Krista Dawson’s job is to inspire Richmond’s children to love to read. As literacy outreach coordinator for Richmond Public Library, all of her job’s intricacies and hard work pay off when small faces light up at story time and children move into kindergarten ready to learn. The numerous programs run by Richmond Public Library all try to make reading a pleasurable experience for children and a bonding time for families.
Krista greeted me outside the Main Public Library on East Franklin Street. She used the few minutes she waited to wipe down the window display that proclaimed, “Reading aloud is the #1 indicator of later school success!” After roaming the library for a tour, we moved into the Family Resource Center Activity Room. I paused to photograph the shelves and tables filled with information for parents and childcare providers, and Krista was drawn to a table in the back where a girl, no more than kindergarten or first grade, colored with crayons. Krista began a conversation about the girl’s green front door and soon she was coloring alongside the girl, talking about what they were coloring and the colors they picked and following the girl’s instructions to color the character’s shoes black. Engaging with children comes naturally to Krista. She taught kindergarten and second grade for a total of fifteen years before moving to Richmond with her family. A friend’s recommendation connected her with the library and the opening for a literacy outreach coordinator. “It combined the best of my favorites,” Krista said. “[I thought] if only I could do that all the time, and now I get to.”
Krista’s enthusiasm overflowed as we sat down in a room set up for children’s story and activity time. It was difficult to keep up as she told me about how the library partners with the region’s best resources to bring books into the lives of all Richmond’s children.
The library works with Richmond’s Early Childhood Development Initiative to equip people in the lives of newborns to five-year-olds so children enter school ready to learn. Krista pointed out that being ready to learn doesn’t mean a child must enter kindergarten reading. Early literacy is “what children know about reading and writing before they know how to read and write.” It’s the positive associations with reading and the skills they pick up from hearing a book read aloud. The programs focus on developing six early literacy skills:
Love Books (Print motivation): an interest in and enjoyment of books.
New Words (Vocabulary): knowing the names of things.
Use Books (Print awareness): understanding that print has meaning, noticing print everywhere, and how to handle a book.
Tell A Story (Narrative skills): being able to describe things and events and tell stories.
See Letters (Letter knowledge): knowing letters are different from each other, knowing their names and sounds.
Make Sounds (Phonological awareness):being able to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words.
Krista and other staff reach out to childcare providers through continuing education classes and events at preschools. The library partners with the Literacy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University, a recipient of the Early Reading First grant. For the third year in a row, Krista uses the First Book Grant to reach out to children who do not have access to books in their homes. Krista provides a half-hour story time, gives teachers props and ideas for enhancing the reading experience, and sends children home with a book of their own. Krista selects books that can be tied to the six literacy skills and develops props, like finger puppets and “I Spy” boards, so children take skills from the book to the world. “They are working on early learning skills, but it feels like play,” Krista said. This year the program is expanding to work with the children’s librarians at different branches so children can stay in relationship with their local librarian after the yearlong program ends.
I loved to hear Krista talk about Raising a Reader. Each week children in partnering preschools and daycares go home with a red bag of borrowed books. Each week there are new books to experience at school and share at home. At the end of the program, children are accustomed to their weekly bag of books, so the library hosts a celebration with story time, activities, and presentations of bright blue bags with books the children get to keep. The celebration introduces the children to the library, and the blue bags become their book bags as they return to the library to checkout books. The first five times a child checks out books from the library, she receives a pin. After five checkouts and returns, she gets another free book.
These programs reach hundreds of children, either directly through daycares or through the services they provide teachers and parents. Krista emphasizes that no parent should feel awkward asking for help, parenting skills that encourage reading might not be obvious, even to life-long readers and professional educators. Come out to a story time and enjoy being read to, even if you’re an adult. Pick up free parenting resources. And fall in love with reading all over again.
I wanted to thank you for allowing us to participate in this great program. The teachers were really happy with their books and I can tell you on a personal note, my 2 and 4 year olds completed the individual reading program and loved their purple bags and books from the Belmont Library. Thank you!
–Director of a child development center whose school participated in the Summer Reading Program and her children participated at home