents or primary caregivers include a 6″ x 9″ spiral-bound, standup book of nursery rhymes, songs, and finger plays, including some Spanish rhymes, with a back pocket for the activity log; a tote bag large enough to carry a week’s worth of library books, but small enough for a toddler to manage; a piggy bank supplied by a local financial institution, Tinker Federal Credit Union, which symbolizes the investment being made in the child’s future; a copy of the library magazine that outlines the program and its research components; bookmarks with age-appropriate titles listed; and an activity log with activities to foster the pre-reading skills that resembles a bingo card and is matched to the child’s age. Board books, a CD of nursery rhymes, and the opportunity to enter for a savings bond/prize drawing are provided as incentives for completing program activities. Community partners including Success by 6 and the Friends of the Norman Public Library (NPL) helped PLS fund the production of the CD, and local banks in each branch library’s community donated savings bonds or other prizes.

Rhymes, songs, and finger plays from the standup book are modeled in storytimes and other programs for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers throughout the system. Songs and rhymes from the CD are modeled in Rhythm Babies and Rhythm Toddlers programs presented by Beverly Theige, NPL children’s librarian, who compiled the songs and rhymes for the CD and provided the vocals. Additional trainings are provided to staff, parents, and childcare providers as part of the program.

Childcare providers receive a special set of posters that are an oversized version of the standup book given to families. Use of these is modeled in library storytimes and in special trainings provided to childcare workers.

In planning GLAR, we recognized that working parents are not able to attend daytime storytimes. To this end, they targeted daycare providers who have the same access to this population of children as their parents to provide the one-to-one, repetitive activities that lead to pre-literacy skills development.

Development of GLAR

Other community partners (including child development specialists and a language specialist) from county health departments, child guidance agencies, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and Success by 6 were asked to review the materials and to promote the program through cosponsored trainings and referrals. They acted as an expert focus group during the development phase, and have been extremely supportive of the program as a primary prevention strategy for infant and toddler mental health and development.

The content and design of the materials was a group effort. PLS children’s librarians were surveyed for their favorite public-domain nursery rhymes and songs, and publisher’s permission was sought for use of the Spanish rhymes selected from The Bilingual Book of Rhymes, Songs, Stories and Fingerplays (Gryphon House, 2004). PLS Public Information Director Gary Kramer became part of the development team, contributing the logo and name of the program, designing the illustrations and graphics, collaborating on the format of the materials, acting as liaison with the printer, and promoting the program through a cover story in the library’s WORD magazine.

All suggested tasks on the activity logs were carefully vetted by Mary Ann Boersma, child development specialist, and Sonja Ice, speech and language specialist, both with Cleveland County (Okla.) Health Department’s Child Guidance Division. Since each log covers a developmental period of six months, several activities, particularly letter-related activities, were moved at the professionals’ suggestion to the 36-month period or later. They also recommended moving some stimulating activities from the “At Bedtime” section and replacing them with quiet activities like “sing lullabies.” They suggested including listening to babies’ “sounds” and applauding when baby imitates sounds the adult makes on the 7-12 months log, and modeling how to say certain words while on a shopping trip for the 13-18 months log, among others.

Implementing GLAR in the PLS

In August/September 2009 GLAR was rolled out in all the branches. Quantities of handouts and incentives were delivered to the branches in numbers determined by estimated storytime attendance. We arranged to attend all appropriate storytimes to present the material to the parents and do a brief parent training. This was fairly successful, but children grew restless during the presentation so the format was changed to be more kid-friendly. A puppet, voiced by Kimble, participated in the storytime in tandem with the branch librarian, introducing pre-reading skills information to the parents in the form of comments on the books and activities, while the librarian presented the storytime.

