Early Literacy Research is Not Neutral: A Critique of Every Child Ready to Read

We’re going long form today, folks.

At our Winter 2019 Library Services for Children Journal Club meeting we read an article by my friend and former colleague Tess Prendergast where she cites a 2011 article by Stooke and McKenzie called “Under Our Own Umbrella: Mobilizing Research Evidence for Early Literacy Programs in Public Libraries.” I promised I’d be back to write more about my reaction because it *shook* me. And I love when articles do that.

If you’ve already read the article, please jump straight down to the reflection section.

What follows is a deep dive into the article and an examination of how the authors’ findings have impacted my thinking about early literacy. I’m asking children’s librarians, myself included, to take a step back and think critically about something we’ve adopted so wholeheartedly that it’s hard not to talk about it when we talk about library services to the early years community.

So let’s start with the article. Stooke and McKenzie come out of the gate strong. They begin with the argument that we rarely investigate research evidence and the “political, economic, social, and material consequences that may attend privileging one form of evidence over another” (15). They turn their attention to children’s librarians in particular – what research evidence do we use to plan our programs and to deliver messages to caregivers? And does the evidence we’re using help us further our mission in our unique role as a library? They come out even stronger with the argument that using the evidence-based practice model to choose “research evidence on which to base practice decisions is… not a neutral act.”

What they are arguing is thus: The research we use to justify the importance of early literacy is not neutral. The research we use to determine what to focus on in storytime is not neutral. The research we use to talk to caregivers about how to get their child ready to read is not neutral.

To investigate this claim the authors looked at data from a variety of sources. They interviewed 25 Canadian librarians, they observed both school-age programs and storytimes, and they consulted contemporary and historical professional literature for children’s services librarians. Their intent was to “explore how certain things came to be said or done and to identify potential consequences, including those consequences that fall most heavily on vulnerable groups” (18).

Research Trends

Let’s take a walk through history. Sooke and McKenzie provide an overview of children’s services in North America over the past century including the varying research trends. They note that the ALSC core competencies expect children’s librarians to keep abreast of trends and research in “librarianship, child development, education, and allied fields” (19). However, this expectation is relatively new, emerging most strongly in the last 15 years, whereas the origins of children’s librarianship looked different.

“When public libraries in North America began serving children more than a century ago, they did not view themselves as parent educators or reading teachers. Reading as a field of study was in its infancy (Gillen & Hall, 2003) and for much of the twentieth century, librarians viewed children not as students, but as readers with their own reading tastes (Walter, 2001, p. 13). They were unperturbed that schools and libraries approached children’s reading differently and took pride in the differences (Ziarnik, 2003)” (19).

In an effort to gain more credibility within the field of librarianship itself, children’s librarians turned to research as a way of elevating their status and as a way to advocate for funding and resources. From the late 1970s through the 1990s the emergent literacy movement gained traction and reading picture books to kids was viewed as one of the most important activities for developing literacy. Children’s librarians found themselves positioned as experts in this area and aided in the development of “new professional identities as early childhood educators with specialized knowledge of books” (20).

By the year 2000, a new trend in reading instruction gained favour: scientifically-based reading research (SBRR). The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) released a National Reading Panel report called Teaching Children to Read which was especially dominant in educational policy discussions in the U.S. The research used to write this report was “only experimental or quasi-experimental studies with sample sizes “considered large enough to be useful” (21). An emphasis on data-driven results has been felt keenly in schools and school libraries. A focus on research-driven results and measurable outcomes has meant more tests and quantitative measures of reading readiness.

Sooke and McKenzie argue that this push has been so strong that libraries have adopted school-style learning and school readiness as part of their mandate. Children’s librarians now talk about school readiness often with caregivers. Children’s librarians integrate school readiness skills into storytime. Rather than a place of “self-directed literacy learning” the public library has become “a place where parents take their children to reinforce school success” (Ward & Wason-Elam, 2003, p. 20). And even more unfortunately, by adopting the school’s mandate around reading instruction libraries have placed themselves in direct competition with other social agencies for scarce resources to support it. Yep, it’s a money game.

Which Research is the Best?

