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Children's Voice Article, May/June, 2005

Family Literacy, Family Success

By Mary Liepold

The "Reading Powers the Mind" Family Literacy Workshop is the brainchild of Middletown, Connecticut's Virginia Mathews, an energetic, long-time literacy activist and advocate who has been working since the 1940s to grow a personal passion into a national reality.

Her partner for the last 28 years has been the Library of Congress Center for the Book, directed by John Y. Cole, and its affiliated state Centers for the Book, with support from the Viburnum Foundation and other funders. Viburnum has funded the collaborative projects of 222 rural libraries in 10 high-need states since 1998. With the Center for the Book, Viburnum has sponsored two-day training workshops for grantees around the country, and a national symposium at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

CWLA President and CEO Shay Bilchik spoke at the 2004 Library of Congress Family Literacy Workshop, and will do so again at the 2005 workshop this August. A lifelong book lover and reading advocate, CWLA Director of Individual Giving Mary Liepold attended one day's presentations. This article is based on her notes from the workshop.

Think you know all about libraries? Think again. In the 21st Century, librarians no longer see their role as sitting in the nice building that Andrew Carnegie built and waiting for readers to come to them. Today, they grow readers by taking books and other media--plus programs that build language and media skills--to the people, wherever they may be.

Librarians partner proactively with public and private community organizations, federal agencies, foundations, civic organizations, businesses, universities, and individual volunteers to spread the love of books and learning. And from the love of books, good things take wing.

We all understand that families benefit when agencies collaborate. Child welfare, housing, juvenile justice, law enforcement, and behavioral health divisions have developed memorandums of understanding, cotrained staff, and even colocated services in jurisdictions across the United States.

Public libraries may or may not be in that mix in your community--but if they're not, they should be! According to Jodi Kleinmeyer of the Clay County, Alabama, Department of Human Resources, "The library is the only nonjudgmental, non-means-tested public institution in the community. It has no stigma. Folks like the library."

People learn to love books from people who love books. Parents and other role models are literacy carriers. Without their influence, a book is just an inert pile of paper. But once the germ is transmitted, literacy can boost child and family well-being in many ways, starting at many different points.

Academic success is perhaps the most easily measured indicator of child well-being--which, in turn, is one of the three broad outcomes specified by the Adoption and Safe Families Act and measured by the federal Child and Family Service Reviews--and reading is the cornerstone of success in school. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 80% of all learning disabilities are reading disabilities. For teens and young adults, even those who were not turned on to books as babies, stories can provide a new way to understand themselves and their world, opening doorways to adult success. And literacy gains for parents translate directly into gains for their children, speeding an upward spiral of success.

Pre-Readers and Beginning Readers

The attitudes and aptitudes that comprise reading readiness develop long before children begin formal schooling. Experts believe the process begins at birth. Literacy projects in many communities offer parents the tools they need to develop these qualities in their children. These tools include both age-appropriate books and toys and techniques for making the most of everyday interactions. Questions like, "Why do you think the girl did that?" and "What would you have done?" inspire empathy and build problem-solving skills.

Better Beginnings in Sylacauga County, Alabama, provides literacy kits to parents of new babies. HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters), the Wal-Mart Foundation, and the Sylacauga Chamber of Commerce are among the 47 partners this collaboration has engaged in its various outreach programs.

In Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, early literacy is the first stop in a six-week program for at-risk families--offered jointly by the library, the health department, the Office of Family Support, the school board, the police and fire departments, and the Boys and Girls Clubs. The partners also work with Head Start to introduce hundreds of children and their families to oral storytelling traditions.

Some of the 75 volunteers who staff Silver City, New Mexico's Literacy Link/Leamos program work with First Born, a countywide in-home tutoring curriculum. Others provide a workshop on language development and early learning for parents enrolled in the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program on days when parents are at the WIC office for their required onsite recertification.

Crawford County, Arkansas, librarians assembled 39 Story Boxes--collections of books, music, and materials on themes like bugs, seashells, and the weather--then held workshops for day care providers and Head Start staff on how to use the boxes. Teachers, parents of preschoolers, and some home-schooling parents check out boxes, and librarians take them along when they are asked to do a presentation.

In Sumter County, South Carolina, the kits are called Day Care Bookbags, but the idea is the same. The Sumter Opera House frequently makes its space available for children's programs, so children and their parents can see books come alive in music, drama, and art.

Long before their babies are old enough to sit up and listen to the story lady, parents in these communities are learning how to make sure books will be their friends. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the American Library Association want reading workshops for parents to become as common as library story hours.