Parents were asked to fill out a survey when they signed up. They received the standup book, tote bag, piggy bank and the activity log(s) pertaining to the age of their child or children. When they returned the log to the librarian and had completed six activities, one for each skill, they received a free board book. When they returned the next time, they received a free CD of children’s songs and rhymes. Every time the customer completed a GLAR program component, including completing the initial survey, filling out portions of the activity log, and completing a post survey, they could enter their child’s name in a drawing for a savings bond provided by community banks. During the second year additional staff training allowed branch staff to do their own presentations and introductions to the program. Children’s staff has been trained to insert tips for parents several times during storytime per Betsy Diamant-Cohen and Saroj Ghoting’s model.4

Survey Findings

The GLAR parent survey was developed with the help of child development specialist Lisa Monroe. She compiled the first year results as follows: In the first year, the GLAR program participants were typically parents, 51 percent of whom had a bachelor degree or higher, 60 percent visited the library at least once a week, and almost 75 percent read to their child every day. Approximately 70 percent of the times they visited the library, they did so to attend a scheduled program. Participants rated almost all of the readiness activities listed as important or very important, with the highest ratings for reading to, talking to, and playing with their children, and the lowest ratings for participating in art. However, almost 80 percent of participants still rated it important or very important. About 90 percent of participants indicated confidence in their abilities to affect their child’s literacy development and almost 95 percent indicated they played an important role in their child’s literacy development.

Parents’ Comments

The goal of the GLAR program was to increase parents’ and caregivers’ knowledge of early literacy skills and to increase their frequency of sharing skill-building activities with their children. Parents’ comments included:

My son and I love the flip book and other materials associated with the program. . . . The flip book is really the jewel in this program. It is the perfect size for little hands. The font size is larger so I can have it propped up at a distance and still read it with him. When he first got it he did not know many of the songs and had never asked for a song by name. We started taking it with us everywhere. . . . Nathan loves all the rhymes, finger plays, etc. He can now sing the songs and flips to the song he wants using the pictures. . . . It is a great thing to leave with a babysitter too since it gives them activities he already knows. We are ready for another edition!—Norman Public Library

Growing Like a Read was an excellent program for my toddler. It encouraged our whole household to participate and be actively involved in reading every evening.—Moore Public Library

The results of the self-administered pre- and post-surveys were mostly identical when compared. Not much learning had taken place, since parents were already knowledgeable about early literacy, but practice had increased. Parents were spending more time reading, singing, and talking to their children as a result of exposure to GLAR. The surveys also showed that the program was not reaching non-library users.

It was hoped that, by offering the incentives, parents would return to the library at least monthly and perhaps weekly to show their completed activity logs. Total usage figures to date demonstrate that of the 1,837 children who signed up, only 592 received a board book, and 252 received the CD. For this program—or for this particular group of educated library users—the incentives were not the enticement to reinforcement as previously believed.

Staff Training

Staff training was of utmost importance in realizing the goals of the GLAR program. A huge emphasis now during storytimes is introducing pre-reading skills to the children. Before ECRR, the educational focus of storytimes was to model reading aloud and to introduce some basic concepts. Since the advent of ECRR and GLAR, children’s librarians are expected to be more intentional about presenting the pre-reading skills in storytimes, and to comment so that parents know the importance of the pre-reading skills to their children.

Beginning in 2005, there were trainings for all PLS children’s staff, provided by early childhood experts from Norman Public Schools, on early brain development and the pre-reading skills. PLS Children’s Services staff provided additional trainings on the pre-reading skills, the importance of finding ways to intentionally share this information with the parents, and how GLAR fosters skills’ development were provided semiannually. We also developed and presented an online WebEx training course as a refresher and orientation. Recent hires and younger librarians embraced these ideas readily. A few tenured staff felt that too much emphasis on teaching interfered with the playful, joyful, fun aspect of storytime, which had proved to be so successful in instilling a love of reading in the child participants.

Highlighting early literacy skills in the context of picture book literature is a popular, ongoing training offered to staff. Every fall, PLS children’s librarians come together for a book festival that showcases recent picture books. The displays and the accompanying bibliography are organized around the pre-reading skills. Branch librarians can request purchase of a selection of these materials to use in their storytimes. It also gives them a ready reference tool to access other titles owned by the system when planning their programs.

