Early Childhood and Family Literacy

Book Cover: Vamos a leer/Read to MeI am passionate about the importance of early childhood and family literacy. When I served as an elementary school librarian and a K-5 literacy coach, I had the opportunity to take action to influence the literacy practices of the children, families, and educators in our learning community.

I wrote about this in my March 8, 2021 blog post: Literacy Partners Become Advocates and in an article that appeared in the March/April issue of the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today magazine: “School Librarians as Literacy Partners: Take Action on the What’s Hot in Literacy Report.”

Practices in Early Childhood Literacy
Every kindergarten and first-grade classroom teacher and elementary school librarian can identify children who have been enculturated into literacy practices before coming to school. They may not know the alphabet and letter sounds, but they possess the basic building blocks of literacy. They know:

  • how to hold a book;
  • how to turn pages from right to left and move their eyes from left to right on a double-page spread;
  • that the squiggly lines of the page are words;
  • that words have meaning;
  • illustrations mean something and reflect or extend the meaning of the words in the book;
  • how to listen and attend to a book as it’s being read to them; and
  • that stories are communication tools that people use to share their thoughts, ideas, emotions, and experiences.

They possess this knowledge because a proficient reader read to them and talked with them about books and stories. This is why books such as Read to Me/Vamos a leer (Star Bright Books 2004) are shared in so many early childhood literacy programs and are important in promoting family literacy.

Children who possess the knowledge that comes from experiences with books are ready for kindergarten or first grade. They are prepped for literacy learning while their peers who lack this foundational knowledge are not yet ready to learn the alphabet, letter sounds, and more.

Research in Early Literacy
As an academic and a grandmother, too, I follow research in early literacy learning. Two recent studies have important information for parents and educators of young children.

On May 10, 2021, The New York Times reported on a study that I may not have otherwise seen: “The Power of Pre-K” by Dave Leonhardt. The article is subtitled: “President Biden wants universal pre-K. A large new study examines its likely effects.”

The Boston pre-K study is a rare experimental study in education because the children under investigation were placed in preschool through a lottery system. (Read “The Long-term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston” by Guthrie Gray-Lobe, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters.)

As in previous studies of Head Start children, this study found that the participants did not do noticeably better on standardized tests in elementary school, middle school or high school than did their peers who did not attend preschool.

However, the lottery preschool students demonstrated advantages in other key social and emotional indicators that are important to success in school and in life. The outcomes for the lottery students were evident in terms of better behavior. 70% of the lottery students graduated from high school while only 64% of non-lottery students did so. Lottery students were less likely to be suspended from school or incarcerated. These positive effects crossed racial and ethnic groups and the boys who had preschool experience did a bit better than the girls.

In another study, “Predictors of Reading Ability Among Ten-Year-Olds: Poverty (negative), School Libraries (positive), Instruction (zero), Early Literacy (zero), Christy Lao, Sy-ying Lee, Jeff McQuillan, and Stephen Krashen studied students’ 2006, 2011, and 2016 reading test scores based on The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), an international comparative assessment that measures student learning in reading.

These researchers found that the effect of poverty was negative in all three years and the positive effect of the presence of school libraries (access to books) was significant in two studies and fell just short of significant in the third.

Their study also showed that instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, which they call early literacy, did not result in a significant positive impact on PIRLS test scores. (They did, however, suggest a positive correlation between the amount of parental reading and SES both times they were investigated.)

Research Informing Practice
Taken together, preschool programs that promote social and emotional learning and elementary schooling that includes access to school libraries in a winning combination for reading achievement and school and life success.

To those two studies that suggest best practices in childhood literacy, I would add, based on first-hand experience, preschool experiences that include books and interactive reading. I would also add school libraries led by school librarians who know how to connect students with books. School “librarians have the training needed to identify and purchase the highest quality books and resources at all reading proficiency levels, in all genres and multiple formats. A well-funded school library collection reflects a commitment by the school, school district, and community to serving all students and families at school and at home” (Moreillon 2021, 11).

And through instructional partnerships with classroom, school librarians teachers also provide students with meaningful opportunities for reading for meaning, to learn, and pursue the answers to their questions.

All together, these are important contributors to students’ success.

I believe in research informing practice AND I also believe, as Ross Todd so eloquently stated, that practice must also inform research.

“Research informing practice and practice informing research
is a fundamental cycle in any sustainable profession”
(Todd 2007, 64).

The conversation between practitioners in the field and researchers must be on-going, respectful, and impactful. Research must be enacted in practice for it to be meaningful. In order to continually improve our practice, school librarians and other educators’ work must be informed by the latest research. And practitioners who daily serve the literacy needs of young learners must hold all research up to our first-hand experience the youth.

