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The power of learning how to read: Imagination Library partners help words leap from the page

By Ginger Livingston

Sunday, July 16, 2017

There is magic and adventure in books, but none of it exists unless the cover is opened and the words are read.

A community program aimed at getting books into the homes of Pitt County children also is working with its partners to help parents fit storytime into their routines.

Imagination Library launched in May 2016, and in the intervening 14 months, more than 4,000 children have enrolled, said Jim Cieslar, executive director of the United Way of Pitt County. The monthly enrollment numbers vary as children are added and then leave because they have turned 5.

The program sprang from the efforts of Books from Birth Early Literacy Coalition of Eastern North Carolina. The coalition sought to combine the resources of multiple organizations working to improve childhood literacy. 

The coalition partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which every month mails free age-appropriate books to children from birth to 5 years old, to get books into the hands of children and their families as an important first step. The program, with funding support from the community, aims to get books to approximately 11,000 children up to age 5 who live in Pitt County.

“Imagination Library is supporting the other programs in the community in making sure children have access to high-quality books in the home so they’ll have access to them at all times,” Cieslar said.

The coalition and the United Way reached out to dozens of community groups, businesses, social agencies and educational organizations to participate in family recruitment and fundraising for book purchases. But they knew that was only half the battle because the books had to be read for them to have an impact. That required engaging parents and guardians, some who were either reluctant readers or who had limited reading skills themselves.

So partners involved in the early literacy coalition started incorporating the books — and lessons about reading — into their activities.

Time to read

A Time for Science, a nonprofit science education organization, hosts a weekly storytime for children and their parents at the GO-Science facility on Dickinson Avenue. The children are typically toddlers and pre-schoolers with some school-age children coming during summer vacation and other school breaks, said Emily Jarvis, executive director.

Melissa Adamson, United Way’s impact and communications director, asked A Time for Science if it could use Imagination Library books during story time. Jarvis asked if the books included science-based topics. What they found is that science themes can be found in most children’s books.

“It’s a natural partnership because children’s literacy is the foundation for learning,” Jarvis said.  “We can take these books and pull science out of them for this group.”

This summer, students in the master’s degree program of East Carolina University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders have led the storytime. At a recent session Katie Slay read “As An Oak Tree Grows” by G. Brian Karas. She then showed the children how to use leaves to paint and to make prints.

“It really excites me to see how developing literacy skills in young children give them a platform for all future learning and development,” Slay said.

“We really value early stimulation and how it has an effect on literacy development,” said Marianna Walker, associate professor with the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. She organized the student language and literacy team that led the GO-Science story time this summer.

There is an important relationship between literacy skills and language development, Walker said. Children who have speech and language deficiency, especially in language areas, will more than likely have problems learning to read, so it’s important to catch problems early on, she said.

“This program is exciting to me because we are teaching children the power of learning how to read,” she said. “We know from birth, the first six months, are such an important time for language development, but before children go to school they learn vocabulary, putting words together telling stories.”

Listening to parents, caregivers and other people read to them enhances their processing abilities, their receptive language and what they understand, she said. The better a child processes and perceives the language they are hearing, the better they are at expressing language when they get older.

Walker said she wanted to involve her students in literacy activities to encourage university involvement in the community.

Partners in literacy

Another partner working directly with families is the Nurse-Family Partnership, which operates out of the Pitt County Health Department and is funded through multiple grants.

The program, which started seven years ago, works with first-time moms to ensure they have a healthy pregnancy then continues to help during the first two years of the baby’s life, said Liz Steele, a nurse home visitor. The nurses conduct routine visits where they assess the baby’s health then work with the mothers on goals they want to accomplish, ranging from improved breastfeeding and keeping immunizations up to date to completing their education.

The nurses have always talked about the importance of reading to children from birth and engaging the children with music and play. When Imagination Library launched, the nurses were eager to talk about it with their clients and their partners knowing it would give them resources.

“When we introduce Imagination Library, they are eager to sign up, and we have iPads and can sign them up right then,” Steele said.

Teniqua Smith, 25, one of Steele’s mothers, is an avid reader and was excited when Steele told her about Imagination Library. “I was like, awesome. I love to read and because I’m in child care I was fascinated about getting a free book,” she said.

Since her daughter, Leilani, was born 8 months ago, Smith and her husband, Rodney Cogdell, have made reading a regular part of Leilani’s routine. Smith, who is pursuing a master’s degree in early child care, said she’s long known the importance of talking to and engaging with babies, even when they are in the womb. However, Leilani’s love of books even before she is 1 year old is surprising, she said.

“If you give her a book, she gets really excited,” Smith said. “She loves books. Not only do I read to her but I let her get comfortable holding the book and turning the pages and seeing the colors on her own so it’s something she grows to love, not something that is forced,” Smith said.

Reading has become a regular part of Leilani’s bedtime ritual. “Because we’ve developed the routine I think she knows it’s time to lie down because we’re reading now,” Smith said. “We have a bath and then we get the book.”

“It’s pretty awesome actually,” Cogdell said.

Steele said she was shocked during one visit when she walked in and saw a 4-month-old Leilani sitting on the couch with a book, flipping pages. It’s a skill few 4-month-olds have, Steele said.

Building blocks

Steele works with about 25 mothers, and not all share Smith’s love of reading, she said. Steele said first-time moms and their partners occasionally fret.

“They don’t think they are doing something wrong, but they want assurance they are doing things right,” said Elisa Brown, Family-Nurse Partnership supervisor.

“For parents who are hesitant, we get to model that behavior. They see that even if their (child’s) attention is short, that’s OK,” Steele said. They also get to see that it’s normal and OK when the baby wants to chew on the book.

Some mothers and their partners struggle with reading themselves, Brown said.

Brown said situations like that are useful stepping stones for encouraging moms to increase their own reading skills through Literacy Volunteers of Pitt County and other educational programs.

Until then, Steele encourages parents to sit with their child and the book and talk about the pictures or make up their own story.

“In the first and second year they are OK, more attuned to their voice and the bonding,” Steele said.

It’s been a little more than a year since the Nurse-Family Partnership started signing up families. Steele said when she walks into homes, parents talk about how much they love the books and share stories about their children’s interaction with books.

Steele has seen moms slip books into their baby bags to occupy their children during outings. Brown said she has had toddlers bring books to her.

Brown and Steele have a shared love of reading, which makes it easy to encourage moms who are reluctant readers to sit with their child and a book.

“Little building blocks are what I picture in my head,” Brown said. “She’s building relationships with dad and even their own parents.”