In 2011, PLS, in partnership with the Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County, received a Youth Speaker Grant from the Oklahoma Department of Libraries with funding from the Institute for Museums and Libraries to bring Saroj Ghoting, early literacy consultant, to Oklahoma to present “Fun and Facts of Early Literacy: Communicating with Parents through Story Times.” The grant included books and music for each participating library. All children’s staff was encouraged to participate. Evaluation comments indicated that attendees appreciated how this training reinforced and extended their knowledge in new ways. Ghoting’s technique of using three asides in each storytime with suggested scripting provided clear structure for staff, and overcame some lingering resistance on the part of seasoned storytime providers.

Ghoting’s use of the Multnomah County (Ore.) Library poster (“Help Your Child Get Ready to Read”) resulted in staff requests for this item, and inspired a GLAR-branded version designed by Kramer.

In 2012, the Oklahoma Department of Libraries presented early-literacy training sessions in Oklahoma City, including “Mother Goose on the Loose” with Betsy Diamant-Cohen and “Criss Cross Applesauce: Making Multiage Story Times the Best They Can Be” with Ghoting. Handbooks for these programs and picture books to use in storytimes were provided. One of the most helpful items received by participants was the copy of The Early Literacy Kit: A Handbook and Tip Cards by Diamant-Cohen and Ghoting (ALA Editions, 2010).

These programs were successful in training staff on ways to engage parents during storytime and help them know how to engage their children in learning. They provided the reinforcement to eradicate any lingering reluctance to change on the part of storytime providers.

Training by outside experts was vital for staff buy-in to the program, as well as to its success. GLAR statistics demonstrate that the program is most effective in branches where the librarian is most invested in the program. Size of the library is not a factor. Several large libraries have some of the lowest rates of GLAR participation. Some small libraries, where the librarian is actively marketing the program and personally inviting new mothers, have done the best in delivering the program.

Marketing GLAR

First introduced to library customers in 2009 in regular branch storytimes, where the flip-book rhymes and songs are modeled using matching oversized posters, GLAR added promotional materials and a web presence through the PLS Virtual Library in 2010. Customers still go to a branch library for their tote bags and such, but they can download or print the activity logs from the library’s web site (www.justsoyouknow.us/glar).

Since summer 2012, adults are able to enroll their children in the program online, and access the standup book from the GLAR webpage. The classified bibliography of recent picture books, organized by early literacy skill, is available for download.

Parents and caregivers can also subscribe to the free GLAR e-newsletter, which is delivered twice a year. It contains an article spotlighting one of the six pre-reading skills, bibliographies of recent picture books that are good examples to foster that skill, and other articles by area children’s professionals about new research, programs, and services of help to young families. This ongoing parent education and primary prevention effort reaches parents when they are ready. It has a current subscriber base of 463 recipients.

Branding GLAR

The GLAR logo appears on all GLAR publications and materials. Backgrounds and layouts for the logo vary from printed program materials, to promotional bookmarks, to educational support materials and the PLS Virtual Library. Regardless of the variations, the small flower-like book sprouting from a reed-like plant is easily recognized in all iterations. It is hoped that customers will learn to recognize the GLAR brand and trust that items identified by this brand will help them improve their child’s pre-reading skills.

Outreach

GLAR was not intended only for parents of preschoolers, but for all caregivers. Many parents work full-time, so those preschoolers are in daycare. By networking with Success by 6, we were able to reach area childcare centers through the NPL’s annual Literacy Day (and cosponsored by Norman Public Schools, Success by 6, and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Daycare Licensing Division). In 2009, we presented a Tier 2 Training on pre-reading skills, distributing GLAR poster sets to every classroom of each daycare attending the training. Besides the presentation of the skills, hundreds of books were on hand for childcare presenters to view and examine. Activities were planned for participants to help them identify which early literacy skills were exemplified by the books. At request of Success by 6, this program was repeated in 2011, incorporating information learned from Ghoting’s “Fun Facts of Early Literacy.” Since 2009, GLAR staff has presented at least one or two of these presentations annually at various statewide or countywide childcare provider workshops or conferences combining training with distributing the GLAR poster sets.

Outreach visits to Head Start and Early Head Start programs began in 2011 in all three counties served by PLS to model storytimes incorporating early literacy activities, songs, and rhymes. GLAR poster sets were given to each center or classroom. Additionally, visits to programs such as Oklahoma Parents as Teachers, Baby Steps (a program for teenage mothers), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were made.

