In Kent County, keys to early literacy are an open book

North Park Montessori kindergartener Willow Davis is in the early stages of learning to read, but that fact might be a surprise if you were to watch her slowly turn the pages of a picture book as she tells a compelling story to her 2-year-old sister, Ceci.

That’s because 6-year-old Willow spent a lot of time with books before she started school. Her parents, Ashley and Steven Davis, of Grand Rapids, believe that taking their daughters to libraries is setting them on a path of loving learning that will last a lifetime.

Ceci Davis, 2, evaluates the children's collection at the Yankee Clipper branch of the Grand Rpids Public Library.

In addition to reading an average of three children’s books as a family each day, the Davises take their daughters to Kent District Library and Grand Rapids Public Library programs that are designed to build early literacy skills.

“We love libraries and go once or twice a week,” mom Ashley Davis says. “Willow completed the 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten challenge at the library in less than a year. The summer reading program is so fun for the kids that — now that it’s spring — even Ceci is asking me, ‘Mama, is it summer yet?’ Willow pretends to read to Ceci, because stories are something you share with someone you like.”

As great as the Summer Wonder reading program is, Davis says, her daughters’ favorite library programs are the venerable “story times” in which kids of a similar age—each accompanied by a parent, grandparent, or caregiver – meet with a youth librarian to hear age-appropriate books, make a take-home craft, and enjoy rhymes, music, and creative movement.

The Davis family most often attends storytimes at the KDL branch libraries in Plainfield Township or Comstock Park, which are close to their northwestern Grand Rapids home. They also travel to other metro libraries for special events and to experience unique play spaces and story times in languages other than English. 

Books aren't the only thing essential to a fun storytime at the library. Music and movement and key components, too.

Addressing the statewide need for early literacy

Libraries are one resource in a network of organizations throughout Kent County that are committed to providing young children with free experiences that lay the foundation for proficiency in reading, writing, counting and speaking, the conventional definition of literacy.

The meaning of literacy has, in recent decades, expanded to include a larger swath of skills, including learning digital technologies and media, according to UNESCO (the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

“Kent County has an ecosystem to improve literacy,” says Hennie Vaandrager, programming and outreach manager for the Kent District Library, “and each player has a critical role. For the birth to age 5 group, the goal is to get kids ready for school.”

Programs like the federally funded  Head Start and the state-funded Great Start Readiness Program have long been working toward that goal. Nevertheless, a need for additional resources became apparent in 2015-2016, when less than half of Michigan third graders earned passing grades on the reading portion of M-STEP, a standardized test given across the state. 

Children are never too young to enjoy practicing communication skills on a paper cup and string telephone.

Furthermore, Michigan third graders’ reading proficiency ranked in the bottom third nationally, says Vaandrager.

Becoming proficient readers by the end of third grade is an important benchmark. While students in earlier grades are “learning to read,” there’s a shift in third grade to “reading to learn.” Students who have not achieved a measure of reading proficiency by third grade will likely lag behind their peers in all academic subjects in subsequent grades.

Responses to create better readers

As a result, childhood literacy became a focus for legislators and librarians alike. In 2016, the Michigan Legislature adopted the Read By Grade Three Law, which recommended that students not reading at grade level not be promoted until they receive additional reading support. The Legislature removed the retention portion of the law effective February 2024 while still requiring assessments and intervention. 

Old programs expanded and new ones started to address the problem from different angles, from improving access to books to extending professional development to help reading teachers be more effective.

The state launched Literacy Essentials to provide a set of tested literacy-building strategies to be used with every student, every school day. The Michigan Department of Education also approved an Early Literacy Coaching Grant, administered through regional education service centers or intermediate school districts, to provide literacy coaching services. Since 2020, each district in the Kent Intermediate School District has had access to a trained literacy coach for kindergarten through third graders.

In November 2018, Kent County voters approved a Ready by Five millage, making Kent the first county in Michigan to levy a tax designated for early childhood wellbeing and literacy programming. 

The .25-mill property tax will generate about $7 million in 2024. In 2022, Ready by Five supported 12.400 Kent County children and their parents, according to the First Steps Kent website.

Teaching teachers

Coaching teachers on literacy strategies is having an impact on students’ reading achievement, according to Sarah Shoemaker, KISD’s coaching coordinator and early literacy coach. 

“We value the fact that the greatest players in our favorite sport have someone walking alongside them – someone who’s in their corner every step of the way – a coach,” Shoemaker wrote in a 2022 newsletter. “Yet, we have long underestimated the partnership of coaching in our local classrooms.”

She says residents of Kent County are fortunate to have the Early Literacy Coaching Collaborative, a team of literacy coaches working in KISD school districts. In the Literacy Leaders & Coaches Network (LLCN),  members receive and share instruction from researchers and professors and, in turn, share best practices with teachers. Educators can earn academic credit for participating. 

Reading coaches gather for training up to three times per year, but also stay in touch through an e-newsletter and a podcast series, LLCN Brief.

Library approaches to boosting early literacy

Increasing and improving reading at all levels have been “librarians’ bread and butter pretty much as long as there have been libraries,” Vaandrager says, but early literacy programs were re-evaluated and enriched in light of the disappointing third grade reading scores.

In 2023, KDL’s 20 branch libraries held 2,407 programs for children from babies to age 5, which had a combined attendance of 84,144, Vaandrager says.

A similar reading incentive program for preschoolers, 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten, was updated with new art and prizes.

“KDL now offers children and caregivers a full-color spiral-bound tracking booklet, tracking poster and Michigan Animal-themed stickers, as well as a digital tracking option available through the Beanstack platform,” says Dawn Heerspink, youth librarian at the Byron Township branch, who led that project of KDL’s Early Literacy Programming Group.

"The Early Literacy Programming Group is currently made up of 12 KDL librarians and a KDL Marketing and Communications Specialist. The group maintains storytime book recommendations and is available to help staff with other storytime elements like crafts, songs and movement activities. 

The programming group also plans special seasonal storytimes for branch staff to implement in their libraries, produces KDL's Early Lit Bits newsletter, helps select titles for KDL's picture book CORE collection, connects with other early literacy community partners and maintains KDL's early literacy initiatives, such as 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten and KDL's play spaces."

Young clildren attend storytime at a KDL branch library with their grownups.

The programming group can also help staff at the branches plan special events such as “T-Rex Tea Parties,” “Dinosaur Dances,” and special activities for Summer Wonder and “staycation” spring breaks.

Also, all youth librarians receive information on applying the Kent County Success Basics, a countywide initiative focused on five fun and effective ways to set children up for lifelong literacy and learning, Heerspink said.

“In addition to reading and listening to books, we know from research that play is foundational to help children learn to read and develop social, emotional and physical skills,” Heerspink says. “There are benefits to play that support many domains of early learning, including the opportunity to develop vocabulary, acquire counting and comparison skills, and learn cooperation with others.”

KDL’s free WonderKnook play spaces offer safe and welcoming places to families with young children to play together during library hours, Heerspink says. Each branch has a play nook that reflects something unique about the neighborhood where the library is situated. Families can join the WonderKnook “Find Your Nook” challenge and travel to at least five KDL libraries to receive a custom coloring book and crayons.

Kym Reinstadler is a writer, editor and researcher. After a distinguished career in daily journalism, she added library science to her repertoire, working for an international technology company that builds research databases. Big data has not overshadowed her interest in local news and people, however. Kym continues writing on a variety of platforms on topics ranging from fine arts and sports to accessibility and history. Reach Kym at [email protected].

Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access, and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library. 
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