Early Literacy: A Sustainable Statewide Approach

A coalition in Colorado may serve as a template for other regions to establish programs critical to the development of our youngest citizens

August 17, 2010


Public libraries have maintained that they are significant in boosting children’s literacy since the first children’s section was established in the late 1800s. But in times of economic uncertainty, decision-makers find it easy to levy budget cuts against discrete, relatively powerless entities such as libraries.

Regional approaches create entrée for libraries to gain greater visibility and positioning within the educational and political communities. We then are able to enhance coalitions with other community partners, as is occurring in Colorado, where a statewide approach to early literacy has been gaining momentum since 2004. The state’s new coalition, Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy, serves as a template for statewide action.

The history of this successful coalition began in June 2003 with a conversation between the Colorado State Library community outreach staff person and a public-library librarian who had attended early literacy sessions at the American Library Association Annual Conference. Both became convinced that an early literacy initiative in the state was necessary and feasible.

As part of the Colorado Department of Education, the state library is aware and supportive of the department’s emphasis on improving student achievement. The agency believed early literacy programs in libraries assist in that endeavor.

The state library’s initiative originally was like Topsy: It just grew. ALA’s Public Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children had created Every Child Ready to Read @ your library—complete with research, training and tools—and the state library was ready to move from the general-advocacy @ your library campaign to a project that would produce positive change.

Major activities throughout the four years of the initiative (2004–08) included training workshops, grant or in-kind support, engagement in coalitions and strategic partnerships, and research and reporting.

Evaluating outcomes

Research and evaluation are often bugaboos for projects and programs. But unless you know where you are, how can you tell where to go? We obtained an overview of the status of current public library activities in early literacy through an informal survey. We also measured attitude—did respondents feel libraries are, or could be, leaders in the field?

The first year of the project introduced a round of workshops for public library staff along with inexpensive, colorful publications designed to reach caregivers. These brochures in English and Spanish were available free upon request to Colorado libraries, schools, childcare centers, and groups. We also provided small grants to libraries for the kits to increase their interest, supported by a grant from the Ceridian/Qwest Family and Work Development Fund.

In addition, we launched an effort to make libraries more visible as providers of services and resources in the early childhood community. The staff person became heavily involved in regional organizations, both volunteer and governmental, that address early childhood needs.

From the beginning, we depended on an easy-to-use survey of workshop participants to determine if progress was being made. The standard form measures not only satisfaction with the content and delivery of the workshop itself, but also the likelihood of participants actually changing their behavior.

For subsequent years, financial support for the initiative was part of the community programs budget rather than a separate LSTA grant. Regional workshops were presented annually.

Ongoing research in early 2006 measured quantitatively whether change was occurring over time as a result of our initiative. We located a pool of participants from the first year of training and surveyed them. Findings showed that public libraries and librarians throughout the state had earmarked both time and material resources toward enhancing their early literacy programming and services.

Looking long-term

By the third year of the initiative, we began to consider how to sustain the early literacy endeavor long-term. The process of social change typically starts either from the top down or from the bottom up. Each method has its own strengths and challenges, but to expand into a major social force, both ends must meet in the middle and support one another. We felt the Colorado initiative had good support from both the grassroots and the top, but the time had come to explore formalizing a statewide network that would outlive its current practitioners.

In spring 2007, we received another small LSTA grant to start the process by surveying the existing early literacy providers. We found:

  1. Widespread support for establishing a statewide network;
  2. A need for a system (preferably electronic) to share insights, materials, and questions;
  3. A desire for more in-person staff training and support.

Winter 2007 found us recruiting people for a steering committee to establish the statewide network. In January 2008, the group met for the first time and selected a name—Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy—and a mission statement:

All children deserve the joy of reading and the skills in life that literacy brings. Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy is passionately committed to strengthening children’s literacy through library services and community advocacy.

Members formed committees and selected priorities for activities. Chairpersons volunteered, a meeting schedule was created, and a process formalized. Interest and support now had a central point around which to coalesce, and the enthusiasm and skills of many people were added to the effort.

Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy has moved from initial organizing into an ever-more ambitious expansion plan. Now only two years old, the program has a large and growing website with numerous resources for library staff and educators. It just completed a series of short videos to demonstrate fingerplays and songs, in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS. It regularly trains employees from around the state in the Every Child Ready to Read @ your library curriculum and storytime activities.

Still in its infancy, Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy is supporting the establishment of literacy-based storytimes in libraries, training for library staff, exchange of support materials and publications, and community advocacy. A decentralized approach allows local libraries to implement the activities they are comfortable with, thereby moving the  state’s entire library community forward.

The keys to success for Colorado’s coalition:

  1. The people involved have a deep personal commitment to children, early literacy, and libraries.
  2. The management of each library supported early literacy work.
  3. People realized the development of their literacy programs overlapped with other libraries’ interests and that therefore it was more efficient to share than work separately.
  4. Colorado’s activities were based on modest and reasonable goals. Rather than attempting massive changes, participating agencies incorporated much of their work into existing staff and responsibilities.
  5. Likewise, plans and evaluations from the beginning were reasonable and achievable, while incorporating an adequate level of detail and goals.
  6. Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy has a simple management structure that allows for individual initiative and creativity while also ensuring systemic communication and evaluation. Members feel responsibility to one another and the group. As Patricia Froehlich from Colorado State Library says, “Big thinkers and detail people.”
  7. A common platform, Every Child Ready to Read, existed, providing the foundation and resources to allow Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy to forgo a time-consuming research and trial stage.

A major challenge reported by libraries in Colorado (and across the nation as well) is reaching the parents and caregivers of at-risk children—the ones who need the training most. The obvious answer—get out of your library to see them—depends on funding. Some libraries are able to visit Head Starts, childcare centers, and schools to present literacy-based read-alouds and training for adults. Others are still seeking ways to accomplish this outreach.

Another constant challenge for libraries is to include themselves as part of the early literacy landscape. Every opportunity to remind the public of our services and skills—as members of advisory groups, presenters at conferences, participants in educational planning—must be utilized.

The political dialogue in much of the United States seems to circle around universal preschool and increasing quality childcare. Many parents, however, want to be the primary caregivers for their young children. Additionally, substantial numbers of at-risk children do not receive care in formal and government-regulated settings.

Finally, there is the question of cost. In Colorado, the estimate for providing universal preschool for 4-year-olds alone is well over $150 million annually. In these difficult economic times, the likelihood of support for a new major expenditure is small and still leaves early literacy education for parents out of the equation.

How much more effective to use an informal, existing network like public libraries, in partnership with other community groups, to deliver the simple and proven techniques of early literacy training like Every Child Ready to Read.

Many libraries have adopted either Every Child Ready to Read or the subsequent storytime approach. But collaboration via regional and statewide early literacy efforts is unusual and difficult to sustain. By utilizing the practical lessons learned by Colorado libraries, we can continue to broaden our reach to educators, parents, and decision-makers, bringing awareness of the vast resources we stand ready to provide.

Reports and materials from Colorado’s efforts may be found at: [another sidebar?]

BONNIE MCCUNE was community programs consultant at the Colorado State Library from 1999 to 2008. She may be reached at bfmccune@gmail.com.


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