Early childhood & libraries

henrybooksHere’s a great story, “Play time helps boost child literacy,” from the online London (Ontario) Free Press, about the links between the play of babies and toddlers and pre-literacy skills. Most of us who’ve been involved in pre-literacy skills and young children have known this stuff for a while, but each generation of new parents doesn’t have a clue how literacy happens, needs to learn it, and we librarians need to take a major role in spreading those facts around. Here’s a quote:

“Play is important because right now they’re developing emergent literacy skills,” said Patti Prentice, a literacy specialist with the Ontario Early Years Centre. “Before (children) can read or write, they need to have skills.”

Community agencies in London are making literacy a priority, after a report found one in five Londoners lack literacy skills needed to understand a simple drug label.

Babies are born with a set number of brain cells. As they play, sing songs and have face time with a parent or caregiver, their brain cells make connections that set the foundation for early literacy.

Experts say those connections are made between birth and three years of age.

“They have to build them all and then it’s a case of use them or lose them,” said Prentice.

The article is accompanied by a sidebar, “Early Literacy Games,” listing simple activities parents and other adults can do to enhance babies’ and toddlers’ pre-literacy skills. For example, here’s how to build babies’ awareness of sounds, AKA phonological awareness, one of the basics of literacy:

Age: Up to three months

—Imitate the noises your baby makes with his or her mouth, including kissing sounds, tongue clicking, “raspberries,” suck in air quickly and blow it out quickly.

Age: Three to six months

—Fill small containers with different things, such as dry beans, rice, bells or marbles. Be sure the lid is on tightly. Give baby a shaker and say, “shake, shake, shake.” Then give the baby other containers. Try to imitate the sounds and respond when the baby does the same.

I wish they broadcast stuff like this as part of halftime at the Super Bowl, or in place of commercials during shows like 24. But I don’t think they ever will, so it’s up to folks like us to let adults know how children gain the skills they need to learn to read. Remember to get the pre-literacy message out to all the parents, grandparents, and others you encounter who work with kids under three, and build that link between literacy and the library.


librThe American Library Association’s Washington Office released to the library community this month a document it created for the Obama-Biden Transition Team: “Opening the ‘Window to a Larger World’: Libraries’ Role in Changing America.” (This link goes to a PDF of the report.) The document hits all the main points that concern us library folks: copyright, privacy, LSTA funding, and, of particular interest to me, literacy.

It begins by telling its readers, as ALA has been telling people in almost every communication with non-librarians that it publishes, and in bold type, too, “Americans are using libraries now more than ever.” I’m not certain how well it, or we library folks in general, are convincing the rest of the world that this claim is true, but it bears repeating. It also does its best to clearly state, below, in the broadest sense, what librarians do and why they’re important, and tie those things to some of the president-elect’s stated aims:

Librarians take very seriously their responsibility to serve as guardians for the public in assuring access to the most trusted, unbiased information. The ALA is ready to work with the new Administration to see President-elect Obama’s commitments to openness, transparency and equity fully realized. Libraries and librarians are critical resources for meeting these goals.

Getting into specific issues, the paper ticks off all those things on many librarians’ wish lists – things like:

* Get libraries/librarians involved in the expansion of broadband access to all parts of the country;

* Get federal agents off librarians’ backs by redoing the Patriot Act and similar laws when it comes to the privacy of library records;

* Include school libraries and school librarians in education mandates (as we all know, a major failure of George W’s “No Child Left Behind” law), and

* Enhance libraries’ abilities to participate in “e-government” – communicating with government agencies and doing government business through the Net, especially for lower-income folks without Net access.

There’s a section called “Safe computing and children,” which can be boiled down to the two first lines, and continues the ALA tradition of opposing filtering. But it’s pretty clear that filtering is here to stay in most libraries; the section’s gentler language, compared with the way these ideas were expressed during the filtering fights of earlier years, acknowledges that it’s a fight ALA has lost:

* Support legislation and fund programs that include Internet safety education, as opposed to Internet blocking and filtering;

* Emphasize the importance of parental involvement in Internet training and safety[…]

But the section of most interest to me, and the one I feel has the most chance of becoming reality, is called, “Literacy and Lifelong Learning.” You may be aware, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, that Obama was early on converted to the need to support early childhood education and pre-literacy skills, particularly for lower-income children. These kids often don’t get the kind of language stimulation – in particular, print language stimulation and a wider vocabulary – that kids from families with middle or higher incomes do.