Works Cited

Gray-Lobe, Guthrie, Parag Pathak, and Christopher Walters. 2021. “The Long-term Effects of Universal Preschool in Boston. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Economics Department.” https://seii.mit.edu/research/study/the-long-term-effects-of-universal-pre_school-in-boston/

Lao, Christy, Sy-ying Lee, Jeff McQuillan, and Stephen Krashen. 2021. “Predictors of Reading Ability Among Ten-Year-Olds: Poverty (negative), School Libraries (positive), Instruction (zero), Early Literacy (zero).” (in press in Language Magazine)

Leonhardt, David. 2021. “The Power of Pre-K.” The New York Times (May 10). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/10/briefing/universal-pre-k-biden-agenda.html

Moreillon, Judi. 2021. “School Librarians as Literacy Partners: Take Action on the What’s Hot in Literacy Report.” Literacy Today (March/April): 10-11. Available at http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/b46eaa78#/b46eaa78/12

Todd, Ross. 2007. Evidence-based Practice in School Libraries: From Advocacy to Action. In School Reform and the School Library Media Specialist, eds. S. Hughes-Hassell and V.H. Harada, 57-78. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Ready and Waiting for the First Day of Elementary School, Fall, 2021

Ready and Waiting for You Book Jacket and School Buses in a Neighborhood illustration by Catherine StockBack-to-School 2021-2022
Back-to-school in the coming academic year may be the first time a kindergarten, first, or second-grade student has ever entered a school building. The pandemic, school closures, and remote learning interrupted many young children’s traditional experience of a first day at school.

That’s why Fall 2021 is so important in terms of setting all children on a positive path with warm and welcoming feelings about beginning their school-based adventure in learning. All parents, grandparents, siblings, caregivers, childcare providers, preschool teachers, school librarians, classroom teachers, and school administrators have a role to play. We can communicate the fun and friendship children will find when they join the community of school.

Loco Parentis
Loco parentis literally means “in the place of a parent.” As educators, we have the responsibility to care for children and treat them as our own. Turnaround for Children is an organization that helps educators understand the brain science behind the important connections we make through building relationships. From their website: “Cultivate Developmental Relationships among teachers, students, leaders, and families, because these relationships are a prerequisite for managing student stress and igniting learning” (https://turnaroundusa.org/).

School librarians who serve the entire school community through the largest classroom in our schools with the greatest number of resources are perfectly positioned to be relationship-building leaders. We create welcoming, safe spaces in our libraries and online for ALL students, educators, and families. We must be intentionally open, positive, and consistent in the way we interact with all the members of our learning communities.

“The sense of safety and belonging that relationships provide is truly the foundation for learning, because they create the context that readies the brain to learn” (Stafford-Brizard 2021, 8).

Social and Emotional Learning
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (https://casel.org/what-is-sel/).

Educators are instrumental in creating a caring, respectful learning environment in their classrooms and library spaces where students’ SEL can grow. One of the key elements of CASEL’s Theory of Action is: “Strengthen adult SEL competencies and capacity by cultivating a trusting community that enhances adults’ professional, social, emotional, and cultural competencies and their capacity to promote SEL for students.”

This presents an opportunity for principal-school librarian partnerships to co-create a positive and effective culture of trust, caring, and safety among faculty so they will carry those feelings and behaviors forward when working with students.

“These teachers remember the passions that led them to become academics, and they do not want to lose the primal energy of their vocation. They affirm their deep caring for the lives of their students, and they do not want to disconnect from the young. They understand the identify and integrity they have invested in teaching, and they reinvest, even if it pays no institutional interest or dividends” (Palmer 1998, 170-171).

Ready and Waiting for You
This spring, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers is bringing back my book Ready and Waiting for You (2013). The book’s bold and vibrant child-friendly illustrations by Catherine Stock and its design (my idea) with opening gatefold doors reinforce the repeating phrase: “We’re ready and waiting for you.”

I recorded a pitch for why this book is perfectly timed for Fall 2021. It is posted on the Eerdmans Books for Young Readers’ Facebook page and their YouTube channel.Ready and Waiting for You Book Cover and Photograph of Author Judi Moreillon with Her Dog Teddy

Eerdmans Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=828740571329180

Video Recording on YouTube: https://youtu.be/qNDqwdFztKw

From boisterous school bus mates, a welcoming principal and school mascot to the savvy school librarian and gym, art, and music teachers, too, the children in Ready and Waiting for You meet the entire community of school. When at last they arrive in their classroom, the final lines read: “We won’t be a whole school till you do. Everyone’s waiting for you.”

