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September 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 1

Lessons on Family Engagement from Librarians

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Early literacy practices in some libraries offer takeaways for educators about how to engage parents.

EngagementInstructional Strategies
Well before they set foot in school, children can develop early literacy skills by reading and playing with their parents, including acquiring a strong vocabulary, oral language skills, and a love for books. Although educators champion family literacy through a variety of programs, these messages often fail to reach parents who do not connect with a school until their children reach age 4 or 5. For many children, this means missing out on crucial years of literacy development.
In many communities, however, another essential educational resource—the local public library—is working to increase parent engagement in early literacy practices. A national initiative known as Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR) is currently operating in about 4,000 public libraries throughout the United States. ECRR, developed by the Public Library Association and the Association for Library Services to Children, is a toolkit of PowerPoint slides, brochures, handouts, and tip sheets that guide librarians in how to promote parent engagement. It offers a flexible framework that helps librarians adapt activities to fit their audience's needs. As part of a research team conducting a national evaluation of ECRR, we have studied the program closely for the past three years.
The program relies on two key messages that educators know well: First, parents are a child's first and best teacher. Second, parents can help children develop literacy skills by reading with them and through routine activities, such as talking, playing, singing, and writing. These daily interactions are essential for a child to develop a strong vocabulary, which research shows is a key indicator of later success in school (Neuman & Roskos, 2007).

A New Look at Story Time

Every Child Ready to Read has spawned many changes in libraries, including expanded play spaces where families can interact together. The most notable adjustment, however, is in how libraries conduct story times and other programs with families. Before the push for parent engagement, parents typically dropped off children at story time, leaving them in the care of the librarian. If parents decided to stay, they sat quietly in the back while the librarian read a few books to children and perhaps sang a song or finished with a craft (Albright, Delecki, & Hinkle, 2009).
Today's ECRR story time looks markedly different. The most dramatic change is that librarians' target audience is no longer simply young children, but also their parents and caregivers (Celano & Neuman, 2015). Parents are encouraged to sit on the floor with their children and actively participate in the songs, games, and chants. Instead of only talking to children, the librarian often directly addresses parents and caregivers, offering suggestions on ways to expand children's vocabulary and early literacy skills. Throughout the program, librarians incorporate the five ECRR practices—talk, sing, read, write, play—and remind parents why these practices contribute to children's early literacy development.
What exactly can parents learn during library story times? To find the answer, we conducted a three-year evaluation of public libraries throughout the United States, observing more than 60 programs in 60 library branches. We saw a variety of programs that incorporate parent engagement strategies, both in ECRR libraries and in non-ECRR libraries. Indeed, all libraries provided messages to parents about the importance of early literacy. The key difference—and one that offers insights for teachers as well—is in how librarians interacted with parents.
To illustrate the different messages that parents receive, we compared two libraries as case studies: Bentville and Mirkton (all names of cities and people are pseudonyms). Both are part of the same large urban area, although they belong to different library systems. The Bentville library has not adopted the ECRR program, while the Mirkton library has fully implemented the ECRR program. The following case studies summarize our observations at both libraries and highlight the different approaches that each librarian takes to engage parents in family literacy.

Bentville Story Time (non-ECRR library)

On a chilly December afternoon, Marco, a library assistant, sits on the floor in the library meeting room with five children facing him. The children, ages 3 and 4, listen as he reads a book titled All Kinds of Friends. A few of the children comment on pictures in the book, and Marco smiles but continues reading. The children's mothers sit at a nearby table; one of them is on her phone.
After he finishes the book, Marco walks to the front of the room where he opens a shuttered white board to show today's craft: a hot-air balloon. As the children wait patiently, he brings out the craft supplies and instructs, "Remember, no running, but ready, go! Go crazy!"
With the mothers' assistance, the children select art supplies and assemble the balloons. Marco paces back and forth; at one point, he looks at one girl's work, saying, "Oh, I see Isabella is using paper to wipe up the marker on the table. I've never seen that before! That's fine. I'll clean it up later." He does not otherwise interact with the parents or children. One by one, the families finish up and leave. Marco cleans up after them.

