A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

PERSPECTIVES | Literacy and Parents

by James La Rue on October 3, 2016

Contributing Editor JAMES LARUE is Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Freedom to Read Foundation. Contact James at jlarue@ala.org. James is currently reading We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick.

This column represents the final mining of a batch of submissions about establishing and revivifying the habit of literacy. Our contributors swing through a graceful arc, beginning with a thorough, best practices approach to early literacy, and extending even unto that dark, dark land of adulthood.

Contributors Barbara Ferrara and Cammy Mays describe a solid research-based and comprehensive program for an outward-facing, community-based literacy. Suzy Card demonstrates the open and welcoming attitude that not only makes storytimes a joy but also keeps encouraging parents’ early engagement. (She begins, “Do you ever wonder what the parent of a preschool aged child is thinking?” Just for the record, I recall mostly ruminating about Disney movies and Raffi ditties. It’s not thinking, exactly.) Finally, Karen Andrews gives some concise tips for rescuing parents from lives they imagine are too busy to allow for the opening of
a book.

Most kids are born smart; that’s just DNA. But nurture matters, too, and the common theme through these pieces is the importance of getting parents to model literate behavior. Thanks again to the librarians who keep hammering home that message. The quality of the lives of our children, and our communities, depends on it.

Family Building Blocks

Barbara A. Ferrara, Regional Manager, Chesterfield County (VA) Public Library, ferrarab@chesterfield.gov; Cammy E. Mays, Librarian, Chesterfield County (VA) Public Library, kochce@chesterfield.gov

In the past three years, Chesterfield County (VA) Public Library (CCPL) has shifted storytime and other children’s programs to include activities and dialogue that engage parents and caregivers in the learning experience. In 2013, we surveyed our cardholders, asking everything from “How often do you visit the library?” to “How can the library help you achieve your aspirations?” We discovered 70 percent of our customers use the library for learning. This reflects the national trend toward “turning outward,” introduced by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and formalized in the American Library Association’s Libraries Transforming Communities initiative, which seeks to strengthen librarians’ roles as “core community leaders and change-agents.”1

CCPL embraces its transformational role. It equips parents to interpret and use information in new, unfamiliar ways. We have experience accommodating for various learning styles and engaging learners of all ages, whether through an early literacy storytime or another program, class, or one-on-one session with a librarian. This transliteracy goes beyond the basic ability to read and write and often includes an understanding of life skills in diverse areas. In the world of today’s preschooler, the ability to work with information and socialize with other children is crucial for school readiness and preparation for a lifetime of learning. Some parents do not possess the knowledge needed to provide enrichment activities for their children; Literacy and Parents and so they discover new materials and techniques at the library. Meaningful storytime activities such as reading, listening, singing, rhyming, and playing have tremendous influence on a child’s development and help in developing prereading skills needed for success at school.2

PLA and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) created the first Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) toolkit in 2004, inspiring CCPL to adopt a new approach to storytime. PLA and ALSC “concluded that public libraries could have an even greater impact on early literacy through an approach that focused on educating parents and caregivers. If the primary adults in a child’s life can learn more about the importance of early literacy and how to nurture pre-reading skills at home, the effect of library efforts can be multiplied many times.”3 With the information gleaned from ECRR and 2011’s updated second edition (ECRR2), CCPL storytimes were retooled to consciously support the tenets of early literacy, “teaching parents and other caregivers how to support the early literacy development of their children.”4

CCPL offers fifteen early literacy storytimes each week, including a pajama storytime in the evening and a Spanish-English storytime at one branch. Each storytime is prepared and structured according to one of the following six early literacy skills identified in ECRR: narrative, letter knowledge, print motivation, phonological awareness, print awareness, and vocabulary. These skills are taught by practicing reading, talking, singing, writing, and playing. Storytime presenters provide aside notes for parents and caregivers that emphasize the selected literacy skill. We talk to parents and caregivers before, during, and after storytime to help them understand the emphasized skill. In addition to the oral explanation of the skill, CCPL librarians created printed bilingual Recipe for Reading Success cards for distribution, each defining one of the six skills and suggesting activities that parents and caregivers could do independently (see below). Our goal is to model behaviors and provide relevant information so parents and caregivers can easily incorporate these educational behaviors into their children’s everyday lives.

While ECRR has proven to be a valuable tool for CCPL librarians designing programs that build early literacy, the positive response by parents has suggested that the library can also contribute to development of other school readiness skills. In Virginia, preschool is not universally provided by public schools. Like many jurisdictions, Chesterfield County provides Head Start, the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI), and other programs to build early literacy skills for low-income and immigrant families. These programs have proven valuable for many at-risk families, yet help is still lacking for those who do not meet the income requirements of these special programs but still cannot afford to pay for private preschool. CCPL is creating a new program that includes state-approved educational standards for all areas of early development.5 “Building Blocks for School Readiness” combines current storytime standards and incorporates these additional standards.

