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).
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:
- Undermining the public library’s ability to achieve important goals with respect to social inclusion
- 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).
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.