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Reading into Early Literacy

What is is, why it matters, and what the library wants you to know

By Miriam Orr

"Children are made readers in the laps of their parents." - Emilie Buchwald.

Emilie Buchwald, awarded author and Minneapolis native, says it best. After working as an editor, poet, award-winning children's author, teacher, and co-founder of the literary press Milkweed Editions, it is obvious that Buchwald is a qualified speaker towards the importance of early literacy in children.

However qualified, Buchwald is not the only Minnesota native that possesses passion for seeing children into the engaging world of literacy and reading. Another, more local face, shared her drive for early literacy in a quiet office that overlooks the Buffalo Great River Regional Library (GRRL) archives, one wintery afternoon.


Who, What, When, Where

Amy Wittman, the Buffalo library services coordinator, was more than prepared to discuss GRRL's literacy programs one wintery afternoon in early Jan. 2018. Sitting on her desk was a stack of materials, detailed with information from the likes of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), Minnesota Library Association, and others. She didn't hesitate to communicate the importance of early literacy in children right away.

GRRL, in the beginning of the new year, has been marketing their "Every Child Ready to Read" (ECRR) initiative, which focuses on helping children gain reading, literacy, comprehension, writing, and playing skills through the library in an effort to be prepared for school, and get children involved and passionate about reading again.

"The initiative has been going on for a number of years," Amy explained. "It started through the government, under George W. Bush, and the library started this approach in alignment with schools at a more local level."

Amy went on to explain that the child literacy program came after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was enacted by the 107th U.S. Congress in 2001, and stated that it was "an act to close the achievement gap [in students] with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind."

ECRR was implanted a few years after, in 2004, with a focus on educating parents on how to help their children get involved with reading, which was a different approach for many libraries, stated Saroj Ghoting (New Foundland, Penn.), an Early Childhood literacy consultant for the program.  

ECRR is designed to help children understand the library, and what reading is, before they start kindergarten. "It's a new way to teach parents to read with their kids, and start playing right away," Amy suggested. "It's a way to promote interest and make kids comfortable in the library again."

The Association for Library Service to Children suggests that since parents are their child's first teacher, they should be involved in helping children prepare for school by being a part of early literacy, and exemplifying reading in the most natural learning environment for children – the home. By doing this, children become comfortable with education and knowledge, and learn skills well before they step into a classroom.


The importance

Why is early literacy important? Wittman explained that helping children get excited about reading, and giving them a head-start in preparation for school, builds confidence in understanding letters and books, and helps them build educational stamina.

"It's important for children to learn to sit and be ready to learn in a controlled atmosphere like school," Amy commented. "By reading with your child in the library, and bringing them to storytimes, you help them prepare for their education, and help them grow as people and develop characteristic traits."

Amy approximated that roughly 400 children are involved with the program across the GRRL branches. In Buffalo, there's roughly 25 families that have participated in the initiative, with anywhere between 30 to 70 children actively engaged with early literacy and Every Child Ready to Read.

"Families getting involved with their children in promoting literacy are hugely important," Amy says. "Parents reading with their children shows them that reading is fun, especially when Mom and Dad are doing it with them," she commented. "It also keeps parents involved with their kids, and aware of how their child learns and processes education."

In a 2000 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is a  divison of the U.S. Department of Education, research found that children who are read to at home have a substantial advantage over children who do not. Twenty-six percent of children who were read to three or four times during the week by a family member recognized all letters of the alphabet. This is compared to 14 percent of children who were read to less frequently.

The study also showed that children who were read to frequently are also more likely to count to 20, write their own names, and read or pretend to read.


Early literacy, in action

Some of the ways to promote early literacy while reading with children involve playing, writing, talking, and singing. Each of these individual methods, designed to be incorporated into story time, help children process what they are learning and take hold of individuality in how they respond to knowledge. Playing, for instance, encourages children to express themselves and expand their imagination.

While Amy was explaining these methods, young families in the library were sitting among the shelves of books – in particular, the VenOsdel family.

Jessica VenOsdel, mother of three, was patiently sitting with her children just off in the children's avenue of books. Vivienne and Sam, her two oldest children, were sitting at either side of her, with Jonah, her littlest, on her lap.

They were reading "Wonder Woman," and Vivienne and Sam were enthralled. They were smiling and giggling with their mother as Jonah clapped his hands and crawled around his mom's lap, trying to turn the pages on his own, all while Jessica made all sorts of funny noises to keep her children interested, and characterized voices during the story.

While Sam was busy describing what was happening on each page, Vivienne was standing by patiently, watching pages and trying to read letters, all while another heaping stack of books waited patiently beside the family, promising more adventure with each title.


Buffalo's involvement

Amy has been working as a branch librarian for GRRL for 25 years, and has seen a lot of change in the system – changes like the Dewey decimal system, integration of computers, the expanse of informational research with the internet, and the massive volumes of information that has blossomed within society over time.

In Buffalo, GRRL has reached out to stay involved with Early Childhood Family Education, and local schools, as they too promote early literacy in children through their library systems and reading programs. A few early childhood programs, daycares, and other childcare facilities have also been in talks with GRRL regarding its reading programs, and Amy hopes to be able to expand their ideas, someday.

However, Amy says that amidst this all, staying in contact is key, and having an open communication line between schools and other educational centers remains one of their largest ways of promoting early literacy and helping kids prepare for school.

One of her personal goals in regard to the programs at GRRL are getting organizations in Buffalo involved, and trying to get more local funding for the library's efforts and programs through groups like the Rotary, Lions, and other local groups.

Other ways Buffalo has been involved with early literacy in children is by offering parents different ways to get books and reading into their kids' lives. One such way is through the 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten, which is a program targeted for children from birth to five-years-old, and integrates communication between the library and children, by offering a log for parents to keep track of the number of stories they read with their children. In Buffalo, there are about 14 families that actively participate with 1,000 Books program.



Amy was generous with her events schedule, and didn't hesitate to explain the array of different programs the library has planned for Jan. and Feb.

Among those activities is a "Baby Bounce," where families explore songs, stories, and finger plays to help with pre-literacy in infants ages zero to 18 months. "Preschool Storytime" involves stories, songs, and crafts to build Kindergarten readiness in children ages three to six. This event, Amy shared, is one of her favorites.

"Watching kids do crafts about a story and get up and engage their bodies with what we're reading is so wonderful," Amy said, "There is little better than seeing a child's face light up as they're listening to adventures."

While not an overly new initiative, ECRR and early literacy is a timeless issue that will span well into the future.

Amy concluded that as families, and members of a community that educates children, it is a privilege to be able to teach our children to read with materials and resources that others across the world may not have access to. Also, that it takes a village to make a difference in a generation as they prepare for school across the ages.

For more information on GRRL and its programs, visit



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