Launched in January 2016, this school readiness storytime is the same length as existing programs yet includes the use of sensory stations, hands-on learning, and innovative technologies. Creating programs focused on learning outcomes has clear relevance to our patrons, including parents of young children. “Building Blocks for School Readiness” uses play-based learning to create an environment for social and personal development, in addition to standard learning areas.

CCPL’s participation in the Chesterfield-Colonial Heights School Readiness Coalition has proven to be a valuable collaboration with local agencies committed to early education, such as school systems, Head Start, VPI, Smart Beginning, and representatives of numerous Chesterfield County departments, such as Youth Services and Social Services. This coalition meets bimonthly and has led to many partnerships. For example, when turnout was low for the school system’s pre-kindergarten registration, CCPL advertised the registration deadline on its website and through social media and flyers. Soon there was a waiting list. In addition to discussing strategies for ensuring school readiness, coalition meetings often include inspiring success stories that validate the impact of the program.

Children and their parents are the primary focus of CCPL’s storytimes, but teachers, caregivers, and future caregivers also take advantage of our professional expertise and targeted resources. Chesterfield Technical Center teaches a childhood development class for high school students. These students are typically college-bound and interested in pursuing a career working with children, such as nursing, teaching, pediatrics, psychology, or social work. Childhood development students are assigned to a local elementary school and spend time interacting with students during the language arts period. For the past three years, the curriculum has included a visit to our Central Library to learn about library resources that support their knowledge of child development. Students are shown how to create and deliver an early literacy storytime and interact with parents.

CCPL also provides resources to local daycare centers. Each branch offers a monthly storytime for daycares, fostering a relationship with the centers and demonstrating valuable professional tactics as a takeaway for caregivers. A grant-funded training provided by the School Readiness Coalition offers daycare providers resources such as instruction in selecting age-appropriate picture books and access to less familiar library resources such as TumbleBooks. Currently, CCPL is developing a preschool outreach box that will be hand-delivered to local preschools and daycares, and will include a book and activity ideas which can be used in the center, plus library card applications and flyers to send home to parents. CCPL is a community partner that supports local early childhood educators to provide the best resources for children and parents alike.

CCPL contributes to a vibrant community by building relationships with patrons and promoting literacy in the widely diverse range of information they deal with daily. This is our mission statement and our practice. We are transforming information into usable knowledge when we provide early literacy tips to parents at storytime, when we promote state Library and Department of Education resources, and when we create a program inviting kindergartners to practice getting on and off the school bus. The interpretation and application of words, images, and sounds competing for one’s attention can be overwhelming without a trusted guide. We can map out the trail that leads to the treasure trove of information available for learners old and new.


  1. American Library Association, “Libraries Transforming Communities,” accessed Oct. 30, 2015.
  2. Saroj Nadkarni Ghoting and Pamela Martin-Diaz, Early Literacy Storytimes @ Your Library (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2005).
  3. About,” Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library, accessed Oct. 27, 2015.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Virginia Department of Education, Office of Humanities and Early Childhood, “Virginia’s Foundation Blocks for Early Learning: Comprehensive Standards for Four-Year-Olds,” 2013, accessed Oct. 30, 2015.

Librarians, Literacy, and Connecting with Preschool-Aged Parents

Suzy Card, Youth Services Librarian, Larry J. Ringer Library, College Station (TX), scard@bryantx.gov

Do you ever wonder what the parent of a preschool-aged child is thinking? The way to find out is through taking the time to listen and learn about their family. “Parents or caregivers can be of valuable assistance in helping the child to become literate with a facilitator’s guidance.”1 I lead many programs within our library for preschool-aged children and their families, and over the years I have really had the chance to get to know some of them. By being a helpful facilitator I can ensure that these parents feel confident that they can help their child with literacy.

We make sure that our library has accessible books for parents and their children to enjoy. I am in charge of juvenile collection development, and I often purchase a book because I believe that a particular family will like it and hope that other families will like it too. I put a book on hold because I believe that a certain parent or their child will enjoy reading it. It is always a wonderful feeling when a parent comes up to you later and thanks you for picking out a book that their child can’t stop reading.

We make up lists for different types of books, such as princess, super hero, transportation, and potty books. We also have lists that are called “Read-a-Likes,” where we write out different series or titles that are similar to another book or series. Say, for instance, that every night the parents are reading the Magic Tree House series to their preschool-aged child, a great adventure series that isn’t too long. With our read-a-likes lists, the parents can find similar books to read aloud or help their child read in the future.

Our storytime sessions for preschool-aged children are educational and enjoyable for parents as well as children. During storytime, we use a lot of repetition. We sing many of the same songs week to week, and the parents learn to sing along. The parents who attend storytimes discover how important repetition is for them to use at home to enhance their child’s literacy. Many of the stories we read are not just for the child’s entertainment but are fun for parents, as well. I find that parents will laugh at something their child may not necessarily understand, but if the parent is laughing that usually gets their children laughing, too. This is a great way to set a model for parents that they can use elsewhere. I have had some parents ask where I got certain music, and I am able to recommend sources where they can find songs.

