Read by 4th prepares littlest learners for a life of reading

Citywide program works with families at home and in neighborhood libraries.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook prepared this report on early childhood education in Philadelphia for our spring print edition before the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We are posting the stories from the print edition online this week along with updates from the providers and advocates we featured. The Read by 4th team has continued to focus on helping families support learning at home. They have created a new Family Resources page on our website, where they’ve pulled together some of their favorite online activities.

On a sunny Saturday morning children’s librarian Christina Holmes took a seat and began reading to the moms, dads and tots clustered around her in the infant/toddler corner of the Lucien E. Blackwell West Philadelphia Regional Library.

“Open them, shut them, give a little clap, clap, clap,” said Holmes, as parents helped tiny hands open and close. “Open them, shut them, give a little clap, clap, clap.”

The youngest in the crowd was about six months, the oldest about two. For 30 minutes, the children absorbed rhymes, sounds and stories as well as the babbling and chatter of the toddlers and grownups all around them.

The weekly event, called Read, Baby, Read, is among a wide variety of efforts – of both small and large scale – that make up the initiative known as Read by 4th.

Read, Baby, Read is two years along at two libraries in the city, Blackwell and Richmond – and expanding to 10 other locations over the next three years.

Another library-backed program, Literacy in Early Learning Spaces, which promotes early literacy best practices in child-care centers, started two years ago in two impoverished Philadelphia zip codes – and expanded to four, with plans to reach seven parts of the city next year.

And yet another program, ParentChild+, which trains parents at home in ways to promote literacy and numeracy in young children, started in North Philadelphia, expanded to West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia – and plans to expand yet again, to Southwest Philadelphia.

The focus on the early years is intentional.

“We’ve got 85 percent of cognitive development happening in the first five years of life,” said

Christine Caputo, chief of youth services and programs at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Both Read, Baby, Read and Early Learning Spaces are programs that seek to promote early literacy among parents and caregivers. The question, said Caputo, is “How can we set kids up for success with all those early literacy and language development skills and practices, so that they are not starting out behind when they enter kindergarten?”

The initiative to bring early-childhood literacy specialists to child-care providers aims to make a big, lasting impact. The specialists visit child-care centers, family child-care homes and group child-care homes in neighborhoods (identified by zip code) with high populations of young children, numerous child-care centers, lower literacy levels and higher poverty levels plus a neighborhood library.

To date, the specialists are reaching 31 programs, where they help set up a reading area in the

classroom and outfit the space with books, shelving, rugs and soft seating. More books arrive monthly.

“The books are high-quality, diverse and representative of the children attending those centers,” said Devon Laudenslager, who runs the program.

Providers receive coaching “around literacy and language development” twice a month and attend four professional development sessions a year at the local library. “Our teachers are gaining so much confidence around what they’re doing,” Laudenslager said. “We’re seeing classroom environments that are really changing and becoming literacy rich.”

The Read by 4th campaign launched in Philadelphia in 2015 and has more than 100 partners including foundations, the School District, the Free Library and the city as well as nonprofits, other government agencies, corporate partners and volunteers.

Building home libraries, and training teachers and parents are among ongoing initiatives, said Jenny Bogoni, Read by 4th’s executive director.

Philadelphia is part of the national Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which supports efforts at the local, state and national levels to raise awareness. That group cites research showing that students need to be proficient readers by the end of third grade to master more complex subject matter beginning in fourth grade. Yet two-thirds of fourth graders and four out of five low-income students need reading help.

The Campaign, based in Washington, has support from a wide swath of education-related groups.

A ripple effect for the whole family

Where the Free Library’s Literacy in Early Learning Spaces seeks to train child-care providers, the ParentChild+ program seeks to coach parents, in their own homes, in ways to promote literacy and learning about numbers – numeracy – with their very young children.

The initiative at multiple sites in Philadelphia, with support from the GreenLight Fund, is part of a national program, four decades old, that seeks to increase school readiness, decrease the need for special education, and improve high graduation rates by supporting reading and play activities for young children in the home.

“It’s the two-generation strategy,” said Omar Woodard, GreenLight’s executive director. “We can do a lot of work with young people by themselves but children exist in the context of families. We want to boost the capacities and possibilities of parents. We don’t believe it’s trickle-down, we believe [the support] has a ripple effect for the whole family. Improving parent-child interaction isn’t good for just one child, it’s good for the rest of the family as well.”

The program opened four years ago in partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and Public Health Management Corporation in the Sharswood/Blumberg neighborhood in North Philadelphia. A second program opened in the Mantua neighborhood, with yet another set to open in the Bartram neighborhood.

The home-visit specialist works with the family over two years. “We’re seeing better interactions between parents and the child, we’re seeing higher literacy and numeracy scores, and we’re seeing 100 percent being signed up for quality pre-K slots. Over the last four years this has been incredibly effective and transformational investment,” Woodard said.

Other Read by 4th initiatives are far smaller in scale.

The Art Sphere Inc. nonprofit “uses art and music, mindfulness and movement” as a means of promoting literacy in its school and library programs. For young children, Art Sphere offers a lunchtime series on Tuesdays at the Fishtown Library branch.

“Parents and kids come to make art and make music centered around books,” said Director Kristin Groenveld. “Our staff reads books, but they make it more interactive with art and music projects. We’re engaging all the children’s senses so they’re learning spatially as well as auditorily, as well as visually.”

The preschoolers learn about book making, “they do singalong, they do nursery rhymes” so that when they begin to learn to read “they’re actually very familiar with the process through song,” Groenveld said.

At the Read, Baby, Read session at the Blackwell library branch, Kimberly Braxton and her 15-month-old toddler Clifton have been regulars since before he turned one. “He likes to come and track with the other babies and toddlers,” Braxton said.

Besides story time, the Braxtons planned to check out children’s books featuring food, colors and animals – “things he likes right now,” she said.

Yahala Fisher, with her son Semaj, almost one, have been visiting story time “since he was three months old,” Fisher said. Read, Baby, Read “helps him learn new words and meet new people and become interested in reading. That’s what I want.”

And that’s the point, said Naisha Patterson, who runs the program. Read, Baby, Read and other library programs seek to “support emergent literacy, language development and purposeful play” for the city’s youngest patrons and their parents. Parents, Patterson said, “are basically the child’s first teacher.”