Raising a Reader
by Alisa Ikeda

The goal of Raising a Reader, a growing pre-literacy program in California's Silicon Valley, is simple: to get parents in low-income families to sit down every day to share a book with their children.

"We strongly believe that parents want to do what's best for their children," says Bernadette Glumac, program director. She knows that many parents assume books and reading will come with formal schooling. But when very young children aren't exposed to regular read-aloud time before school begins, they enter kindergarten lacking important pre-literacy skills.

Study after study confirms the importance of reading aloud to preschoolers. But one in five children enters kindergarten lacking basic print familiarity skills; one in three doesn't recognize letters of the alphabet. (U.S. Department of Education, fall 1998.)

The children of the Silicon Valley were no exception. Jeanine Asche, coordinator of youth services for the San Mateo County Library system, together with members of the Peninsula Partnership for Children, Youth and Families, formed a steering committee to address their concerns about early literacy in the Valley. There, the idea for Raising a Reader was born, and Glumac ran with it.

In early 1999, she hired professional consulting groups to conduct an initial community evaluation that confirmed their suspicions that within the Valley's large population of at-risk families—those living in poverty, those in which parents had little formal schooling and those in which English is a second language—parents weren't doing much reading with their young children. This is consistent with national findings that a typical middle-class child enters first grade with 1,000 to 1,700 hours of one-to-one picture-book reading, whereas a child from a low-income family averages just 25 hours. (M. J. Adams, "Beginning to Read," MIT Press, 1990.)

Parents Read to Children
Headed by Glumac and developed in collaboration with area child advocates—including representatives from child care coordinating councils, child care centers, county offices of education, city councils and local libraries—Raising a Reader is a one-of-a-kind book delivery system driven by children. Bright red, chubby-handled, big-zippered book bags are filled with highly acclaimed picture books and rotated weekly among families. Child care centers and preschools, home-based daycare settings and healthcare home-visiting programs coordinate the book-swapping so that the kids are never without fresh books. The children are so captivated by the bags and the goodies inside that they beg their parents, "read to me."

What about those parents who don't know how to read? That was one of the program's greatest challenges, according to Glumac. "People learn best through peer learning, so we put together a beautiful and entertaining video with all different nationalities of parents talking about their obstacles and how they overcame them," says Glumac. Available in eight different languages as well as closed caption, the video shows families that "even if you don't read a word of any language or you have a thick accent, you can still sit down and 'read' the pictures and tell a story as you turn the pages."

When you do, there's a lot more than pre-literacy development going on. "With just the book, the child and you," says Glumac, "an amazing dialog begins to take place. You have the child's undivided attention—and the child has yours. It's a truly bonding experience."

Quality Counts
Raising a Reader believes quality counts. The red bags include only age-appropriate books with strong art, a good story, and a wide range of multicultural themes and language. "We don't want the stories to be overly moralistic or too cutesy," says Glumac, "and we stay away from books that may have a commercial product linked with it; we don't want the families to feel an added pressure to go out and buy products."

Currently, Raising a Reader offers books in English, bilingual English/Spanish and Spanish, and favorite titles include: A Mother for Choco, by Keiko Kasza; El cuento de ferdinando, by Munro Leaf; Goodnight Moon , by Margaret W. Brown; Hush, Little Alien, by Daniel Kirk; Jaha and Jamil Went Down the Hill, by Virginia Knoll; Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book, by Muriel Feelings; Legends of the Indian Paintbrush , by Tomie dePaola; and The Woman Who Outshone the Sun/The Legend of Lucia Zenteno, by Rosalma Zubizarreta.

The Measure of Success
The combined research and development and start-up and expansion costs—including the production of program materials, curriculum, and videos—for the non-profit Raising a Reader have surpassed $1 million. Entirely supported by private donation through the Peninsula Community Foundation, the program follows the venture philanthropy model of investment—an accountability-for-results process adapted from the venture capital world. That means Raising a Reader is evaluated heavily and regularly by professional consulting groups.

The pilot was introduced in March of 1999 to 146 low-income families and it saw a 70 percent increase in the number of mothers reading to their children daily and a 72 percent increase in the number of mothers who took their children to the library for the first time.

The program officially launched in the fall of 2000, and it has already had a measurable impact on more than 17,000 children and families in the Silicon Valley and beyond. By 2004, the program intends to make a similar difference in 50,000 to 100,000 more local children as well as roll out the program to other areas of the country.

Dollars and Sense
Raising a Reader is sold to communities in the form of classroom kits. Components and costs are dependent upon the needs of each population, but the standard classroom kit, designed for up to 24 children, currently costs $1900 and includes:

  • Red canvas book bags
  • Books (four different titles per bag)
  • Teacher videos (in English and Spanish) and training/curriculum materials (to guide program implementation and help link to local libraries)
  • Parent videos (available in eight languages as well as closed caption; each family keeps their own), reading tips (in English and Spanish), book lists, and refrigerator magnets (for hanging the book lists)
  • Blue canvas "My Library Book Bags" (to keep and use for family library visits)

The cost averages $75 per child to start and $20 per child each year thereafter for replenishing materials (to cover the costs of videos and blue library bags for families new to the program).

Why It Works
Leticia Rodriguez, mother of four in Newark, California, has seen three of her children through the Raising a Reader program. Her second-youngest son is in the program now. "He places a lot of value to the books in the red bag, and he's very protective of them. He lets the baby [his younger brother] look at them and hold them, but he teaches him that 'you can't mistreat the books; you have to be careful.'"

Occasionally books do get damaged, says Mardi Lucich, director of the Garfield Early Learning Center in Menlo Park, California. "But often when the books come back torn, I know that a one- or two-year-old sibling is getting book exposure. That's worth it to me."

Lucich is especially grateful to Raising a Reader for "allowing us to make a connection between school and home. The program offers our parents a daily opportunity to make an emotional, caring, loving connection with their child. Putting that in the context of literacy makes the parents feel like they're a part of the education process even though their child is here all day. It helps shed some of that working guilt."

"A book bag from preschool sends a message to both the child and the parents that sharing books is important," says Glumac. But it means much more than academic readiness to Rodriguez: "That red bag means quality time with my children."

Spreading the Word
Raising a Reader will soon be officially licensed to communities across the nation. Several communities outside of California have already begun the licensing process and program representatives will be promoting it at national and regional conferences this fall, including National Association for the Education of Young Children, Child Welfare League of America, and Head Start.

In addition to delivering materials, Raising a Reader can help interested parties find funding, create local partnerships, and manage the program.

Any situation that involves regular attendance by parents and children will work with the progam. In Placer County, California, for instance, a child abuse prevention council recognized Raising a Reader's ability to help them get local at-risk families to engage in lap-reading in order to promote parent-child bonding. The council purchased a variety of kits based on the number and needs of the families supported by each individual caseworker.

"Raising a Reader is igniting a spark in families," says Glumac. "We're getting books into homes that might not otherwise have them, giving families the awareness that read-aloud time is critical, and helping parents give their children the foundation for lifelong success."

For more information on Raising a Reader, including evaluation results and more, visit Peninsula Community Foundation.