Susan B. Neuman is a professor of early-childhood education and literacy development at New York University. From 2013 to 2016, she led a research team that conducted a national study of the effect of library programming on parent behavior and engagement, using the Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library model. Neuman’s study involved observing and evaluating story-time programs at 57 library branches representing 36 different library systems across the country. The findings were made available in late 2017, and Neuman shared some of them with PW.

What was the driver behind this newest research on the Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library initiative?

Well, there’s a long history. I’m a literacy researcher, and I’ve been studying libraries for decades. When PLA started to think about how they could be more of a partner [with ALSC] in early-reading development, it was at the time of No Child Left Behind. They put together an initiative called Every Child Ready to Read. It was designed to help librarians focus on some of the critical skills underlying early-reading development.

I was at the University of Michigan at the time, and we were asked to evaluate that program. We found that librarians had a very difficult time talking about “phonological awareness,” and the kinds of complex skills related to early literacy, and as a result they were hesitant to do this.

We were then asked to revise Every Child Ready to Read to make it more parent-friendly. We devised a series of words that we thought meant the same thing as these more complex skills like “alphabetic principles,” and that would engage parents more deliberately. We came up with the five essentials: talking, singing, reading, writing, playing. That became the focus of the second Every Child Ready to Read initiative, which really began to take off because it was simpler and any parent could do it. We all talk and play, and yet those are really critical skills that we’re teaching children.

ALSC and PLA then received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and asked us to evaluate it over a three-year period. In year one, we tried to understand basic shifts, how libraries were transforming as result of this initiative. And we saw a number of important shifts, even in terms of how the space was used in these libraries. In the second and third year, we compared libraries that were Every Child Ready to Read libraries and libraries that were in contiguous areas but had not formally adopted the initiative. That’s the background behind the report.

What are a few of the highlights of your new research?

What you’ll see in Every Child Ready to Read libraries—and this is quite dramatic—is integration of play and early-literacy development, which is very important to someone like me because what we’re trying to do is encourage children to see literacy as playful. It’s not just about books, it’s about talk and playing and interacting with other people: the actual configuration of the library to have areas where the children can come in and play, almost like a destination site, where parents could sit in comfy chairs and engage or even watch children playing with others.

We began to notice that time spent in libraries was longer. Even though some people say that the shift to technology has made the bricks-and-mortar library less important, we found that it was actually more important, because in some high-poverty areas, it’s the only social service available; parents can come with their child, feel safe, and get out of their isolated setting. That was a big one.

The second thing that was really noticeable was the engagement of the parents in the story-hour time. Typically what we would see in some areas that were not practicing Every Child Ready to Read is that the librarian would deal with the child and it would be just the child. The parent would be sitting in the back, or maybe even in another room chatting with other parents. In ECRR libraries, there was much more of a concerted effort to really get the parent to play with their child and to engage more fully in literacy activities as a way of modeling. And a number of librarians would begin to use what we call asides, which are helpful bits of advice for parents—for example: “A great way to get your child ready for bedtime would be to read a story in bed with your child.” Very integrated tips that the parent could feel efficacious in doing and not feel this is another onerous burden I need to take on to prepare my child.

Finally, those five essentials became almost a watch word—talking, reading, writing, playing—a lot of librarians would begin the sessions singing a song, creating a mnemonic device for parents where they would think, “Gee, we need to do all of these things every single day just to prepare our child.” Those were the big trends that we saw.

Did any of your findings surprise you?

I think it’s an emerging initiative, and it will take time. I am not criticizing librarians at all. But people tend to fall back on what is comfortable to them. Many of the people who are in our libraries now have not had a program about parent engagement in their own librarian training. It’s not intuitive to them because they’ve been schooled in children’s literature and children’s reference services and things like that. So talking to parents, for some, was difficult; they’re not used to it.

If there’s anything that we’d recommend, it’s what we call “going deeper.” I think it would help librarians to really have more training in how to talk to adults and engage parents in early-literacy activities, how to work with nontraditional audiences, how to really understand some of the phenomena of a child’s early literacy development. We could do even more, frankly, to prepare our children, though I think librarians are doing a wonderful job.

The other thing we have to be careful of is that in high-poverty areas, we noticed that librarians are doing more, more, more. They are often feeding families and have lunch programs, and dinner programs, and summer programs, and homework programs. One thing that maybe was a surprise to us is the enormous amount of outreach they’re doing. At some point I think they have to say, “Wait a minute. What is our core mission? We just can’t do it all.”