Sooke and McKenzie next take a closer look at the NICHD’s National Reading Panel’s report Teaching Children to Read . One finding from the report that impacted libraries is that it’s “unnecessary to delay intentional literacy instruction until first grade” which Sooke and McKenzie claim led to more didactic library programs where staff explicitly teach phonemic awareness and ask comprehension questions using dialogic reading. In 2001 the Public Library Association (PLA) and the Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC) forged a partnership with the NICHD which culminated in Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library. As we know, ECRR was created to develop library programs based on this research and to disseminate the research to parents and caregivers.

Sooke and McKenzie draw our attention to ECRR because it has been so successful. They call its adoption “unprecedented” in terms of uptake by libraries. But they also call our attention to it because they believe it has been an “uncritical adoption of recommendations derived from studies that frame research and literacy so narrowly” (23). What do they mean by narrow? The research used to create ECRR excluded the following:

  • Objective case studies
  • Correlational research
  • Observational studies
  • Sociocultural studies

It is the last on that list that Sooke and McKenzie find the most disturbing as the field of education has since debated this exclusion and now widely draws on sociocultural research to inform classroom practice. They define sociocultural research by stating it “foregrounds the roles played by language and culture in literacy learning. Learning and development in sociocultural research are viewed in terms of participation in a community and the appropriation of the valued practices of that community” (23). Unlike the field of education, the field of librarianship appears to have an unwavering committment to ECRR and the SBRR it was founded on.

Consequences of a Narrow Research Lens

The authors are not shy about their concerns. Relying on the narrow framing of research in ECRR has two major consequences:

  1. Undermining the public library’s ability to achieve important goals with respect to social inclusion
  2. Positioning children’s services librarians as educational technicians rather than professionals

With regards to #1, they posit that “literacy practices derived exclusively from cognitive research cannot be responsive to the cultural and linguistic diversity that characterizes Canada and the United States” (24). The authors use their observations of a Reading Buddies program to illustrate how sociocultural research would have helped the program reach its targeted audience or would have helped the librarians develop a program better suited to the language learners who attended. Here is what they say with regards to #2:

Framing research narrowly obviates the need for practitioners to critically reflect on the consequences of their actions. They need only to follow guidelines for best practice and adopt the research-based handouts and scripts developed by agencies such as the
ALA. A narrow framing of research limits acceptable research findings to those derived from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, thereby making it difficult for librarians themselves to conduct research that would count. Consequently, children’s librarians come to rely on the expert opinions of others rather than on their own professional judgment (25).

Reflection

Sooke and McKenzie end their article with the conclusion that “adopting a widened lens on research, one that is a more inclusive understanding of what might count as research and evidence, opens up new questions and new understandings about early childhood literacy.” They urge us to ask questions and to investigate ways a widened lens could help us shine a light on our uniqueness as a public library. Lastly, they call on children’s librarians to become researchers themselves – to help create a “literature under our own umbrella” (27).

This article had a profound effect on me because it made me question something I myself had never taken the time to question. As someone who loves reading research and who thinks it’s important to implement research-based practices, I was alarmed at first to consider that the Every Child Ready to Read framework may be leaving out important parts of the conversation around literacy development. What is being left out of the conversation? Who is being left out of the conversation? Would broadening our research lens help us better serve vulnerable populations? These are the questions I’m left pondering.

To be fair, the second edition of Every Child Ready to Read – ECRR2 – broadens the phrasing we use with caregivers to 5 key practices – talking, reading, singing, writing, and playing. I’ve found these 5 practices much easier to cater to different audiences and also easier to use to weave in diversity and different cultural contexts. So despite the fact that sociocultural research was not used to inform ECRR, I think we as children’s librarians can the knowledge of our communities to take those factors into account. It doesn’t change the the underpinnings of the model, but it does allow for some flexibility.

Another point the authors made that hit home with me is the argument that libraries have given up their commitment as an open literacy environment in favour of catering quite significantly to the goals and mandates of schools. I would argue that this loss comes at a time when libraries are struggling with their identities in general – who are we if we aren’t solely book warehouses anymore? As libraries try to figure out how to best serve their communities, prove their relevance, and perhaps most urgently, fight for funding, latching onto something like education gives us cred. My worry, which I felt reflected in the article, is that we latch on so tight that we lose sight of our own goals outside of our common allies.