Since research shows that children with books in their homes have a leg up on learning, various programs have cropped up to provide books to low-income families. First Book, with offices in California and Washington, DC, is one of the largest. Underwritten by corporate sponsors, First Book works through local organizations. In Silver City, New Mexico, and the surrounding area, First Book has supplied nearly 17,000 books to more than 3,000 children over three years.

Scholastic supplies books to the family literacy project in Chandler, Arizona. In 2003, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (D) gave a book to every first-grader in the state. In Georgia's statewide Books for Babies project, new mothers receive a kit in the hospital that includes one free book and tells them they can pick up a second at their local public library. Librarians are prepared to welcome them warmly and encourage them to come back often.

Schools might seem like the obvious partners for libraries, but that isn't always the case. In the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona, it took 10 years of patient pressure for the libraries to get a hearing from the Department of Education, but now they collaborate fully. In the Phoenix area, where the population has boomed in recent years, proponents claim the Chandler Public Libraries are the best in the state, and the community has built four new libraries in the last nine years. Two are on high school campuses, where they serve as both the school and public library. New elementary schools are built without libraries, so public libraries have become an extension of the schools.

In Fentress County, Tennessee, as in Chandler, service integration is not just an idea; it's a feature of the landscape. Ten county agencies came together to build a services complex that includes a library, hospital, and courthouse, and three new elementary schools. Literacy is emphasized throughout, with books in every waiting room, and reading centers in the hospital and courthouse. Each center features a piece of furniture that combines the functions of a jungle gym and a cozy window seat. Kids can climb up into a nest lined with bookshelves and snuggle down for a read. Parents can take home packets that include an application for a library card, informational brochures, and three new books geared to the ages of their children.

CWLA is a partner in Get Ready to Read (GRR), the early literacy initiative hosted by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. GRR's goal is to ensure that all young children become successful readers by screening 4-year-olds for basic prereading competencies and providing information tools specifically tailored for parents, caregivers, early childhood professionals, and health care providers. Cassaundra Rainey, Acting Director of CWLA's Mid-Atlantic Region, is currently convening the city's child care providers to introduce them to GRR's easy-to-use screening tool.

School-Age Children and Adolescents

Andrew Langford of the Fentress County, Tennessee, Health Department is delighted to have the family literacy program as his partner. "I used to see the kids when they were babies, up to about 5, and then I didn't see them again until they wanted birth control," Langford says. "Now I get to keep working with them, and we can prevent some of the problems."

Library staff made it cool for teens to gather at the libraries by providing a safe, calm, and welcoming environment. The library has become the place where separated siblings meet and spend time together. It offers lifeskills programs and connects the kids with an array of local programs that had not been reaching them before.

According to Langford, only one in five Tennessee students who receive free lunches during the school year takes part in summer meal programs. Now, thanks to vigorous publicity and word of mouth, reading and feeding are combined, and at-risk teens ages 12 - 18 hang around after lunch. The menu includes self-esteem, with an emphasis on both personal appearance and community service; education (both tutoring and college prep); employment (finding jobs, interviewing, and more); and finances (budgeting and banking)-as well as the checkups and sex education the health department offers.

The kids learn how to keep journals, and they write book reviews, which are printed and posted online. But a lot goes on beyond the library's walls as well. One salon owner freed her calendar for an entire day to offer complimentary haircuts to young people in the program. Librarians invite the teens to join them in visiting the local Head Start program, where the youth read with the preschoolers and leave "with their heads higher than they have ever been," according to Library Director Leslie Pullins.

In Del Rio, Texas, youth programs are built around something called PowerBoxes. Each box is a selection of young-adult fiction that deals with the topics the young people face in their lives, like alcoholism, rape, sexual abuse, and mental illness. The Baptist Child and Family Services at-risk youth program uses PowerBox books in family therapy. Children and parents switch perspectives when they role-play the characters in the book, and sometimes they're able to hear each other in ways they haven't before.

The Del Rio Blue Ribbon Program of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans is a diversion effort to keep young men out of jail. On their first few visits to the library, the boys were ignoring the books and crowding around the computers to play video games. Librarian Willie Braudaway was on the verge of asking them not to come back when she remembered the PowerBoxes.

Since there was a 16-year-old father in the program, and 2004 was the Dr. Seuss centennial, she sent the boys two boxes of Dr. Seuss books and asked them to choose the ones they would like to read to their babies. They wound up writing their own books in the manner of Dr. Seuss and reading them at a poetry slam. Now the boys read and discuss one PowerBox book each week, and most of them are careful not to lose their library privileges.

