Giving Thought: Fostering early literacy in a changing environment

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

While we’ve all been distracted this past year with a polarizing election on top of a global pandemic, thousands of our Roaring Fork Valley’s infants and toddlers have been quietly growing through some of their most important developmental years.

These little people have not occupied the media spotlight during COVID-19, but the years from birth to 5 are vitally important to their future cognition and learning potential. Fortunately, the Glenwood Springs-based nonprofit Raising A Reader, along with all the educators in our child care centers and preschools, are thinking about this segment of our population and tending, despite difficulties and distractions, to its needs.

February is, by the way, I Love to Read Month, so please read on.

Long known for the red book bags it distributes to preschoolers in an effort to get parents reading to their young children, Raising A Reader is re-evaluating its entire delivery model in light of the challenges presented by the pandemic.

During academic year 2019-20, 975 families participated in the program, receiving and reading dozens of age-appropriate books each year. But when COVID-19 forced schools and child care centers to close in early 2020, Raising A Reader lost the most important link in its delivery system.

“COVID just made our delivery model a real challenge,” said Executive Director Cindy Blachly. “The volunteers, the parents, they just couldn’t do it. And with all the cleaning protocols, it just became too much.”

Participation in the Red Book Bag program dropped to just 95 families in 2021, because only small charter schools and private day care centers could handle the extra administration the program requires. For now, the Red Book Bag remains an important program, but the organization is trying other ways to get books into the hands of parents and young readers, and to ensure that the valley’s youngsters are prepared for kindergarten when their time comes.

“We’re in a period of discovery with our program models and how to move forward,” Blachly added. “It’s our 16th year, and maybe we need to adapt our program over time.”

So Blachly and her staff members are listening carefully to parents, teachers and school administrators to understand how to best serve young children in this new and uncertain environment. Across Garfield County, even before COVID-19, roughly half of incoming kindergarten students tested below the benchmark for basic early literacy skills. With the added stressors of the pandemic complicating families’ lives, it’s likely that even more children are entering the K-12 education system unprepared. Research shows that many students never overcome this early deficit, and the ramifications can extend into their adult lives.

“We really are an essential service,” Blachly said. “When presented with a book, some of these children literally don’t know which way is up or how to turn the pages.”

Several new programs are showing promise for the nonprofit and its target population. In “123 Let’s Read,” 402 preschool families receive a storybook (which they can keep) each month, along with tips on physical activities related to the story. Both parents and teachers receive the tips in order to increase sharing and dialogue between the classroom and home.

In the Bolsitas Rojas (little red bags) program, 80 Spanish-speaking families from Garfield County participate in weekly online storytelling and activities. Families with children who aren’t enrolled in preschool get a storybook each month in order to build their home library. This program is doubly important because it may well be these kids’ only early exposure to reading and written language.

In these and other programs both online and in person, Raising A Reader continues to introduce kids and parents to the magic of books and the resource of our public libraries.

Iliana Renteria Bernal, Raising A Reader’s associate director, has created two Facebook pages, one in Spanish and one in English, that feature live weekly story-time events, reading recommendations and resources for parents. The Spanish page and the English page each have roughly 800 followers. A special story time for Dia De Los Muertos drew 2,400 page views.

As with many other organizations, COVID-19 has presented both challenges and opportunities for Raising A Reader. At this stage, the programmatic outcome of the pandemic is still taking shape, but the mission — to foster language skills and a love of books for children and their families — remains the same.

“COVID kind of gave us an opportunity,” Blachly said. “It fast-tracked what we were already talking about and thinking about.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.