What is your best advice, or favorite tip, for librarians who are working with young children and families to develop early-literacy skills?

One of the things I’d like to see in the future is a greater emphasis on helping families learn how to deal with technology. I think to some extent this parent-engagement focus was very important in terms of those five essentials and helping parents prepare their children through talk, especially. But I think that ignoring technology leaves wide open the question of what parents are to do with very young children and technology. Technology is almost universal at this point. Low-income families are using mobile devices, and they’re not using it for reading or for e-books at all; the percentage is very, very small.

How to get parents on that particular topic is essential. I think that was not well addressed. Some libraries did some very interesting things, like having a parent-and-child seat at the computer station to encourage parents to work with the child and bond over technology and how to use it. For a lot of families who come from low-income settings, those parents are frightened of technology. I think workshops to help parents become more knowledgeable about that is really important.

Outside of Every Child Ready to Read, are there any new approaches or new tools for developing early literacy that you find intriguing?

Frankly, not really. In our second year, when we were supposed to do an analysis of libraries that had not adopted ECRR compared to those that had, we looked at large systems versus small systems, too. And a place like San Francisco has the resources, the people, the ideal setting to do ECRR well. Young, hip librarians who wear jeans and look like people in the neighborhood—it’s really well integrated.

Then you have other places where they have only one children’s librarian, and she’s supposed to do everything. She can’t do it. It’s impossible to do ECRR, to do the outreach that some of our librarians are doing, to have all these programs in the library when you have such limited staffing. So what happens is the rich libraries get richer and the poor libraries get poorer, because they have such limited resources they just can’t pull it off. And that’s tragic because sometimes they’re the only resource in town for families.

One of the biggest challenges—I have no answer, and these wonderful librarians don’t have answers—is how to get our nontraditional families in the library. A lot of the parent initiatives are speaking to the choir, parents who are already savvy and already doing wonderful things with their children. While this initiative is very important, we need to look at how to get those families into the library that really need it—where their children are not being served sufficiently either by the school district or other services. That is the continuing challenge for us all.

Do you have a wish list for publishers? Are you seeing a need for any type of books?

We’ve had a research relationship with JetBlue [Soar with Reading program], and every year we put vending machines of free books out in high-poverty areas. We’ve been analyzing the books that are selected by families in those areas. And what we find is that the traditional librarians who provide the best lists of high-quality books often neglect to understand the community in which they live. Book lists should be shaped more clearly to the community.

For example, what we found in our study in Detroit is that the #1 nonfiction book was about Barack Obama. This is a heavily African-American community, and what do they want to read to their children? They want to read about a hero in the African-American community. The second most popular book was about Jackie Robinson.

Very often we think about books with multicultural characters. But that’s not necessarily what’s drawing these families. They want to share positive things about their culture that have not adequately been addressed. We have far too many non-narrative books on slavery and the horrors of their culture and far too few easy reads on positive moments of their culture.

This year we did the same study in Broward County [in Florida], where it’s largely Hispanic, and the same phenomenon holds true. A lot of families want to read nonfiction rather than fiction. The second thing we learned is that the books that are so-called high quality were not the ones that parents selected or wanted to read with their children. I always tell librarians: I’m sorry to tell you this, but the books they’re wanting to read are often about TV- and movie-related characters. I think the reason is that they have greater background knowledge on that. When they read a book that’s movie- or TV-related, they can share more with their child about it, as opposed to something like The Runaway Bunny or others that might be a very good book. I think we have had a singular notion about what is quality that unfortunately turns some of the people we work with away from books, rather than drawing them to books. It’s an important insight that we need to address and curate materials more carefully, selecting things that the community actually wants to read.

It goes beyond creating multicultural characters. Readers want to feel good. Kids want to be proud of their history, just like I want to be proud of my history and my culture. We all come from a culture, and we all want to understand our history, and that’s not what kids are getting, especially early on. One of the things that was extraordinary to us in this analysis that we’ve been doing over the course of years is that kids really begin hating reading very early on—I mean very early. It’s not like they’re turning into readers at fourth or fifth grade, when they can read on their own. They’re learning to hate it early on. How to draw them in, in the very early books, is critically important.