Once upon a time, it was believed that literacy training could begin only after children's brains had matured — at about six years of age. But experts now know that the skills and habits of literacy are gradually acquired during the first years of life (see "Much More than the ABCs: The Early Stages of Reading and Writing," by Judith A. Schickedanz, National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1999). What then can a third- or an eighth-grade teacher do to influence the reading readiness of the infants and toddlers who could one day become their struggling students? The answer lies in grassroots literacy partnerships.


In 1984 Joan Friedberg, Ph.D., and I were college teachers of children's literature and acutely aware that reading to children from infancy is the best way to prepare them for lifelong reading success. We reasoned that low-income parents, with encouragement, coaching, and appropriate books, could provide a good reading start for their children. That year we founded Beginning with Books, a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Our goal was to give parents the necessary resources to help their children succeed as readers: attractive, free, high-quality books; library cards; and support from teacher-facilitators and community volunteers. Four years into the program, an outside evaluation showed that kindergarten teachers rated students in the project significantly higher in language and reading ability than a control group (see Elizabeth Segel, "I Got to Get Him Started Out Right," in Bridges to Literacy: Children, Families & Schools, David K. Dickinson, ed. [Blackwell, 1994]).

Since the program's inception, parent responses to book distributions and parent counseling — even at clinics in our poorest neighborhoods — have been overwhelmingly positive. Our Gift Book Program distributes new children's books to low-income families, a pamphlet of tips for parents (written at the third-grade level) on reading out loud, and a coupon to acquire a free book at the public library. One mother, pointing to her six-year-old son, confessed: "I never liked to read. I still don't. But you told me to read to him when he was little and I did, and his teacher told me, 'I can tell that you read to him.' So now I'll be reading to the baby, too." Teachers in economically distressed school districts found that when they started giving away books at parent conferences, attendance improved dramatically, and a closer working relationship between teachers and parents was forged. "You have to come to school, Dad," one child said. "We get our books tonight!"

Grassroots efforts like Beginning with Books can help teachers reach children in those crucial years from birth to four, thereby preventing reading difficulties and raising future test scores. Here are some reasons you should get involved — and ways to do so:

  • Parents who receive gift books from the school, with encouragement to read to their infants, are likely to view the school as a welcoming place. A community-based partner can help parents who are not themselves successful readers and who may be intimidated by schools overcome this barrier.
  • Teachers can partner with communitywide literacy efforts to leverage such resources as volunteers and donations from businesses or civic groups. For example, you can approach a local business and ask for a donation to a classroom library. Most businesses have some funds for community relations, and they understand the importance of a literate workforce.
  • Youngsters not only need equal access to books — they also need mentors. Chances are your community has potential volunteers. You can recruit them through free public-service radio announcements, church bulletins, and local civic organizations. That neighborhood business donating funds for books might also encourage its employees to read to students in the classroom. Beginning with Books currently has more than 225 volunteers who regularly read to kids one-on-one at libraries in low-income neighborhoods. We even have teachers who volunteer to read to a child and find it a wonderfully rewarding supplement to their teaching duties.

A variety of organizations now assist families in starting their children on the road to lifetime reading. Reach Out and Read encourages pediatricians to distribute books at well-child visits and to counsel parents on reading to their youngsters. The National Center for Family Literacy's Kenan model, institutionalized through federally funded Even Start grants, provides families with adult literacy education, quality preschools, and parenting instruction. The America Reads Challenge, which encompasses numerous national and regional literacy organizations, invites business and community leaders, instructors and students at colleges and universities, librarians, teachers, and citizens to contribute their time and talent to ensure that all children are competent readers by age eight. Visit the America Reads Web site (see Professional Resources, below) to locate universities in your area that may have work-study students willing to tutor in your school.

The summer is an excellent time to seek out partners in your community who also care deeply about helping all young people to become eager lifelong readers, and who may have refined effective strategies for doing so. Together we can make it possible for more children to succeed as readers and learners, building that eagerness that makes the difference between a child who can read and one who does read.


Professional Resources

The America Reads Challenge enlists teachers, parents, community and business leaders, librarians, and citizens to ensure that all children learn to read well. America Reads funding enables college students to work in schools with young children. Find more information and free READ*WRITE* NOW! materials at http://www.ed.gov/inits/americareads.

Beginning with Books: Information on training and materials, parent tips, and recommended books at http://www.beginningwithbooks.org.

National Center for Family Literacy: Research, policy briefs, and training information. http://www.famlit.org.

Reach Out and Read: A pediatric early-literacy project at http://www.reachoutandread.org.