In my preschool-aged storytimes, we do a lot of crafts and the parents are very involved in helping their children finish projects. Craft time is also a great opportunity for parents to interact with each other and make friends. I often hear them telling each other about new playgroups and setting up times to meet. Many parents use storytime as a place where they can interact with other people their age. After the storytime is over, I let the parents stay a little longer if they like to do just that. I also spend that time interacting and talking with the parents to get to know them better.

We also have a monthly family storytime held at night. This gives working parents a chance to come out and interact within the library. Sometimes I see a lot of familiar people, but I also see new faces. Several parents have told me they found out about this storytime from a friend who comes to the library for other events.

Another way our library reaches out to local families is through our community partnership with Head Start. When we go to meetings, we talk about our programming and invite families into the library. We also work with Head Start to plan class field trips for preschool-aged children. When they leave the class trip, we send information about upcoming programs and how to get a library card home with them to their parents. It is great to see parents come into the library later, either to attend events or just to check out books, and have their children recognize us from the school visits.

In all these ways, we are working with parents to help them feel more confident in themselves and in promoting literacy with their children. We hope that our parents enjoy coming here with their children. It is very rewarding to see parents’ smiling faces each week and watch them open up to us more and more. We see that they feel comfortable here and with us. It makes everything run smoother when you can feel that community connection to your parents. And sure, we sometimes get parents upset with some aspect of an event or a storytime. We do our best to find out why the parent is upset and what we can do to help work through it.

Ultimately, we want parents to bring their children to the library again and again. We want them to take home tips and ideas for new ways to help their children with literacy. But we also want them to feel like they have friends and to feel comfortable here. By working closely with the parents, we can learn what their and their children’s needs are and take the steps to fulfill them. And when we have successfully done this, we learn a lot about what a preschool-aged parent is thinking and how we can make sure that their library visits are pleasant ones.


1. Myrna Machet and Elizabeth J. Pretorius, “Family Literacy: A Project to Get Parents Involved,” South African Journal of Libraries & Information Science 70, no. 1 (2004): 39–46.

Lafayette Public Library Adult Summer Reading

Karen Andrews, Adult Services Librarian, Lafayette (CO) Public Library, karena@cityoflafayette.com

Two years ago, for the summer of 2014, we revamped the adult summer reading program at Lafayette (CO) Public Library (LPL). We did this in response to feedback from parents who were at the library to sign up their kids for our children’s summer reading program and said that they themselves did not have time to read or would not have time to participate in our reading program. The children’s librarian Melissa Hisel and I had both attended a Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy conference where the keynote speaker explained that the number one predictor of a child’s success with reading is seeing their parents or caregivers read. For us, hearing parents tell us they did not want to sign up for the reading program was a red flag that we were failing in something very fundamental. We were failing to provide a program that encouraged adults not only to read to their kids but also to read for their own pleasure and enjoyment.

The old program had adults register and then submit titles of finished books and write reviews. We did weekly drawings for
prizes of books, coupons to the farmer’s market, and gift certificates. In 2013, our participation had improved over the previous year, in part due to our offer of a coupon to a local coffee shop just for signing up. We had also remodeled our library so that the children’s area and adult fiction shared the same floor. This changed the location of the sign-up for summer reading. Previously, we had registration for the children’s program sequestered in our children’s area, and the adult registration was upstairs in a separate area. In 2013, due to the library remodel, all of the signup locations—preschool, children, teen, and adult—were located in one central spot. This allowed us to at least approach parents about signing up, however, we still received a lot of verbal feedback that parents had no time to participate in the program.

In 2014, we looked to the Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins (CO) as a model but decided to keep it as simple as possible: one activity card and one final drawing for seven gift baskets and a grand prize of a tablet. Participating adults just had to sign up and enter completed library activities suggested by our activity card. They could enter up to forty activities over the course of two months. Each activity counted as an entry into the drawing for the gift baskets and the grand prize tablet. Take a look at a sample of the activity cards (at left) so that you can see our suggested activities.

This new model also gave us a good way to introduce the program to parents of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, as the Early Literacy reading log is also activity based. This allowed us to say things like: reading to your child counts as an activity, being seen reading by your child counts, and you can do activities together. We also had the tablet and gift baskets prominently placed near the sign-up table so that the adults could see what the prizes were. This, in addition to the coffee coupon, gave them an extra incentive to sign up. We have trained staff to mention to parents that modeling reading is the best way to ensure that their kids enjoy reading. Parents get this and have embraced our new activities-based program. Participation has increased by 31 percent in just two years.

Being able to just begin the conversation of reading with parents has opened up new possibilities for us to provide readers’ advisory services to the whole family. And that further encourages reading as a family activity. By centralizing all reading program sign-up locations, advertising exciting raffle prizes, supplementing the number of activities adults could count toward raffle entries, and educating parents about the benefits of reading with and in front of their children, LPL increased awareness and participation in its adult summer reading program.

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