“Too early” has no place in the formula when it comes to gauging the right time to begin nurturing children’s interest in reading. While introducing her daughter Aria to the wonder of words, Renee O’Brien found out how quickly that awareness and appreciation of books and language can be ignited.
O’Brien had heard about the Toledo Lucas County Public Library’s Ready to Read program and decided not long after the birth of her first child to get some advice on preparing Aria to be a lifelong reader.
“I wanted to make sure she has the tools she needs in life to be a good reader, and a good learner,” O’Brien said. “So I went to the library, talked to the people there and got the information on what to do. I found out that even at a very young age, it is important to read to her and let her hear a variety of words.”
Ready to Read stresses how critical the years before kindergarten are for the development of children’s reading ability, and how the language and word skills a child is exposed to during that time period will play a significant role in how successful that child will be in school, and in life. The program promotes five activities that parents can do with their children to greatly improve their success: talking, singing, reading, writing and playing.
Ready to Read encourages parents and childcare providers to frequently talk with children in order to help them learn new words and to stimulate brain development. Singing improves a child’s capability to understand sounds within words, while reading together helps children become skilled readers. Parents are also urged to write out words to give children an understanding of letters and how they form sounds. Time for play is likewise important, as this is one of the main ways that children learn about the world.
O’Brien and her husband Kevin started introducing Aria to books when she was just four months old, and followed a plan that included frequently talking, singing and reading to her while she was in her high chair.
“At first, she paid no attention to us,” O’Brien said, “but they encouraged us to keep doing it.”
Then, somewhat magically and whimsically, Aria’s eyes lit up and the pathway for the 17-month-old to become a lifelong reader was wide open.
“Now, over the past three months she has been so interested in books,” O’Brien said. “Her doctor is very impressed with her development. She brings us the books and says: ‘read, read.’ She loves the books with pictures and words like ball and banana and gets excited when we read to her.”
Since its inception in April 2014, the Ready to Read program has provided more than 4,000 parents and childcare providers with free kits and training. In 2017, the program reached more than 6,000 parents and children. 600 families received in-depth training and a free preschool or kindergarten resource kit while another 800 received tools and tips such as the Busy Book and Kindergarten Skill Rings.
Planting the Seed to Read
Statistics show that when they enter kindergarten, nearly two-thirds of area students do not have the fundamental skills needed to learn how to read and write. With $2 million in support from donors, the Library’s “Planting a Seed to Read” campaign was developed to address this deficiency. It is part of the Library’s overall Early Literacy Campaign which has the ambitious goal of improving the essential literacy skills of every child in the community.
“We know that in Lucas County, a lot of children are not arriving at school ready to learn and read, and that’s a big concern,” said Nancy Eames, youth services coordinator at the Library.
“One of the ways we address that is to show parents how to teach their children so those children are ready to read when they start school. Most kids won’t start reading until they are five or six, but they need a good foundation in place well before that age.”
She added that with locations in every corner of the community, the Library is able to offer support to families and get children started on building a foundation in reading.
“Parents are children’s first teachers, so their role is very important,” Eames said. “We want them talking to their children, which helps build vocabulary. Engaging in conversations that expand their world knowledge is also very valuable. Children can gain a lot when parents sing to them, since singing slows down the words and lets the child hear the syllables.”
Eames said that parents should continually expand on what they are saying so children hear a wide variety of words. When they start to read, children will more easily recognize words they have heard before.
“What we all need to do is put down our devices, and help kids build vocabulary,” Eames said. “Vocabulary is a skill we build throughout our entire lives, and the earlier we start, the more successful we will be.”
Intensive Storytimes Make Learning Fun
The Library’s “Intensive Storytimes” program is on the same mission – to increase children’s interest in books and reading, while strengthening their early literacy skills. Intensive Storytimes were first introduced in the fall of 2013 to eight Toledo Public Schools (TPS) Kindergarten classes and today, now serves about 40 TPS Kindergarten classes and 600 to 700 students annually.
The program also introduces students to their neighborhood Library, through the work of children’s librarians who visit the schools to present traditional Storytime elements, such as reading books aloud, teaching rhyming words and singing with the children. These are facets of the dialogic reading technique which has been shown to hasten the development of early literacy aptitude, including oral language skills.
A Teacher Approved Approach
Fadia Olrich has been teaching Kindergarten for eight years, and she said her Riverside Elementary students are very excited when Children’s Librarian Maria Royuela-Tomas makes her regular visits to the classroom. Olrich said the librarians in the program work with teachers and develop themes for each week, often linking them to topics covered during the rest of the school day.
“Maria always has props or puppet shows or something that ties into the story and keeps the kids engaged the whole time,” Olrich said. “She focuses on vocabulary and character identification and my kids are always eager to participate – their hands are in the air to ask or answer questions.”
Olrich said the Intensive Storytimes program is critically important for her students, many of whom have not been introduced to books before attending kindergarten.
“A lot of my students aren’t even exposed to reading before they arrive here. Some had no idea what a library is, and they can’t believe it’s a place where you can go and get books,” she said. “So this program is very beneficial.”
Jim Funk, manager of institutional and community initiatives at the Library, said the goal of the Intensive Storytimes program and the overall early literacy efforts is to have children properly prepared to learn.
“At first, we only worked with adults on improving literacy, but we realized working with children is the key to a better life for them, and for society,” he said. “The task is daunting, since so many of the children come to school not sufficiently prepared to read, but we aspire to do anything we can to help.”
The response to those efforts has been overwhelmingly positive.
All of the TPS teachers surveyed concluded that Intensive Storytimes exposed their students to experiences that increased their early literacy skills. The teachers were also unanimous in their opinion that Intensive Storytimes amplified the interest in reading in their classrooms, and helped the students build reading skills. The teachers all wanted Intensive Storytimes to return to their classrooms.
“That’s very gratifying, because there are many different types of intervention underway, but the fact that teachers want our program back every year is a real testimony to its effectiveness,” Funk said.
Get In on the Early Literacy Action
Parents and childcare providers who have more questions or would like to request a free training may call 419.259.5253 or email email@example.com.