We still have a huge way to go in convincing the general public that libraries indeed have a role to play in helping children of all income levels gain a love and appreciation of print in all its forms. Here are a couple of the points from the document, which also emphasizes the role of libraries in aiding low-literacy adults:

* Promote partnerships between early childhood literacy programs and libraries; emphasize the contribution these literacy programs provide to aid in a child’s intellectual development;

* Promote and articulate the important role libraries serve in literacy efforts, including how libraries provide access to early learning activities for language acquisition and other learning and literacy skills for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families;

* Create a Presidential Early Learning Council, as envisioned by President-elect Obama, to encourage necessary dialogue among programs at the federal, state and local levels;

* Include librarians as full participants in this learning council and other literacy advisory groups [Here’s a major big deal, if there’s any way it could happen; typically, educators involved with these types of programs don’t even consider librarians worthy of joining such a team];

* Encourage private and nonprofit sectors to collect and disseminate the most valid and up-to-date research on early learning and highlight best practices and model programs at the state and local level [with the notion, I suppose, that programs involving libraries would be included];

* Review all types of federally supported literacy programs and assure appropriate planning and budgeting to support high school students and adult literacy;

* Require community partnerships between local literacy programs and local public libraries within adult literacy programs [see above, as libraries aren’t usually given consideration here, either];

* Broadly promote and emphasize the need for literacy programs and the “right to read”; through public awareness programs, encourage those needing literacy training to use every opportunity; promote literacy as an important tool to obtain employment, gain formal and informal education and to participate in the full breadth of life’s activities;

* Promote literacy programs as a tool for “hope.” [Hmm – is this different than regular hope, the kind without the quotation marks?]

I’m glad to see this document out there. But will it really make any difference? I dunno. With all the horrible pressures of the battered economy and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan getting most of the attention – and with most of the attention regarding education going to the schools and classroom teachers – will there be even a micron of space to squeeze libraries into the spotlight? I’m old and cynical enough to wonder.

I’ve mentioned WETA Public Television’s “Reading Rockets” site and TV series several times in the past, but I particularly wanted to mention their newest programs on young children and reading readiness. This article, called “Toddling toward Reading,” reveals all the basics.

Many members of each new generation of parents – in particular, all the parents whose educational experience might be limited – believe that children learn to read in school, period, and their child doesn’t need any help gaining pre-reading skills before starting kindergarten. They don’t understand that those kids who have the easiest time learning to read in school have been prepared by parents who read to them from infancy, and who talked to them, recited rhymes to them, and sang to them. We library folks need to be passing the word on.

Unfortunately, the program is being broadcast on various public TV stations at all kinds of bizarre times, some of them inconvenient for parents of young children. But this site includes some great resources and materials you can pass along to parents and teachers you know. There’s a link to a National association for the Education of Young Children article called “Learning to Read and Write: What Research Reveals,” and another, “Pre-K and Latinos.” Take a look.

Susan Neuman, who was for a couple of years President Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, and is an important educational researcher, has written an editorial in the Detroit Free Press that labels the No Child Left Behind program that sets the standards for public education in this country a failure. It’s a failure because the program’s goal, to lift the educational achievement of children of lower-income families, can’t be solved by schools alone. It takes a whole community – which includes the library – to do it.

A lot of the difference in reading scores between well-off kids and kids in poverty stems from the differences between their parents’ levels of education, and the belief their parents and caregivers have in how much education can make a difference in their lives. It also matters how much children are talked to, and what they’re talked to about. It matters how many questions they’re asked, and whether the parents and caregivers interact with those children over their answers.

Well-off children typically are asked more questions – and adults and caregivers pay more attention to their answers. They’re talked to more, and exposed to a lot more words, and when they start school they know more words and know how to use them. They’re read to more and sung to more. This is the kind of thing Neuman means by “intervention” when she says:

In their 1995 book “Meaningful Differences,” Betty Hart and Todd Risley calculated it would take approximately 41 hours of extra intervention per week to raise language scores of poor children to those of their well-off counterparts by age four — and that’s before starting preschool!

Here is where libraries can make a difference – and here is where libraries can be blowing their horns to the community far louder. We need to be doing whatever we can to get more low-income babies, toddlers, and preschoolers into our preschool programs. And if they aren’t coming in, we need to be traveling to where they are.

I feel kind of weird linking up to yet another New York Times story, but I have a bad habit of reading the Times online every day. And I keep finding great stories there. Here’s one of David Brooks’s political op-ed columns that talks, for a change, about those things we early literacy fans always go nuts over.

Brooks thinks we need to be paying more attention to education right now, and less to gas prices. Read this piece, “The Biggest Issue,” and I think you’ll agree with him that the saggy economy we’re dealing with at the moment is tied, at least partly, to the sad dropout rate in plenty of high schools – and the even sadder job prospects of those dropouts.

We’re passing into a time when everyone needs to be literate to get a decent job, and most of the young people dropping out of high school aren’t. Brooks cites a recent study from James Heckman of the University of Chicago called “Schools, Skills and Synapses” (the link is to a pdf of the paper):

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

Of course, most educators, and most librarians who have been working with kids for any length of time, know this stuff. It sure seems that most of the rest of the country doesn’t, though. I’m amazed by how easy it seems to be to fund a war, but how difficult it seems to be to get Head Start funded at anywhere near the level it needs to be.

