Guest Post: SPELL—The Basics and Takeaways

This guest post was written by Rachel Talpers, MLIS student at the University of Denver, with an introduction by Beth Crist, CSL Youth & Family Services Consultant .


The Colorado State Library undertook SPELL (Supporting Parents in Early Literacy through Libraries) to research and field test promising early literacy practices for public library staff to use with low-income parents of children ages birth to three. The project, funded through a grant from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services), culminated in a symposium to roll out the findings to a group of 85 early childhood and library professionals from Colorado and 8 other states. Here are excellent insights into the event from Rachel Talpers, an MLIS student at DU completing her practicum with CSL on youth services projects.

SPELL—The Basics & Takeaways

As research on early learning is ever-expanding, parents, teachers and librarians are more and more aware that early literacy is a key factor in helping kids reach their full potential. Many low-income parents, however, struggle to take them to a bookstore or library, provide books, or even find time just to read to their kids. Time and money can be significant factors in how much reading children can do in their early lives, which is why the SPELL Symposium, which took place on September 8, 2016, is such an important and interesting look into why parents don’t utilize a mostly free service like the library, and the myriad of practical projects that can help these parents and kids have access to library resources.

The Spell Symposium featured eight different libraries throughout Colorado, which varied from rural to metropolitan, and how they used a portion of grant money to reach low-income parents and children who, for whatever reason, do not already go to the library, attend library events, or don’t even know what the library offers. Parents who are not utilizing these great, free services, especially for their children, are not helping the youngest kids develop important early literacy skills. Exposure to words and parents modeling reading can be significant markers of how well these children will do in reading and other areas during their first year of school, which, in turn, is a marker of graduation rates and successes in later life.

These parents have a lot on their plate, often including multiple jobs and multiple children. They don’t always have reliable transportation, and the library might not be open when they are available. Fines and fees can also be a barrier to accessing books and other resources (for more information on fines and fees, and why they might not be necessary in libraries, see the SPELL White Paper). For this grant, then, libraries were required to partner with a local organization already in contact with a low-income or at-risk population in an effort to meet parents and their little ones where they are.

What I found so fascinating from the research and partnerships is that, with the same generic grant stipulations, each library did unique programs built to fit their community and their patrons. Some libraries created early literacy kits that could be checked out or distributed through preschools; others, like Cortez Public Library, gave families fun materials as a motivation for reading and coming to the library, to great effect.

Still others, like Denver Public Library, found that they could provide valuable resources to their partnering organization, but left home visits and material distribution to the partner. I think there is a lot of inspiring work that was done throughout Colorado, and I could see many of the projects transferring easily to other branches.

One I found particularly inspiring was the work done by the Garfield County Public Library, Parachute Branch. They partnered with Raising a Reader, a program already used by school-age children and familiar to parents, to create “Lit Launch” kits that parents could check out. They are themed bags, some in Spanish, containing books, music, and manipulatives to get the family started. They even had the bags handmade by a local company! I think this is an easily transferable model that could work in a myriad of places, but works especially well in this community. Find more examples of what each library did on the SPELL website.

Although most of the programs are success stories, a few hit snags. One of the hardest things to see is some of the libraries not being able to continue these programs after the grant money is used up. Due to budget cuts, loss of staff, and general lack of funding, a few libraries were forced to stop these early literacy activities, or can no longer pay for upkeep of kits and such paid for by the grant. Hopefully, with the research and outcomes shown by SPELL, all libraries will see the importance of early literacy in their communities, and maybe allocate a few more dollars to helping the future of little ones.

Rachel Talpers
MLIS Student
University of Denver

Amy Hitchner
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