The importance of extending friendship and fun to every single young child who crosses the threshold to school in Fall 2021 cannot be overestimated. To share an unambiguous message of belonging with each and every child must be the mission of every educator, administrator, and staff member.

Won’t you be a steadfast, caring ally and advocate for all the children in your care this fall? Be sure to let each child know, you’re ready and waiting for them!

Works Cited

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). https://casel.org

Moreillon, Judi, 2013. Ready and Waiting for You. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Palmer, Parker J. 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Stafford-Brizard, Brooke. 2021. “Supporting Teacher Well-being in a Time of Crisis.” Educational Leadership 78 (8): 84-86.

Turnaround for Children. https://turnaroundusa.org/

Images Credit
Used with Permission from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

SCBWI-Arizona Showcase and Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! Preview

Promotion for Showcase with Photos of Authors/Illustrators

I have been a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) since my first children’s book was published in 1997. File folders full of rejection letters aside, I have been lucky to have found publishing homes for three additional books during the intervening years. You can read about those on the Children’s Books and Sites Page on my Storytrail website.

This coming Saturday, March 27, I will be joining author Dawn Young, author-illustrator Nate Evans, and illustrator Jim Paillot to participate in a virtual SCBWI-AZ Author Showcase and Q&A.

Thank you to Laura Ellen and Dianne White, SCBWI-Arizona PAL coordinators. The Spotlight Zoom will involve us in introducing ourselves and our books and provide members of the children’s books writing community the opportunity to get answers to their general publishing questions.

Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! and a Spanish edition ¡Por favor, ¡no me abraces! were first published as a donation on the Make Way for Books (MWFB) app. MWFB Arizona is an early literacy nonprofit that provides proven programs, services, and resources to 30,000 young children, parents, and educators throughout southern Arizona each year. Their mission is to give all children the chance to read and succeed.

Check it out: If you are writing for infants, toddlers, preschool children and their families, you should know that MWFB currently has a call for submissions, open until March 31st.

Book Cover: Please Don't Give Me a Hug!Thanks to Star Bright Books, my Please Don’t Give Me a Hug! story will be published as a board book, available for distribution at the end of April. MWFB gave me back the rights to the story. In exchange, I am donating a portion of the proceeds from the e-book to MWFB. Win-win-win.

Meeting Star Bright Books publisher Deborah Shine was an amazing coincidence and gift of encouragement for my passion for writing for children. Way back in 2002, I ran into my neighbor and children’s book author and illustrator Ron Himler in the produce section of our grocery store. Ron told me the story behind his newly released picture book Six Is So Much Less than Seven.

I asked him to send me a copy and promised I would review it. Ron loved my review and shared it with his publisher, Deborah Shine, who invited me to review books for Star Bright. After I shared a copy of my first published book with Deborah, she asked if I had others. I recited Read to Me, a poem I has written for then Tucson Public Library’s Project L.I.F.T., Literacy Involves Families Together. The poem, written for the teen parents who participated in that project, fit perfectly with Star Bright’s mission.

The poem became the board book Read to Me, which has since been published in English, Spanish, bilingual Spanish/English, Vietnamese/English, and Haitian Creole/English. The book has sold some 150,000 copies mostly to early childhood and family literacy programs. The first organization to purchase and distribute the book widely was…  you guessed it… Make Way for Books.

Note: Star Bright Books publishes books for young children in 25 different languages. All of Star Bright’s bilingual books display the heritage language first on the page followed by English. For the last twenty years, Deborah Shine and Star Bright’s commitment to diversity in language and culture in both text and illustrations is admirable and all too rare among publishers of books for young people.

Working with Deborah Shine and the team at Star Bright Books has been a wonder. I am thrilled to be working with them again to promote Please Don’t Give Me a Hug!

Estelle Corke painted the child-friendly illustrations for the book. As an author who cannot draw, I am especially grateful when the illustrations for the stories I write include diverse characters in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, age, and ability. Thank you, Estelle, and Star Bright!

Although I receive a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from publishing professional books for school librarians and classroom teachers, there is a slightly different quality to my feelings about the books for children and families that are published with my name on the cover.

Knowing that a child, parent, older sibling, grandparent, childcare provider, teacher, librarian, and others may at any given moment be reading one of my books to a young person… well, for me, it just doesn’t get much better than that!

I hope you will join us on Saturday, March 27, 2021, and share our love of publishing books for children. The Showcase is free and open to all. If you are able and interested in joining us, go to the online registration form.

How Children Succeed

While authoring my forthcoming book, I have read many professional books. This is the second in a series of professional book reviews–possible titles for your summer reading. The reviews are in no particular order.

Helping children and teens develop dispositions is one of the essential aspects of preparing future-ready students for schooling and life. In my research on this topic, I was happy to find Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (I have not yet read his more recent book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.)

