Volume 26, Number 4, Winter 2004

A Proposal to "Leave No Library Behind" in the "No Child Left Behind" Campaign

by Irene Rosenthal, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Literacy, College of St. Rose, Alabany, N.Y.

The “Leave No Child Behind Act” of 2001 represents a $23.7 billion investment in improving American education. Perhaps the most ambitious initiative of the legislation is the commitment to having every American child reading fluently by the end of third grade. Through Reading First grants, funds are dedicated to help states and local school districts eliminate the reading deficit by establishing high-quality, comprehensive reading instruction in kindergarten through grade three.

Schools eligible to receive Reading First grants may also apply for Early Reading First grants to support programs that enhance the early language, literacy and pre-reading development of pre-school age children, particularly those from low-income families.

Provision of Early Reading First grants acknowledges a decade of rigorous research supporting the concept of “emergent literacy.” Simply put, it has been established that a child’s literacy development begins very early in life through language play and language practice around print (Sulzby & Teale, 1991).

A number of studies attest to the fact that many American children are deficient in the language and print experiences necessary for success in kindergarten:

  • Kindergarten teachers report that 35% of kindergartners enter school not ready to participate successfully. They identify deficiencies in language as the most serious problem in 43% of these students (Boyer, 1991).
  • ½ by the time the children were 3 years old parents in less economically favored circumstances had said fewer different words in their cumulative monthly vocabularies than had the children in the most economically advantaged families in the same period of time (Hart, Risley, 1995, xiii)
  • Poor children are underrepresented in preschool enrollment. 21% of kindergarten enrollment in 1992 was lower income children, while only 14% of preschool enrollment was lower income children (Smith, et al., 1994)
  • There is a nearly 90% probability that a child will remain a poor reader at the end of fourth grade if he/she is a poor reader at the end of first grade. Further, knowledge of alphabet letters at entry to kindergarten is a strong predictor of reading ability in 10th grade (Boyer, 1991)
Clearly money appropriated to develop pre-school literacy initiatives in schools is money well spent. To restrict these appropriations to schools alone represents an oversight of the public institutions that have traditionally provided pre-school literacy services to children for over 100 years. Eighty-six per cent of all U.S. libraries surveyed in a study by the National Center for Education Statistics report offering pre-school story times; forty per cent offer programs for infants and toddlers (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003).

In addition to providing direct services to children, public libraries have been actively engaged in promoting family literacy through various programs designed to help parents develop practices that will support their children’s literacy development. Most of these outreach efforts have been directed to economically disadvantaged families. Public libraries are not only experienced in providing pre-school literacy services to children and families, they have extensive experience in targeting it to the populations that need it the most. Reports of some of the innovative and successful programs public libraries have developed using Parent-Child grants subsidized by the New York State Legislature can be found at www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdev/parchld/index.html.

Two questions emerge from any proposal to include public libraries as part of the national literacy agenda. First, is there a way to get public library programming to adhere to the level of instructional rigor demanded by current educational standards? And, can library programming exist within an accountability framework?

There are two answers to the instructional rigor concern. First, the design of library pre-school story hours is remarkably aligned to curriculum that supports the Early Literacy Competencies for reading established by NYS ( Early literacy guidance, 2003). To demonstrate this, the script of a typical story-hour is included in Table 1. It indicates how various elements of the story-hour support the Early Literacy Competencies in reading for pre-kindergartners.

Table 1: How various elements of the story hour support the Early Literacy Competencies in reading for pre-kindergartners

Competency Story-Hour Element
Phonemic Awareness Fingerplays (rhyme, syllable clap)
Print Awareness Read-alouds, pointing to print
Alphabet Recognition Read-alouds, pointing to print
Background Knowledge Introduction to books, instruction in West African traditions
Comprehension Caps for sale (re-enacting text); Jennie's hat (comprehension activity)
Motivation to Read All activities are selected so that children are active participants; materials are selected because of their relevance to theme and appeal.

This is an example of how excellent practice often predates research in the field of education. Using finger-plays to clap out syllables and identify rhymes have been features of story hours long before the phonemic awareness studies proved their value in developing reading skills. In library story hours, children regularly have had to demonstrate comprehension in entertaining post-reading activities (Froling-Imroth, Ash-Geisler, 1995).

A more systemic response to the need for academically rigorous story hours comes from the Public Library Association’s Early Literacy Project (Meyers, 2002). The Public Library Association partnered with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to develop library programs that were research based. Through this project, children’s librarians attend workshops to learn more about research in emergent literacy. They then conduct parent workshops where they demonstrate effective emergent literacy practices. Evaluation data consists of interviews in which the impact of the program on parents’ literacy building activities with their children is measured. In the final evaluation, parents from all demographic categories who participated showed a statistically-significant increase in literacy behaviors.

The traditional reluctance exhibited by library professionals to quantify and measure the benefits of providing children’s programming is beginning to lift and the climate of accountability is affecting the public library community. The Early Literacy Project employs a rigorous analysis of outcome measures. Read the report online at http://www.ala.org/ala/pla/plaissues/earlylit/earlyliteracy.htm. Click on “Research and Evaluation.”

