Early literacy tops librarians' agenda


Leaders: In a few short years, public libraries have moved to the forefront of the effort to help children start school ready to read.

September 30, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

I SAW AN amazing experiment the other day.

A smiling mother gazes lovingly into the eyes of her 3-month-old baby as she softly sings "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Close-ups of the two faces show how thoroughly engaged are mother and daughter across the 18 inches that separate them. This little girl, so new to life, is clearly in love. There is no other way to describe it.

Then the mother is asked to stare blankly, not to lose eye contact but to display no emotion. Almost immediately the child looks away, flailing one arm and wriggling uncomfortably. The shift from a loving to a neutral expression on a mother's face disconnects and disorients her infant.

It's an astonishing sequence, speaking volumes about children's need to communicate, even at the youngest ages imaginable. And all Marylanders can marvel at it by visiting their library and checking out a video, "The First Years Last Forever," introduced by actor Rob Reiner. Thanks to Maryland's first lady, Frances Hughes Glendening, the video, in Spanish and English, is available in every public library in the state.

That's not all the public libraries have been doing lately. With a lot of help from government agencies and patrons such as Glendening, and without a lot of fanfare, they've moved to the forefront in the drive to help children start school ready to read.

Next month, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Reading Excellence will begin training Maryland public librarians in the elements of early literacy.

The effort dates from 1998, says Kathleen S. Reif, director of the Wicomico County Free Library in Salisbury and the only public librarian invited to speak at first lady Laura Bush's summit on early reading in late July.

"Prior to 1988," Reif says, "when you'd go to library meetings, early reading often wasn't even mentioned. Now it's at the top of the agenda."

What has given the librarians impetus is research evidence that 90 percent of a child's brain growth occurs during the first three years of life. Hard to imagine, says Reif, that only a few years ago librarians and educators believed that 3 years old, not to mention infancy, was too early for reading instruction. Now the librarians' statewide motto is "It's Never Too Early."

"But we wanted to be informed by research before we got too far into it," says Reif. So one of the first things she did was meet with G. Reid Lyon, who heads reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda.

That contact led to a partnership among Maryland libraries, the Public Library Association and NICHD. Across Maryland, parents can pick up literature in their libraries describing how literacy develops in each of three age ranges: birth to 2 years old, 2 to 3, and 4 to 5.

Tips are offered for each age group. Some are obvious: Use speech that is simple. Some are not: It's impossible to spoil infants, so give them all the love you can. Or, as the narrator in the Reiner video says, "Every child needs someone who's in love with them."

There's an equal opportunity motive, too. Many Maryland children don't have rich pre-reading experiences before they get to preschool or kindergarten, and the library is a logical, convenient and free place for parents and children, aided by knowledgeable librarians, to work on "emergent literacy."

It's not easy, says Reif. While some consider the library almost an extension of home, others, says Reif, "find the library extraordinarily intimidating. That's why we have to work together not only with schools, but with all kinds of agencies and organizations to draw people in."

Each county library system (and Pratt) adds its own wrinkles, although all have playrooms for children, toys, videos and, of course, children's books, usually 35 percent to 40 percent of the collection, says Reif.

The Wicomico library gives videos with tips for early literacy to new mothers and runs a program called "Smart Start," in which parents get free over-the-shoulder baby carriers and nursery rhyme books. Reif works closely with Head Start, the federal preschool program for children in poverty.

"We can't reach every child," she says, "but if we can reach some of these parents and child-care providers, we can make a difference."

"The First Years Last Forever" and a companion video, "Ready to Learn" - also available in Maryland libraries - are the products of I Am Your Child (www.iamyour child.org), a national campaign organized by Rob and Michele Singer Reiner. Here are its 10 guidelines to help parents promote literacy in young children:

1. Talk and sing with your child.

2. Read to your child every day.

3. Provide materials that prepare your child for writing.

4. Limit television viewing and watch appropriate shows with your child.

5. Provide opportunities for play and exploration.

6. Be a role model by showing your love of reading.

7. Visit libraries and bookstores.

8. Give your child a healthy start.

9. Select quality child care.

10. Instill a lifelong love of learning.

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