As librarians, we have opportunities to reach new parents that most teachers haven’t had a chance to reach yet with the message that literacy is important. And we can establish the idea that literacy is fun, and silly, and challenging. We need to be doing everything we can to encourage those parents – especially parents who don’t come from educated backgrounds – how important it is to read, talk, and sing with their children. And to use, and play with, lots and lots of words.

And come next year, with a new president, we can hope for a little more funding…

Several times, I’ve pointed out the Reading Rockets site from WETA Public TV as a good place for library folks who work with kids to visit. I wanted to point out a couple of worthwhile articles on Reading Rockets that you might find worth a read.

One is called “Making Reading Relevant: Read, Learn, and Do!” For adults working with K-3 kids, it offers several activities that turn what’s in a book into a real experience. Don’t pass up any chance to let parents and other caregivers know that “making reading relevant,” putting printed words together with large motor skill activities and 3-D objects, is one of the most important things they can do – especially for boys, who are often behind girls in language development skills, and especially for kids whose parents have less education.

Making reading “relevant” means making the difference between a child who gives up on reading by the fourth grade and one who becomes fascinated with learning about new things through print.

Here’s another, called “Use Summer Fun to Build Background Knowledge.” One of the biggest problems children from lower-income families face in school is a lack of “background knowledge” – the basic information about how the world works that many school lessons, and books, assume that children of a particular age already have. But not all of them – particularly not all of those kids who have gained most of what they know sitting and watching cartoons on video most days – may know things such as that the earth rotates around the sun and the moon around the earth, or how plants grow from seeds.

If you haven’t looked at Reading Rockets yet, pay a visit. It’s a great way to pick up lots of child development and literacy tidbits – the kind you can pick up and then pass along – quickly and pretty painlessly.

Austin Public Library Bibliophiles

I’m back from ALA, and I have to go back to work today. But before I do I wanted to post a few more quotes from the ALA conference. And I also wanted to give a cheer for our book cart drill team – the Austin Public Library Bibliofiles – which won the silver at the Book Cart Drill Team Championships on Sunday. (That’s them on the left.) They won a Demco book cart (yeah, that’s it in the picture) that was painted silver, with a little plaque on one end.

The Championship was MC’d by the comedy duo of John Scieszka and Mo Willems, who hammed it up shamelessly and had us all chanting “DEM-co!” (Demco sponsors the Championship) throughout. It was great to watch our homies place as we cheered them on. (Those book headdresses spin, by the way.)

I saw that Alan Sitomer, Los Angeles media specialist and YA author, was giving a program on encouraging boys to read, so of course I was there. He works in an inner-city high school with kids that are almost entirely Latino and Black, and they’re kids who many adults consider not worth spending much time or effort on. These kids are often mouthy or unmotivated. But Sitomer, who could be one of the dictionary definitions of the word “enthusiastic” (he was named California Teacher of the Year, and you can tell he really enjoys public speaking), told us, “You have to believe that kids are reachable. If you don’t, nothing will reach them.”

He uses computer time, Web resources, and any technology he can to get the young men he works with to read. But he also uses something as simple as handing out jokes, printed on paper. He said that when the more motivated students start laughing, the less motivated will read them, too. (Warning – the following jokes are boy jokes):

Q. Why do gorillas have big nostrils?

A. Because they have big fingers.

Q. What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup?

A. Anyone can roast beef.

Q. What do you call a hunk of cheddar that doesn’t belong to you?

A. Nacho cheese.

Sitomer says that for this group, many of whom are one bad grade or boring class from dropping out, he doesn’t try to tell them what they must do. “I let them tell me what they like,” he says, “and then I build bridges for them from their outside interests to what’s in the media center.”

I also went to hear T. Berry Brazelton, the Grand Poo-Bah of Pediatricians, who spoke Monday morning. He sat thoughout his talk, and seemed a little hard of hearing – but that wasn’t unexpected after he told us that he had just turned 90. (He said that members of Congress held a celebration for him in Washington, and “they asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I asked for $2 billion for children and their parents.” Ah, we wish.)

Brazelton said that the most important role for the public library should be to help parents understand child development. Anything librarians can supply and market to parents – books, videos, and programs – that will help them comprehend the ages and stages their children are passing through will help them feel more in control of what can be a stressful and confusing process.

He showed us a wonderful film clip of a 12-month-old boy who was passing through a phase Brazelton called “storage.” Brazelton kept handing the boy small toy figures, and after he filled his hands with them, he took them into his mouth, and then looked at his mother as if to say, “Aren’t I so great?” It was a lot of fun.

If you’ve never been to an ALA conference, go when you can. It’s a wonderful way to expand your “box.” (You know, the one they’re always telling you to think out of.)

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