In her work as a school psychologist, Mary Denison, PhD, recognized that early childhood literacy was an important component to future success in school, but that some children—particularly those in lower income families—did not have access to books. After she retired, she founded Reading Ready Pittsburgh, a nonprofit whose mission is to support the healthy development of young children, from birth to kindergarten, by increasing access to books and encouraging family engagement through reading.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): Why is it important to introduce a love of reading to children at an early age?
Mary Denison (Denison): I think that an early love of reading can result in a much higher chance of school success. There is research that says performance in reading scores in third grade can predict your economic success as an adult. There are studies by economists about providing quality early childcare and the result of that and the impact on the economy 20 years later.
NHM: And why is it important for families to be engaged with reading?
Denison: There’s a lot of research about the impact of early reading and snuggle time around books on social-emotional development, as well as on the decrease in ADD. Children can learn to focus longer, even as babies, to sit with an adult and focus on a book for longer and longer periods of time. The language going back and forth is also very important, including pointing and labeling and taking turns. Parents can ask questions about the pictures like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” That language is what children need to develop strong language skills, and strong language skills result in higher scores once they enter school.
NHM: What are some tips for reading to young children?
Denison: One tip I’d say is to have fun. If you’re not having fun, your child probably isn’t either. If you’re struggling to get your child to stay with you, then stop and try at a different time. Or just do a couple pages and quit until the next time. Another thing is to get close and snuggly—sit in the child’s bed or on the couch, and snuggle.
The third things I’d say is don’t worry if you can’t read very well; make up a story instead. It’s the language and the talking with your child that is important. Also, don’t stop reading with your child just because they are reading themselves.
NHM: How does having early access to books and reading make a difference in a child’s life?
Denison: Some kids come to kindergarten completely aware of what a book is, what a word is, how to turn the page, and they love reading already before they get there. They understand that there is a story in the book and that their imaginations can be opened up by the book. For those kids who have this literacy opportunity before they enter kindergarten, it’s so much easier to read and use language to communicate with teachers, to solve problems, to talk about their families; all of that is in their pocket and they’re ready for school. If you do those kinds of activities with preschoolers and babies, you’re building capacity for learning.
But then there are kids who enter kindergarten who have had very little experience with books, who do not know how to turn a page, who don’t know the cover from the back—they don’t understand the concept of words as separate from each other. They didn’t come from a literacy-rich environment. These children enter school at a deficit and may have more trouble learning to read.
NHM: What programs do you have in place to help?
Denison: The main one, a national program, is Raising A Reader. We purchase book bags from the national group, each containing four books, and then we approach childcare centers about doing a book bag rotation for the children in their center. For example, if there’s a program that has 20 children in it, we would have 20 bags. Every week, a bag goes home with each child, and they read with their parents every evening. Then they bring it back at the end of the week. All of the families trade book bags, and the next week a new set of four books goes home with each family.
We also partner with libraries—Reading Ready graduates get a blue book bag that says ‘My Library Bag’ and a library card. Our goal is to teach library skills and encourage the families to continue using the library after they’ve practiced library skills through Raising A Reader.
We’re doing that at 15 different sites; six of them are Allegheny Intermediate Unit programs, like Head Start, PreKCounts, and Early Head Start. The rest are private childcare centers, and one is at the Children’s Institute, where I used to work. Before COVID hit, we had almost 300 book bags in rotation.
The second thing we do is partner with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library—we are what they call a local champion. Our role is to enroll any family that has children under five who live within the geographical area. As soon as they enroll, the child or children get a new book in the mail every month until the child turns five. We do that for the communities on the two sides of the Rankin Bridge, including Homestead, Munhall, Braddock, and Turtle Creek.
NHM: Tell us about your Little Giveaway Libraries.
Denison: We have six little giveaway libraries that we put in low-income neighborhoods, and we keep them full; probably every two weeks or so we go through and add more books. There are signs on them that say, “Take the books to your home library.” They are all gently used books donated by community members. We’ve given away more than 6,000 books that way.
NHM: Have your operations changed during the pandemic?
Denison: We’re giving away a lot more books. During our Christmas drive, we purchased hundreds of books and are giving them out through the Rainbow Kitchen and For Good Pittsburgh and at childcare programs. The Raising a Reader format has changed a little—we’ve collaborated with Carnegie Library of Homestead and have two sets of book bags for each child care program, so book bags can be quarantined for a full week before they go out again.
NHM: How can the community help?
Denison: First, they can volunteer to read at a childcare center. Right now, no one is letting volunteers in, but once we all get the vaccine, we will be back at that, but probably not until next fall at the earliest. Second, donate gently used books. For example, we had a Brownie troop in Wexford that donated hundreds of books. And during COVID, we got thousands of books from North Allegheny High School—their organization is One Book; they collect gently used books from the students and families. They usually send them overseas, but in this case, they could not do that because of COVID, so they donated them to us.
They can also go on our website and donate at www.readingreadypittsburgh.org.