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Fostering a Love of Literacy: Through Libraries, Schools, and Families

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September 27, 2017

Heather B. Weiss

When leaders at the Oakland (California) Public Library’s Melrose branch realized that they weren’t drawing a good crowd to their traditional story times—even though the sessions featured some dynamic children’s librarians—they decided they needed to try a different approach.

So they flipped their model from a focus on the children’s involvement to instead providing support to the parents and other caregivers—grandparents, extended family members, neighbors, babysitters—in the community. They renamed the weekly bilingual session Play Café and lengthened it from only a half hour to almost two. The block of time includes not only a story, songs, play time, and a snack, but also visits from others in the community, who talk about issues such as potty learning and positive discipline or help with registering children for Head Start or other preschool programs.

Branch manager Katherine Hug says she realized that if the caregivers were going to take the time to strap toddlers into strollers and drive or get on a bus to come to the library, then the library needed to give them a more substantial experience. The librarians also decided early not to take a “didactic” tone with the caregivers, but to let the children’s engagement with books and the growth in early literacy skills happen naturally. In fact, because the librarians stick with the same book and songs for a month—and the participants receive a book and other materials to take home—the children are now initiating at-home reading when they are with their caregivers.

Hug has also discovered what she calls the caregivers’ “delighted surprise” at understanding that there is “a lot more going on in these little brains.” In focus groups, for example, the participants have made comments such as, “I didn’t know that my child enjoyed me singing this much.”

Evaluation of the project shows a 300 percent increase in story time attendance in the two Oakland library branches with Play Cafés, and over 71 percent of caregivers report reading more often to the children in their care. Social relationships have formed among the caregivers. They’ll plan outings to the zoo or the beach, and some even make trips to the Elmhurst branch to attend its Play Café session on another day.

Play Café is just one example of the changes in the organizational culture of libraries as they seek to boost children’s early literacy development and give parents and caregivers simple ways they can enrich children’s at-home experiences. The program is part of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s efforts to support the range of adults other than parents who provide care for young children. These family, friend, and neighbor caregivers make up a large part of the Play Café participants at the Melrose branch. The initiative also demonstrates the ways that libraries are adapting the classic story time program to address the unique needs of the population that they serve and to reflect the growing research base about how young children learn.

The research confirms that families play an important role in the variety of skills that constitute literacy, from letter recognition and phonemic awareness to oral language, vocabulary, story comprehension, and motivation. Global Family Research Project’s new research-to-practice brief summarizes what the latest studies show about how families support children’s literacy development, and includes examples of programs that raise awareness about early literacy. This brief also marks the beginning of our new research-to-practice series, which focuses on high-leverage areas of family engagement, and how families, educators, and other community members can promote a pathway of learning from early childhood to young adulthood.

This brief can help you:

  • Guide the design of research-based family literacy experiences.
  • Find organizations and programs that offer meaningful family engagement in early literacy.
  • Use a tool to reflect on your work with families.

Among the programs featured in the brief is the Pinkerton Foundation’s Neighborhood Literacy Initiative, an effort to create a pathway for families to support their children’s literacy skills from birth through elementary school. The project focuses on two neighborhoods, South Jamaica in Queens and East New York in Brooklyn. In each neighborhood, three libraries are working with three schools and other community partners to host literacy-related events, train parents to lead book-related activities, and provide homework help for students.

“We’re focusing on reading and literacy and getting families and children excited about reading,” says Danielle Pulliam, a program officer at the foundation. She says the initiative has helped to connect families to their local libraries and is creating a culture shift at the schools. “The principals are saying that the kids are seeing reading as a social activity. It was not like that before.”

An evaluation1 of the second year of the initiative shows that while there is still a long way to go to get all students in the participating schools reading on grade level, students are making gains. These schools have seen a change from 14 percent to 35 percent of all students reading at or above grade level over the 2015–16 academic year. The evaluation also concludes that the initiative and the partnerships that it has encouraged are “promoting a systemic collective impact” in the project communities.

The Neighborhood Literacy Initiative—now called the Reads Initiative―shows that libraries are at the forefront of improving the literacy environments in which young children spend their time—at home and in out-of-home care. By providing professional development and participating in community-wide networks, libraries are a critical part of the anywhere, anytime learning experiences that help to close opportunity gaps for children in low-income neighborhoods. 

Libraries around the world are also focusing on increasing the home literacy environments in families with young children. In Malaysia, the Sarawak State Library is leading a family literacy initiative called Reading Seeds, in which parents, other caregivers, and young children participate in reading workshops, and parents of newborns receive a “Reading Seeds Baby Pack.” By 2020, the program is expected to reach more than 180,000 children and parents.

While libraries continue to expand the range of programs they provide to children and families, it’s clear that they are also developing new and innovative ways to deliver core literacy services, connect with families, and improve their communities.

[1] Algorhythm. (2016). Reads Initiative End of Year Evaluation ReportYear Two of the New York City Literacy Network 20152016 Program Year. Philadelphia: Author.

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