Collaboration Is Key to Success

In addition to child development specialists and bankers in the community, GLAR was a project that involved the library system at every level. There was extraordinary administrative and financial support from PLS Executive Director Anne Masters for every phase of the project. Her support of GLAR allowed the program to be established and to flourish.

Managers in every PLS branch were instrumental in encouraging their children’s staff to adopt the program and to attend trainings. They were the liaisons to the local banks to invite them to be partners in providing savings bonds and other prizes for GLAR.

PLS’s Kramer embraced the project and was a vital partner in materials design, illustration, and development. He continues to market GLAR through the PLS’s WORD magazine, and assist with new materials development.

Adrianna Edwards-Johnson, PLS virtual librarian, suggested the GLAR e-newsletter and developed the online registration and online nursery rhyme book format.

NPL children’s librarian Beverly Theige, who has a strong music background, provided excellent advice about including musical rhymes and was the creative director for the giveaway CD, providing the selections and performance.

All children’s staff of every PLS branch library are hands-on promoters of GLAR. It is their energy and commitment that keeps the program going, brings it to the awareness of families and daycare providers, and impacts the brain development of their youngest customers.

What Has Been Learned?

GLAR staff has actively sought feedback from parents, caregivers, daycare providers, and library staff. The program has been adjusted and expanded in light of that input and other observations.

Community partners will readily participate with programs that support families and literacy. Changes in traditional programming require endorsement from outside experts to foster complete staff acceptance. Staff enthusiasm is an indicator of program success.

By the end of the first year, the survey results confirmed that parents who bring their children to the library engage them in pre-reading activities even without knowing what that might be. Incentives do not seem to be an enticement for parents already engaged in literacy activities with their children. Childcare center employees who attend childcare trainings are already committed to providing literacy activities.

What is really needed is outreach to the marginalized, such as teen parents or those eligible for assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This population does not have transportation to come to the library.

Outreach efforts need to be extended by offering storytimes through visits to pre-K classrooms in rural schools in small communities in the service area far from branch libraries. Transportation is a traditional barrier to library access in rural areas.

GLAR and early literacy programs are popular with library users and nonusers. It is up to library staff to ensure that the program reaches disadvantaged and marginalized parents, who really need the information provided to ensure that young children attain optimum brain development.

Summary

ECRR is a groundbreaking initiative that marries traditional public library storytime practices with current research on brain development in young children. It gives rise to new, improved storytimes and other nationwide children’s programs. PLS in Central Oklahoma embraced the principles of ECRR and developed both circulating materials for parents and caregivers (Family Literacy Kits) and a parent/caregiver and daycare provider program (GLAR) with giveaway materials and related programming to impact the knowledge and behavior of these first and most important teachers of very young children regarding early literacy skills.

Programs such as ECRR and GLAR put tools in caregivers’ hands to work on children’s language and pre-reading skills. Their goal is optimal brain development, not reading. As one child development specialist stated:

The process of brain development for reading starts before birth through quiet talking and singing to your baby. It continues after birth through touch, love, eye contact, one-on-one interaction and repetition. The ritual of talking together and sharing books starts early. Learning to read comes later.5

REFERENCES

  1. Elaine Myers and Harriet Henderson, “Overview of Every Child Ready to Read @ your library, First Edition,” American Library Association, accessed Nov. 19, 2013.
  2. Adam Payne, Grover Whitehurst, and Andrea Angell, “The Role of Home Literacy Environment in the Development of Language Ability in Pre-School Children for Low-Income Families” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 9, no. 3-4 (1994), p. 435.
  3. Betsy Diamant-Cohen, Ellen Riordan, and Regina Wade, “Make Way for Dendrites: How Brain Research Can Impact Children’s ProgrammingChildren & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 2, no. 1 (Spring 2004), via EBSCOhost Connection, accessed Nov. 19, 2013.
  4. Betsy Diamant-Cohen and Saroj Nadkarni Ghoting, The Early Literacy Kit: Handbook and Tip Cards (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2010).
  5. Mary Ann Boersma, personal interview with the authors, Aug. 21, 2009.


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