I have seen this “latch” reflected in our professional conversations about storytime and early literacy in particular. In the Winter 2018 Children & Libraries journal there is an article by Kathleen Campana called Moving from ECRR to ECRS: Getting Every Child Ready for School. Whoa. Now we have moved from preparing kids to read to preparing them for school. And this is framed as the core goal of storytime. The article actually includes many social emotional skills that are not covered in ECRR which I think is great! What gives me pause is the framing – we are no longer using our unique services (free storytimes) to promote our own goals but rather to support the education system. Things like Kindergarten Boot Camps are not uncommon in libraries nowadays. Even Summer Reading Programs are being redesigned to align with curriculum standards.

The questions that keeps popping into my mind are:

  • Do we know who we are without schools?
  • Is preparing children to learn to read a main goal of a library?
  • What other mandates unique to libraries, and perhaps more relevant to vulnerable populations, do we leave out when we focus so heavily on school readiness?
  • What research can we use to help us meet our unique library mandates and reclaim our space as a socially inclusive literacy-based institution?

I certainly don’t want to position schools or the education system as our enemy. We are natural allies. But I think that allyship would better serve libraries if it was based on collaboration rather than one-way support.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to discuss in the comments.

23 thoughts on “Early Literacy Research is Not Neutral: A Critique of Every Child Ready to Read

  1. Woah! What a bombshell! Thanks so much for taking the time to summarize all of this. My primary concern with school readiness programs rests in the fact that many librarians are not educators, and are therefore not adequately trained to conduct school readiness programs. So not only are we misrepresenting ourselves, we are trivializing the training and work of *actual* teachers. We run the risk of using a compelling catchphrase (“school readiness everyone!”) at the expense of quality programs. In many ways, that’s what we’ve done with the term STEM but that’s another topic for another time 😀

    And with all of the research showing that children have less time to play and its impact on development, do we really need to be focusing on school readiness? Isn’t it enough that kids just…have fun? Yet, I get that we are a government-funded institution and “fun” probably wouldn’t fly as an outcome of our services… I think we could borrow more from Parks & Rec departments, and recreational therapy, than school readiness initiatives.

    1. Firstly, thank you for your kind words and for adding your thoughts! I struggled at times writing my reflection because it’s not that I think preparing kids for school isn’t important. It’s a big transition for little ones and definitely something parents are concerned about. But like you said, I don’t think a library can replace a full scale preschool or that we should even attempt to do so. I echoed these sentiments in the piece I wrote about community engagement and trying to serve daycares and preschools with volunteer staff, in part to do the job the preschool teachers were hired to do in the first place. I wonder if we need clearer goals with programs like storytime, statements that would help us focus on play, social emotional learning, and relationship building, in addition to traditional school readiness skills. Something that encompasses our values as a unique library institution.

      I definitely see the school readiness creep into other areas too – STEM and Summer Reading in particular. Definitely more to write about on that topic!

      1. Our community (libraries, preschools, hospitals, etc) has adopted something started in Boston called the The Basics, that covers a more broad scope than ECRR. It’s five categories are Maximize Love, Manage Stress, Count Group and Compare, Read and Discuss Stories, Explore through Movement and Play, and Talk Sing and Point. We definitely still talk about Kindergarten (or school) Readiness in general, but I like how the Basics is used in various settings so parents can feel empowered to learn with their kids and not be intimidated by hearing different messages from all the different organizations they are around.

        1. Wow, that’s so cool to get all those different community groups on board with the same messaging. That must have taken a lot of planning and willingness to collaborate!

    2. As an avid play advocate, I’ve learned over the past few years that play is so much MORE than “just fun.” Child-led play is only way that kids really learn who they are and what they like and how the world works –both physically and socially (while, at the same time still being fun). There’s a body of research out there about child-led play and I use it regularly when I need to design outcomes or justify government funding of the play programs we do at my library. And I am so thankful that I am NOT in a school and have the freedom to embrace play and help remind parents that it is a worthy investment of their time and their child’s time.