Mirkton Story Time (ECRR library)

On a crisp October morning, 14 children and 13 adults are seated on the floor in a large circle waiting for the "Mother Goose on the Loose" program to begin. The children range in age from 9 months to 3 years old. A few adults are nannies or grandparents, but most are the children's mothers. Soon, Leslie, the children's librarian, takes her place in the circle.
Leslie begins, "Remember, grown-ups, it's normal for kids to wander around while they're listening." She then explains to the adults that the songs and chants will be repeated twice "because repetition is the key to building early literacy with our little ones." Leslie launches into a series of chants and songs with motions, giving the caregivers instructions as she goes: "If you've got someone you can pick up, fly that someone through the air. Otherwise just encourage your children to raise their arms up above their head. That's called crossing the midline, which helps them build great connections in their brain." She next leads a song about the five ECRR practices, "Talk, sing, read, write, play. [Repeats three times.] Raise a reader every day!" This song, she tells the adults, is "a good song to sing before a learning activity to alert children about the ways to learn."
After five more songs, Leslie says, "Guess what time it is? It's my favorite time!" Parents and children join in as she sings and repeats, "It's time to read, read a book." She claps and repeats the short song twice. She then reads The Seals on the Bus, pointing at pictures and commenting as she reads. "A pink flamingo! Grown-ups, let's help our little ones flap their wings!" At the end of the book, Leslie walks around to show everyone the picture of the animals swimming in the lake, asking the children if they like to swim.
Leslie leads more songs and chants before reading the next book. One of the chants involves moving around in a circle first slowly, then quickly, and in other ways. "We march, and we march, and we stop!" she says. Leslie instructs caregivers to give children specific feedback: "When I say 'stop,' we're going to encourage our little ones to stop. And when they do, we're going to say, 'You did it! You stopped!' because that kind of validation is more affirming than 'Great job!'"
After reading a second book, Leslie leads a flannel board activity in which children make a Humpty Dumpty figure "fall down." Some children approach the board hesitantly; others run up confidently and make Humpty crash to the ground. Leslie emphasizes to caregivers that this activity helps children learn to take turns. After a few final songs, caregivers help their children get ready to go. A few families stay to play with large Lego blocks, but most leave, saying thank you to Leslie as they go.

Messages to Parents

These two story times were both formal learning opportunities in which the librarian planned books and activities for the session and led the story time. Both programs had an established beginning and end. In both, parents and caregivers attended with their children and the librarian read at least one book.
Both librarians were sending implicit messages to parents. During the Bentville story time, Marco gave parents and children implicit messages about common routines in school, such as how to distribute art supplies and clean up after a craft. He taught about behavior when he reminded children not to run. During his reading of All Kinds of Friends, Marco modeled to parents how to read a book so children could see the pictures. During the craft time, he implicitly gave information about expected behaviors when 3-year-old Isabella used paper to wipe up the marker on the table. The fact that parents were expected to stay and then help their children with the craft modeled expectations for parent engagement.
The Mirkton program communicated many of the same implicit messages, but included several others. Leslie showed that songs and chants can teach vocabulary and modeled fun ways that parents and children can interact. By welcoming babies as young as 9 months old, the program taught caregivers some activities they can do with very young children to develop language and literacy. Finally, Leslie modeled a more expressive and interactive way to read to young children.
The most notable difference between the two story times, however, is Leslie's extensive use of parent-directed comments that explicitly tell parents what to do and why such activities help to develop early literacy skills. The ECRR program uses the term "asides" to refer to the parent-directed comments librarians make during story time. Leslie's asides offered parents several key messages, which we broke down into the following categories:
  • Ages and Stages: In our visits to libraries, librarians expressed concern that parents sometimes have unrealistic behavior expectations for their children. With asides such as "Remember, grown-ups, it's normal for kids to wander around while they're listening," Leslie communicated messages about what behaviors parents can expect and suggested how to adapt activities for their children depending on their ages.
  • Early Literacy: Leslie also included short messages to parents that specifically addressed building early literacy, such as repetition in the songs and chants. This message not only affirms parents' frequent need to repeat certain words to their children, but also helps them understand why repetition will help early literacy.
  • Behavior: Leslie also offered other messages about how to teach different behaviors. For example, when she asked parents to say, "You did it! You stopped!" instead of "Great job," she taught parents about helping children to match an action with a vocabulary word. More important, she guided parents to give their children specific, affirming feedback to develop positive behavior patterns.
  • School Routines/Readiness: Finally, some of Leslie's messages to parents helped them make their children more familiar with common school routines. When Leslie transitioned to a new activity, she used a specific song that signaled to children what was coming next—a common strategy in many classrooms. She also helped children practice taking turns.
Our observations of story time programs indicate that Every Child Ready to Read is initiating substantial changes in library programming. Libraries that have fully implemented ECRR are more likely to offer story times that incorporate talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing, thus providing more opportunities for librarians to deliver messages about effective practices for literacy development. Although the program faces challenges—some librarians are hesitant to address adults and funding is an ongoing struggle for many libraries—many ECRR librarians believe they are becoming community leaders in family engagement.