A study to evaluate a library outreach program for preschoolers (Fehrenbach, Hurford, Fehrenbach, Bannock, 1998) measured children’s performance in terms of emergent literacy behaviors, pre-reading skills and reading both before and after twelve story-hour sessions. The differences between the treatment group and the control group in each of the three areas tested, as shown in Table 2, were startling.

Table 2. Children's performance in terms of emergent literacy behaviors, pre-reading skills and reading, before and after twelve story hour sessions

Trained group Control group
Emergent Literacy behaviors

Pretest 0.5 0.5
Post-test 3.0 0.5
Prereading skills

Pretest 8.0 6.0
Post-test 12.0 5.0
Mean number of words read

Pretest 0.0 0.0
Post-test 94.0 0.0

Calls for more research of this kind, in evaluating the impact of public library story times are becoming more and more prevalent in the library literature (Meyers, 2003, Smardo Dowd, 1997).

Clearly, public libraries are capable of providing pre-school literacy experiences (Teale, 1999) that will help children achieve the early literacy competencies mandated by New York State. The Early Literacy Project developed by the Public Library Association has provided pilot data that support the supposition that library story hours can be effectively systematized, supervised and assessed. This project is currently being implemented at nine libraries in the Mid-Hudson Library System and data from this project will be forthcoming.

Considering the magnitude of the mandate to have all American children reading fluently by grade three, it seems only reasonable to enlist public libraries in the effort. Public libraries have a long tradition of providing pre-school and family literacy programming and the potential to easily align these services with current educational research. For more information, contact Irene Rosenthal.

Works Cited

  • Boyer, E. L. (1991). Ready to learn: A mandate for the nation. Report by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  • Early Literacy Guidance; Prekindergarten – grade 3. (2003). University of the State of New York; State Education Department.
  • Fehrenbach, L.A., Hurford, D.P. Fehrenbach, C.R., Groves-Brannock, R. (1998). Developing the emergent literacy of preschool children through a library outreach program. Journal of Youth Services 18 (Fall):40-45.
  • Froling –Imroth, B, Ash-Geisler, V. (1995). Achieving school readiness; Public libraries and national education. Chicago: American Library Association.
  • Hart, B., Risley, T.R. (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Meyers, E. (2002). Research maps new routes for reading success in PLA Early Childhood Initiative. Journal of Youth Services 33(Winter): 3-8.
  • National Center for Educational Statistics (2003). Services and resources for children in public libraries. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
  • Smardo-Dowd, F. (1997). Evaluating the impact of public library storytime programs upon he emergent literacy of preschoolers; A call for research. Public Libraries, 18 (Nov./Dec.): 346-357.
  • Smith, T. W., Rogers, G.T., Alsalam, B., Perle, M, Mahoney, R, Martin, V. (1994). The condition of education. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Sulzby, E, Teale, W. (1991). “Emergent literacy,” pgs. 727-757 in Handbook of Reading Research II, White Plains, NY: Longmans Pub.
  • Teale, W. (1999). Libraries promote early literacy learning; Ideas from current research and early childhood programs, Journal of Youth Services 23 (Spring):9-16.

Example of a Preschool Story Hour

Theme: Hats


  • Arkhurst, J.C., The Adventures of Spider (Boston: Little Brown, 1964)
  • Grayson, M.F., Let's do Fingerplays (New York: Robert B. Luce, 1962)
  • Keats, E.J., Jennie's Hat (New York: Harper & Row, 1966)
  • Slobodkina, E., Caps for Sale (New York: W.R.Scott, 1947)
  • Enough baseball caps for all participants
  • Straw storytelling hat with names of all the stories told during the program attached
  • Plain white hat covered with bits of Velcro. Trimmings found on Jennie's hat are hidden in a bag. They too, have bits of Velcro.
Procedures: Introduce Caps for Sale and do a picture walk. Explain that the story will be re-enacted with the librarian playing the peddler and the children playing the monkeys. Librarian introduces the storytelling tradition from West Africa explaining that the village storyteller is a highly respected member of the community. When he is invited to tell stories, he arrives wearing a hat with the names of all the stories he will tell that night. Librarian produces the storytelling hat and explains that many of the stories he tells are about a character named Anansi who is very well loved because he is so mischievous. Librarian tells the story How Spider Got a Bald Head. Librarian engages children in a traditional hat-shaking dance from West Africa. Librarian engages children in two finger-play rhymes. The first time they recite the rhymes as they act them out. The second time they identify the rhymes in This is the Circle that is My Head and clap out syllables in Dressing. Librarian introduces the book Jennie's Hat and explains that children will have to listen carefully because afterward they will be asked to remember all the items that attached to Jennie's hat. After the story, children respond with items they remember. As each one is named, librarian withdraws it from bag. After all items are named, children are asked for the order in which they were attached. Children are selected to attach each item in order.


  • To have children participate in a literacy event in which they actively respond to stories read aloud
  • To increase listening comprehension by having children re-enact the story Caps for Sale.
  • To increase phonological awareness by engaging in finger-play rhymes
  • To increase multi-cultural awareness by introducing children to the concept of the African storyteller’s hat and sharing an Anansi story from the West African tradition
  • To develop children’s listening comprehension skills by guiding their recall of items in the book Jennie’s Hat
  • To increase alphabetic awareness by pointing to each word while reading Jennie’s Hat