  2. I loved this post and I think this kind of questioning is long overdue in the profession.

    The goal of my programming and reference interactions with kids all builds towards one goal- help kids love to read. I’m not a teacher. I come from a family of teachers and what I do, and what I’ve studied, is very different! Librarians are in a unique position to foster a love of reading from an early age- I don’t need kids to read at a certain lexile level to keep my job, so I can talk candidly with parents about helping their kid find books they LOVE, even if they’re not challenging enough or even if they’re graphic novels or even if it’s the 18th time they’ve read that particular Magic Tree House book.

    Libraries are community hubs. They’re a place to learn, but also to explore and connect and ask questions. I have spent my whole career (all five years of it) resisting influences that would have me turn my storytime into a classroom. Of course I want to promote early literacy behaviors, but I also want kids to just… have fun. To give adults and children a space where they DON’T have to worry about milestones and social media perfection and early admittance into the top preschools. Where maybe we read the same book three times in storytime just because we all really liked it, and not pointing out that repetition is important because the adults can see the joy in their child- When you see the joy, you don’t need a lesson on why that joy is okay! Sometimes joy is just joy and that’s enough.

    1. Thank you for adding your thoughts, Nikki! I’m not adverse to adding in early literacy tips to storytime to help caregivers connect why we’re doing certain activities. But I always try to make them informal, conversational, and quick. And a lot of those conversations happen one-one-one when real relationship building can happen before and after programs. I was a teacher for 4 years before becoming a librarian so perhaps that’s why I see the school-library overlap troubling. I never thought of that before until you mentioned you are from a family of teachers 🙂 I, like you, veer away from storytime as a classroom model.

    2. LOVE your response! I did return to grad school for a M.Ed and taught briefly before finding “my lane”. So I feel that I can comment on the reality that we are NOT teaching “reading” as a skill and a weekly story time does not have much effect on early literacy skills. (I realize I will be pilloried for that comment.) That being said, we are modeling for parents and caregivers how to read a story, how to incorporate expression and animation in order to reinforce a love of story, how to enjoy a story together, how to hold a book, how to reinforce fine motor skills with bubble popping, finger plays, etc. In short, how to laugh, sing, play and read together. Their taking those skills home and reading with their children are the scaffolds for early literacy. We are the community hub as you said.

      1. Maris – I love the way you phrased this.

        Lindsey – Thank you SO much for this post. It is eye-opening and gives me so much to think about.

    3. I totally agree. Having fun is the best way to learn anything. When I experience joy while I’m working on any project, large or small, that is when I focus and pay the most attention. Isn’t that what is required to make something your own? I always tell my parents/grandparents/caregivers in programs, that what they love doing with their young ones, whether singing, dancing, chatting while walking about, or reading aloud, or goofing off – all that is healthy and good for the little ones – it is the personal connection and the honest joy that works.

  3. Thank you for summarizing the article. It certainly is eye-opening and thought-provoking! I’ve been feeling antsy about my toddler and baby storytimes without being able to articulate why. While I’ve worked hard to “bone up” on early literacy skills and how to teach them, with that focus I often feel like my “bag of tricks” is stretched very thin. I think there is a lot of potential gold to be unearthed by focusing on your question: “What do we leave out when we focus so heavily on school readiness?”

    I particularly liked your questions– they could provide a great framework for an updated mission or vision statement.

    1. I think the vision/mission statements can happen at a local level. It would be great to meet as a staff and consider what are your storytime goals? What are the most important things you are trying to accomplish? Relationship building and social emotional skills/learning are two areas in particular that I find missing in ECRR2, though you can infuse them into the 5 early literacy practices on your own. I still think early literacy is an important part of storytime, but I worry about the framing of “school readiness” as our ultimate goal. Thank you for adding your thoughts!

  4. Thank you so much for bringing these points to light for me. I too came from a school to a public library, and although my goal has always been to guide kids in the many ways of reading for enjoyment, I think my story times may be too school influenced. Although, I’m pretty sure we have a lot more fun in the library. This post and attached article give me a lot to think about and discuss with my fellow librarians. Thanks again!