Insights for Educators

Although Every Child Ready to Read is designed for librarians, we believe the program offers takeaways for teachers to promote parent engagement in literacy practices. Too often, parent engagement in schools has been in the form of parent-teacher conferences and other passive structures. By promoting more participatory activities, teachers can help parents and children engage in meaningful ways that boost a child's literacy skills. For teachers looking to encourage parent engagement, ECRR offers a few key messages:
  • Generate interest in family literacy. Librarians are natural marketers who promote and adapt their programs to lure families to the library. Educators who struggle to get parents involved in family literacy programs can follow librarians' lead by promoting programs on websites, on social media, in the local newspaper, and by displaying colorful signs in public places. In addition, program titles with playful titles, such as "Pajama Party Story Time," will generate more interest than a program that merely focuses on reading.
  • Engage parents in literacy practices. Instead of merely telling parents how to engage their children, the librarians demonstrate what a literacy activity looks like and then have parents and children do it together. In family literacy programs, teachers can also use this approach of first modeling activities and then having parents and children do it together. For example, teachers can model how to encourage children to participate in a read-aloud. Using an oral cloze technique, teachers can show parents how to stop and wait for the child's response. "That Sam I am, that Sam I am, I do not like [pause] green eggs and ham [parent and child together]."
  • Promote a more expansive view of literacy development. Librarians like Leslie convey a more expansive view that literacy is not just about book reading. Teachers should consider reaching families by involving them in activities that incorporate not only reading and writing, but also talking, playing, and singing. For example, teachers can hold special events throughout the year celebrating local musicians or artists. These events send important messages that other skills, such as singing and talking, are related to literacy. They also illustrate to parents that daily interactions—such as singing while riding in the car—can be as much a part of a child's literacy development as reading books.
  • Use jargon-free language: Librarians promote key pre-literacy concepts such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and developmental writing, but they describe them to parents in simpler terms (talk, sing, read, write, play). Whether during in-school programs or on simple activity sheets sent home with students, teachers should also consider promoting these concepts in understandable language to parents.
  • Rely less on didactic messages and more on "asides." Although they are clearly relaying information, librarians do not act as if they are instructing parents. Teachers, too, may find that using a casual aside to offer tips about literacy practices is a more effective and comfortable way to communicate with parents. For example, during parent conferences or parent's night, teachers can talk about bedtime routines. Instead of saying, "Read to your child every night," teachers might say, "Children often need time to wind down after a busy day. Reading a story helps them to settle in for the night."
  • Keeps it informal and fun. Both librarian and teachers realize that the most effective learning happens during enjoyable activities. Teachers should consider reaching families through interactive activities like a "Seuss-a-Thon" (or other author-themed day) that involves playing, talking, singing, and reading—with the focus on having fun.
Librarians and teachers have much in common. They are only with children for a limited time each day, but both can greatly expand their impact on children by helping parents understand strategies to strengthen early literacy skills. Most important, by promoting family literacy, librarians can assist teachers in reaching a common goal: that all children arrive at school ready to read.
References

Albright, M., Delecki, K., & Hinkle, S. (2009). The evolution of early literacy: A history of best practices in storytimes. Children and Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 7(1), 13–18.

Celano, D. C., & Neuman, S. B. (2015). Libraries emerging as leaders in parent engagement. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(7), 30–35.

Neuman, S. B., & Roskos, K. (2007). Nurturing knowledge: Building a Foundation for School Success by Linking Early Literacy to Math, Science, Art, and Social Studies. New York: Scholastic Teaching Resources.

Donna C. Celano is assistant professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

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