First 5 Aims to Instill Literacy at a Young Age

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Hollister
– Curious George, Peter Rabbit and the Little Engine That Could
have been a part of bedtimes around the English-speaking world for
generations, but this is becoming less and less true for the
nation’s children every year.
Hollister – Curious George, Peter Rabbit and the Little Engine That Could have been a part of bedtimes around the English-speaking world for generations, but this is becoming less and less true for the nation’s children every year.

First 5 San Benito has announced a new literacy program that educators believe will help reverse this trend and reintroduce a generation of preschoolers to the joys of storytime.

“We haven’t had a consistent literacy program in this county for preschoolers, and we’ve been having trouble just trying to get a full-time librarian,” said Joyce Swett, school-readiness coordinator for the local First 5 chapter. “So this is something we really wanted to get started.”

First 5 recently received a $2,500 grant from Target to get the “Raising a Reader” program off the ground in San Benito County. The idea is to instill reading habits in local families with children who are preschool-aged, toddlers and even infants to make sure those kids are on the right track when they start kindergarten.

“The program has been around for 10 years. It started in San Mateo County and spread to Santa Clara,” Swett said. “A lot of research and study has gone into it, and it’s been very successful.”

The program works by sending children home with colorful book bags filled with age-appropriate books for parents and their children to read together. Infants and toddlers will receive mostly “board books” while older children will read picture books with an emphasis on language, such as rhyming stories.

“We’re trying to encourage ‘Book Cuddling,'” Swett said, “which is when children are building a relationship with their parents or grandparents or whoever, while they build a relationship with the books.”

All of the stories are chosen to ensure that the stories and illustrations are appealing and that they expose children to multiple cultures and how other children live around the world.

“We want to give them a chance to learn about people they don’t see every day,” Swett said.

The children will receive and trade book bags and bring home a new one each week until the end of the program, when they receive their own special book bag to use for trips to the library. First 5 hopes to introduce the program to different preschools and day care programs gradually, with the goal being to make sure every preschool-aged child in the county has had a chance to participate in Raising a Reader.

“We tested this with our on-site preschool last year, and the parents were very receptive and the kids loved it,” Swett said. “And that’s what it’s all about: getting kids excited about reading.”

Book bags are available with both English and Spanish stories, and Swett says the program is designed to be as accessible as possible to parents with limited literacy skills – according to the San Benito County Free Library, the county’s illiteracy rate is 28 percent, compared to a state average of 24 percent. Nationwide, one in three children begin kindergarten without the basic pre-reading skills they need to be successful, according to First 5, and Swett says the local chapter’s research indicates the ratio is similar for local students.

“We want parents to know that you don’t have to read the story verbatim in order for your child to get the benefits,” she said. “For example, one of our Spanish books is all about making piñatas, and there are lots of photographs of a man in Mexico making them. So you can look at the pictures and talk about what’s happening in them, and tell your own story.”

Target’s grant will fund $2,500 worth of books, enough to help First 5 get the program started at eight different sites, probably in early October. All told, First 5 expects the program to cost around $50,000 by the time it is fully up and running in about a year.

“We’re getting a lot of books, and they’re very high quality, so the program is expensive,” said Kellie Guerra, First 5’s sustainability coordinator.

First 5 is accepting donations from members of the community interested in promoting early literacy. For more information on how to help call 634-2046.

“If you want to help children in your own community, this is a great place to start,” Swett said.

Danielle Smith covers education for the Free Lance. Reach her at 637-5566, ext. 336 or [email protected]

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