    1. I hesitated at certain points writing this post because I don’t want to suggest that school readiness is a bad goal in and of itself. We definitely do want to help prepare kids for school. It’s more that it feels like that has become our core, driving force in programming and I worry that we lose some of our identity and purpose as a library when we focus solely on that. Thank you for your comment and for taking the further step of discussing it locally as I think that’s where change can really happen 🙂

  5. Thanks for bringing this up! In a broad sense I’ve always felt “we are not school” but we are so closely aligned that I can see how some programs and libraries can get caught up in this. And yes, we are way more fun! 😉

  6. This discussion is so important and has so many subtleties. I am an early childhood educator by background who now manages early learning programming in an urban public library in New England. “School readiness” means many things to many people. Libraries and children’s librarians are uniquely poised to provide all children and families access to quality early literacy experiences. Interwoven into our programs are the relationship building and the social/emotional learning. These experiences are happening in informal, “low risk” environments which means children have the chance to develop important life skills, not just school skills, that will support success in both school and in life. Children who are socially and emotionally competent are better able to navigate school’s demands which supports academic success. This happens in places like libraries with caring adults like librarians who consistently provide opportunities for exploration, curiosity and creativity. Finding a balance between the current demands from funders and schools and what we know to be true about the strengths of our work in libraries and the needs of young children is the tricky part. We know our patrons, our communities and strive to provide the support they need when and how they need it. That’s the joy of being part of the world of libraries!

    1. Wow, Anne, you are truly eloquent! Thank you for saying that so beautifully. I absolutely agree that the relationship building and emotional learning is woven into our informal interactions with families. What this article made me wonder is if we should include those outcomes in our policies like ECRR2. How does one’s cultural identity, sense of belonging, and executive skills contribute to reading success? I’m so interested in reading research related to these topics and hope large organizations like ALSC see the value in investigating these overlaps further in the future. Like you said, finding the balance is the tricky part!

  7. I worry a lot about “school readiness” because I’m not convinced it’s actually age appropriate or culturally appropriate. I have worked as both a teacher and a school librarian and now unschool my own children and have seen first hand the creep of academics into younger and younger classrooms. I believe the research that is coming out is showing how detrimental that creep is and it’s a large part of why my own kids are not in school. I also think a lot about who exactly is in a position of power to design these school readiness requirements and which children are best positioned to come to school with them and ultimately what kind of jobs and lives these academic skills preference. One reason I love working in libraries is for the broad range of programs and approaches we can bring to our communities and how inclusive our spaces can be. But the steady drum beat of school readiness is really making it hard to ensure we keep our work relevant and inviting to everyone who comes in our doors.

    1. Thank you, Saroj! I wrote a post a few weeks ago highlighting the wonderful reports from the CCC. Perhaps a deep dive into the reimagining school readiness paper would be a good follow-up to this post and help us look to positive changes we can make in the future.

  8. So much food for thought! Thanks for taking this deep dive and sharing some of your thinking and learning, Lindsey. As a former preschool/kindergarten teacher, I wonder a lot about the line between schools and libraries.

    I had a big issue with a past year on the ALSC Blog titled “Children’s Librarians are Experts at Preparing Children for Kindergarten” – I’ll include the link below. We are NOT experts in getting kids ready for school. That’s a whole different field of study and degree and career path, and I think it potentially undermines/devalues early childhood educators in our community if we try to pass ourselves off that way. Most MLS programs don’t even require a course in childhood development! (That’s a different conversation…) Not to say we don’t and shouldn’t contribute to the school readiness question, but there’s a big difference between being a partner and passing ourselves off as the experts…

    I love ECRR (especially the shift towards the 5 practices, which are just great brain-building practices in general) and empowering caregivers, AND I think we need to tread carefully. Because I message about early literacy and sound knowledgeable, I get a lot of questions from parents that, were it not for my former degree and profession, nothing in my MLS experience would have prepared me to answer.

    https://www.alsc.ala.org/blog/2018/12/childrens-librarians-are-experts-at-preparing-children-for-kindergarten/

    1. Yes, we do need to think more critically about how we are presenting ourselves to our communities with regards to school readiness. Kids need multi-hour, multiple day preschools to truly get them ready for school. What we do in storytime helps for sure, and we can use ECRR2 to empower caregivers, but we cannot replace fully funded, well-staffed preschools. Thanks for pointing out that blog post – I remember having similar reservations when first reading it on ALSC. Our intent is so good, I never doubt that, but I’m hoping this blog posts draws some more critical thinking about the effects of that intent. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as always!

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