In Sylacauga, Alabama, adjudicated teens are court-ordered into a library program called Teens in Focus. They receive disposable cameras and are sent out into the neighborhood to record whatever they find beautiful or significant. Then they create photojournals and annotated scrapbooks. From creating and sharing their own books, they can move on to others. Not far away, in Ashland, Alabama, teens on probation, and their adult mentors, attend library discussion groups on bullying and other real-life topics, play word games, rap with their peers, and take away valuable life lessons.

In Farmington, New Mexico, the Mayor's Teen Advisory Council meets monthly at the library and evaluates programs and services for their own age group. A guest from a partner agency speaks at each meeting; a judge, a state senator, a city council member, and the local district attorney have been guests. The library has a Teen Zone with ever-expanding borders. This year, through their participation in Rock the Vote, group members met President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Governor Bill Richardson, and other top decisionmakers.

Parents and Caregivers

Time was when libraries measured their outcomes in circulation numbers, if they measured them at all. Today, at least for the libraries represented at the Family Literacy Workshop, the outcome of choice is behaviors and attitudes that support family stability, as well as individual success.

The Family Self-Sufficiency Program, developed by the Chandler, Arizona, Housing and Redevelopment Division, with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, works with families who choose to participate and who agree to its contract of rights and responsibilities. Those who persevere for the full five years are prepared to be self-sufficient. Like many good programs, especially in the Southwest, this one offers classes and materials in both English and Spanish. And, of course, the library is an active partner.

Janice Acuria, a Clayton City, Georgia, librarian, conducts a literacy workshop that is mandatory for all the families who apply for the county's Welfare to Work Program. Other partners include the Georgia Department of Family and Children's Services, the County Extension Office, two elementary schools, and the Kinship Care Project, which is part of a multiagency task force headed by the state library.

Acuria hands out library card applications and voter registrations at the same time, and collects them together. She gives participants a pocket portfolio that includes a basic word list, and tells them where to find free or inexpensive books and free story hours. Her own library doesn't do in-house story hours any longer; instead, it sends librarians into the community--to places like the Granny Houses in local public housing, where the ground floors are set aside for kinship caregivers.

It's never too late to begin a love affair with books. When parents and grandparents read, children read. And parents and children who read succeed! The Family Literacy Workshop and the Viburnum gifts work in states where the need is likely to be greatest. Other states may already have such programs in operation. Child welfare professionals and everyone who cares about children would do well to look to them for partners.

Mary Liepold is Director of Individual Giving for CWLA and former Editor of Children's Voice.


  • American Library Association
    50 East Huron, Chicago IL 60611
    Publishes, among other resources, Born to Read: How to Grow a Reader, a pamphlet available in both English and Spanish.

  • Center for the Book, Library of Congress
    101 Independence Avenue SE
    Washington DC 20540-4920
    Also investigate

  • First Book
    1319 F Street NW, Suite 1000
    Washington DC 20004-1155

  • Head Start, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
    370 L'Enfant Promenade SW
    Washington, DC 20201
    In particular, look for these resources:
    • The Library-Museum-Head Start Partnership: A Resource Notebook, by Virginia H. Mathews and Susan Roman. (2004). Washington, DC: Head Start Information and Publication Center, and Center for the Book.
    • The Library-Head Start Partnership. (1993). Washington, DC: Center for the Book. This multimedia kit includes a manual and a 40-minute videotape in four segments. Head Start Leaders Guide to Positive Child Outcomes

  • STEP-Net
    A web-based network to help the Head Start community share information about early literacy and learning.

  • HIPPYUSA (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters)
    220 E. 23rd Street, Suite 300
    New York NY 10010

  • International Reading Association
    800 Barksdale Road
    PO Box 8139
    Newark DE 19714-8139

  • Love to Read
    1101 15th Street NW, Suite 900
    Washington DC 20005
    An early literacy initiative of the National Black Child Development Institute.

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities
    381 Park Avenue South, Suite 1401
    New York NY 10016-8806

  • Parents Action for Children (formerly I Am Your Child)
    1875 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 650
    Washington DC 20009
    Among other available resources, produces the video, I Am Your Child-Ready to Learn.

  • Parents as Teachers National Center
    2228 Ball Drive
    St. Louis MO 63146

  • Reading is Fundamental
    1825 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 400
    Washington DC 20009

  • Reading Rockets, WETA/Channel 26
    2775 S. Quincy Street
    Arlington VA 22206
    Fax 703/998-2060
    A national multimedia project that looks at how young kids learn to read, why so many struggle, and how adults can help.

  • Zero to Three
    2000 M Street NW, Suite 200
    Washington DC 20036-3307
    Publishes the Power of Play (pamphlet) and other resources.

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