Getting parents to read smart

Storytelling and singing nursery rhymes are just a small part of Jeni Lowe’s job description.

Lowe organizes the Smart Start Family Literacy program at the Union County Public Library. The workshop stresses that early literacy skills begin with the primary adults in a child’s life. It serves as a parent education initiative.

“What we basically wanted to do was increase the amount of time the parents spend with their children reading,” Lowe said. “That was basically the idea from the very beginning, and it’s been successful since then.”

The program is made possible by a grant from Alliance for Children and material from Every Child Ready to Read; both organizations focus on improving education development. The workshops consist of four weekly, 45-minute sessions, and each session focuses on a set of skills. The program is ongoing and workshops are held year-long. According to Lowe, 1,272 children under the age of 5 have benefited from the Smart Start Literacy Program since the program started in 2006.

Throughout the workshop, which usually starts on the third week of one month and ends on the second week of the following month, Lowe and another coordinator focus on five basic skills: singing, talking, playing, reading and writing.

“Parents are more likely to start reading (if) they use a song in the beginning,” Lowe said. “And they use song so they can clap out the names and make it fun, so they start reading with the children.”

The first session is spent talking about the importance of song in literacy development and about how parents can motivate their children using song during reading time.

“We also provide parents with a lot more nursery rhymes and/or tongue twisters,” Lowe said. “There is a quote we like to share with parents every time they come to the workshops and is that ‘If children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re 4 years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re 8,’ by Mem Fox.”

The second session highlights the reading and writing skills, while the third session emphasizes the importance of talking and playing. During the third session, Lowe and her co-workers give out “brown bear folders” which are based on the children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” by Eric Carle. The folders are meant to help develop story-telling skills.

“We also have a lot of fun with storytelling because retelling is one of the best ways to enhance language development and communication skills and it is an important comprehension strategy as well,” Lowe said. “We use the brown bear folders for that purpose.”

The fourth and final session serves as a review session for participants. Participants also receive one free book at the end of each session, and one free educational toy per family attending all four sessions.

“The free books are given just in case they don’t have books at home to motivate them,” Lowe said.

After the fourth and final sessions, every family is asked to complete a survey based on their experience. A total of 167 families engaged in at least one session during the workshops and took a survey last year after they completed their fourth session, Lowe said. Of the families who completed all four sessions, 97.5 percent indicated on the survey they are now using a minimum of three of the five pre-reading skills with their child. And 96 percent indicated they have increased the frequency they engage in literary activities with their children.

Lashaunda Steward and Brandy Griffin attended the workshop back in April, and they both agree their daughters’ literacy skills have improved.

“I think (the workshop) has made (my daughter) pay more attention to what is going on in books and what’s going on in not just what she is reading, but also her surroundings,” Steward said. “They would give us activities to do with them when we are at home, so I think it has made her observant with what is going on outside and in the yard.”

Steward’s 3-year-old daughter, Kinston, had some literacy skills before Steward attended the program, but now Kinston is writing and reading more often.

“I think it makes her want to read more. I’m not thinking to ask ‘What’s going to happen next?’ or ‘What do you see going on in the pages of the book?’ anymore. She is asking me questions about the book while we read now,” Steward said. “And she’ll try to write her name and play with the little magnet letters of the alphabet.”

Griffin is home pre-schooling her two daughters, 3-year-old Madden and 2-year-old Payton. She said she had a vague idea of how to go about homeschooling them, but before attending the program she was only teaching her daughters the basics such as the colors and shapes.

“They actually gave me some guidelines about what they are actually teaching in preschool and what they’re learning in kindergarten,” Griffin said. “So I put stricter rules on myself first off, like not just focus on little simple stuff like Dora or Nick Jr. to teach.”

Griffin admits she had no sense of direction when it came to home pre-schooling. Because of the workshops, Griffin started visiting local schools to gauge how much her daughters would have to learn before going to kindergarten.

“I don’t plan on homeschooling, just home pre-schooling, so I want my kids to not be a problem when they get to school.” Griffin said.

Griffin’s eldest daughter, Madden, can successfully read and understand four books now thanks to techniques Griffin learned through the Smart Start Literacy workshop.

“A lot of that I think she just remembers what I’m saying but still that’s great,” Griffin said. “And two of the books actually came from the literacy program at Smart Start that the library did.”

Because of the workshop, Griffin is now teaching her daughters using age-appropriate material on a regular basis.

“I was reading the books without pictures because I’m thinking the pictures are going to be distracting, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Griffin said. “The literacy program taught me that you have to make time to talk, sing, read and write with your children every single day and I’ve gotten better at doing that.”

Griffin would recommend the literacy program to everyone, no matter how old their children are, because not only does the program help their children but it helps the parents, too.

“I think every parent wants to be the very best parent that they can be. And the literacy program really, really helped me see that I can be so much more to my kids,” Griffin said.

The next Union Smart Start Family Literacy Program sessions start Aug. 20 at the Union County Public Library, 316 E. Windsor St. Registration is required and limited to 12 families.

For more information, or to register, contact Jeni Lowe at 704-283-8184, ext. 250.

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