Tough frames his perspective as a possible new school of thought that calls the “cognitive hypothesis” into question. The “cognitive hypothesis” of child rearing/development suggests that learning is based on “inputs” and “outputs.”

These are some of the “cognitive hypothesis” examples Tough gives that may speak to BACC blog readers:
1. The fewer words a child hears and speaks before entering school the more likely she is to struggle in schooling.
2. Fewer books in the home puts a child at risk in reading proficiency.
3. More math homework means higher math scores.

These examples (two near and dear to my heart) suggests a linear view of cognitive development.

Tough’s “character hypothesis” adds a different perspective. “What matters most in a child’s development is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character” (xv). In the world of school librarianship, we refer to these noncognitive skills, personality traits, or character traits as “dispositions.”

While I disagree with Tough’s use of the word “stuffing” here, I read on and found myself developing a hybrid view of these two apparently opposing hypotheses.

The “character hypothesis” explains a number of children I have met. In over twenty-five years of teaching, I have met and admired those “outlier” kids who seemed to have missed out on literacy enriched upbringings yet have excelled in every school-based measure of achievement. I have also met and wondered about very privileged children who seemed to have had every advantage yet were unable to persevere at tasks (even of their own choosing) and lacked grit. (Tough uses Angela Duckworth’s definition of grit: “self-discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal.”)

I agree with Tough that there are many other ways to develop “executive functions” besides growing up with the advantages afforded (most? some?) privileged children. These higher-order mental abilities, such as the ability to deal with confusing and unpredictable situations, can be learned in many ways and at many points during a person’s life. “Executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood” (48).

I totally agree with Tough that: “Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing bonds with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment” (28). And in my experience (and in the views of other researchers) when parents and other caregivers talk to and dialogue with their young children and enfold them in their arms while reading to them, children are indeed building the bonds that help children develop resilience. (Hence my objection Tough’s use of the word “stuffing” in relationship to talking to and reading with young children.)

Tough cites research that was new to me. Mary Ainsworth conducted studies in the 1960s/early 1970s. She found that: “Babies whose parents responded readily and fully to their cries in the first few months of life were, at one year, more independent and intrepid babies than babies whose parents had ignored their cries” (cited in Tough 33). This may seem counterintuitive but having been that kind of parent with my own infant daughter, my experience has borne out that finding. She became a VERY intrepid toddler and grew into a VERY independent woman (now in her mid-30s).

My question here is if babies are born into struggling families, does the parent who is working two jobs have the energy to respond “readily and fully” to a baby’s middle of the night cries?

Tough also writes about cognitive-behavior therapy and cites the work of Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, which I haven’t yet read. According to Seligman, the best time to transform pessimistic children into optimistic ones is “before puberty, but late enough in childhood so they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking)” (91).

For me, this emphasizes the importance of the middle school years. I believe middle school educators benefit from specialized training in adolescent development and empathetic skills in order to effectively support young teens social, emotional, and cognitive development. (I worked with some very “gifted” classroom teachers at Emily Gray Junior High who had what it takes during my one year of middle school librarianship.)

My experience supports the importance of optimism and other positive emotional states when it comes to learning. As researcher David Sousa noted positive emotions affect learning by helping students process information, engage in difficult tasks, develop a deeper understanding of learning experiences, and recall and apply what is taught later on (2016).

Tough analyzes the character education program at  KIPP Schools. In order to prepare KIPP students for college, students are given a college persistence rating in four categories: academic preparedness, financial stability, socio-emotional wellness, and non-cognitive preparedness. This score is monitored regularly and educators/counselors provide support and interventions to keep students on track. The success rate for less-privileged students who attend KIPP schools and go on to succeed in post-secondary education suggests “character” counts.

Tough concludes: “Character can function as a substitute for the social safety net that students at Riverdale (a high school serving privileged students) enjoy – the support from their families and schools and culture that protects them from the consequences of occasional detours and mistakes and bad decisions” (103).

In summary, Tough writes: “Character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which children grow up” (196). Agreed. Agreed. Agreed.

I learned a great deal from reading Tough’s book. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in child-adolescent development and education.

Writing this review has helped me further reflect on the complexity of creating an environment in which future-ready children and teens can development the knowledge, competencies, and dispositions they need to succeed. In my hybrid view, the combination of family economic security, the “cognitive hypothesis,” and the “character hypothesis” could all be applied to create a supportive and effective birth through adolescence environment for children to succeed.

Why not imagine and create the best of all possible worlds for our children?

Works Cited
Sousa, David A. 2016. How the Brain Learns. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tough, Paul. 2013. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012.