Thanks to an innovative community effort, Enfield, CT, is fostering children’s literacy in unique ways. Our “First Readers” program—an expansive collaboration between Enfield’s libraries, schools, civic leaders, board of education, and families—honors learning to read as an important milestone in children’s lives, culminating in town-wide celebrations and even a yearly parade. It’s well worth the effort in creating a culture of literacy for kids, and inspiring them to learn.
“I got my big break when I was five years old and it’s taken me more than seventy years to realize it. You see at five, I learned to read,” the actor Sean Connery said when accepting the 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. “It’s that simple and it’s that profound…. I believe I would not be standing here tonight without the books, the plays, and the scripts.”
If only everyone was as cognizant as Connery about the significance of literacy. The First Readers Committee has a mission to change that. It aims to bring together children, parents, teachers, librarians, politicians, and members of Enfield’s early education committee for a single purpose: to celebrate the achievement of learning to read.
Our First Readers idea was first sparked by an article in American Libraries by Judith Gibbons: “Ringing out for Literacy” (Jan/Feb 2010). Henry Dutcher, our director of libraries, was struck by Gibbons’s idea of “encapsulate,” and together we tailored it to fit our community. This grew into First Readers. The program began to take shape through a small subcommittee of members from Enfield KITE (Key Initiatives to Early Education), the town’s early childhood collaborative.
From its inception, one of the main tenets of First Readers was that it be designed to reach every single child in the area, even those being homeschooled. During the first six months, the committee debated the logistics, and indeed struggled with a mechanism that would reach the goals desired.
The group identified the results it wanted to see accomplished by the initiative. First and foremost: instill in the town’s children the understanding of the life-altering step they have taken, and that their parents and the community as a whole are in awe of their accomplishment. Second, involve the community at large in reinforcing that reading is an important milestone in the children’s lives. Third, ensure the longevity of the program by keeping the logistics as simple as possible for the committee, the parents and, mostly, the teachers, whose support and cooperation would be vital.
From very early on, the committee realized that a plan to reach all children needed to involve the schools—public, private, and parochial—in a way that would be manageable for teachers, given all of the other increasing mandates required of them.
In all, it would take a full year of planning, coordinating stakeholders, and fund raising before our program finally launched. The program got off the ground with a target group of kindergarteners, It then expanded to first grade and now includes all primary students in grades K–2, in order to recognize each and every youngster when he or she learns to read.
How it works
The committee has created a selection of books, and makes them available to each school for use with the children. The titles remain a closely guarded secret, to avoid any memorizing ahead of time.
When a teacher feels that a child has become capable of reading one of the selected titles, they have a read-aloud together. Once the child has successfully read a book, he or she is immediately given a certificate commemorating the accomplishment and a reading medal to wear. We also give a letter to their parents recognizing the momentous occasion and explaining what First Readers is all about.
Every participating school has a liaison to the First Readers committee who coordinates the program for them. Teachers send their students’ names to the liaison, and the committee then prepares invitations inviting these burgeoning First Readers to the next ceremony and town-wide celebration. So, the incentive is two-fold: the immediate gratification of an award on the very day the student reads his or her first book, then the anticipation of a larger celebration.
For homeschoolers and resident children attending schools outside of the town, they are invited to participate in the town-wide ceremonies by being “certified” at the public library.
The first “class” of First Readers was certified in the spring of 2011 and had its recognition ceremony at Enfield’s annual Fourth of July festivities. The committee now invites all First Readers certified during the year to march in the annual parade. There have been six additional ceremonies (as of July 2013), where students were individually recognized on stage. One was held at center court of the Enfield Square Mall with the mayor presiding, and one at a special meeting of the Enfield Board of Education. All ceremonies are taped for broadcast on E-TV, the town of Enfield’s television channel.
The distinctive orange T-shirts given to our readers are also an important part of the process. The shirts bear the words “I can read!” over the First Readers logo. Each new reader receives his or her shirt at one of the ceremonies, and they are encouraged to wear the shirts around town. We also ask community members to reinforce the importance of their accomplishment to the kids.
The significance of this program to the First Readers shows in their faces when they walk on stage to be congratulated, and we hear they continue to wear their reading medals to school day after day. Their peers are anxious to become more proficient in reading because they know that they, too, will be recognized in good time. The program recognizes each and every reader as he or she succeeds.
Collaboration between the committee members and the school system has been impressive. There are four K–2 public schools and two parochial schools in the system, each with multiple kindergarten and first-grade teachers. The amazing—and also risky—part of a program like First Readers is that it is an all-or-nothing proposal. If just one teacher puts it on the back burner and does not certify new readers, the program does not work. It was important that the administration understand this. Three committee members attended a principals’ meeting to pitch the First Readers idea.
Fortunately, it was well received not just in theory but in practice. Principals, teachers, the town council and board of education members regularly attend First Readers ceremonies.
In addition, First Readers are often recognized at school assemblies, highlighted during daily school announcements, or showcased on school bulletin boards. The committee never asked the schools to achieve any different goals or alter their curriculum.
Equally important is the fact that parents are drawn in. They love seeing their children on stage and are reminded that encouraging their children to be life-long readers is one of the most important things that they, as parents, can do.
Understanding the impact First Readers is having is difficult to measure this soon. For Dutcher, the first chairman of the committee, the most powerful statement to the program’s impact on the children of Enfield was relayed in a conversation with Nancy Hayes, principal of Henry Barnard School. Hayes noted, after only three ceremonies, “First Readers has changed the culture of our school.”
Ellen Phillips is the head of children’s and teen services at the Enfield Public Library. Henry Dutcher, Enfield’s library director, contributed to this article.