April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Recognizing Readers: Enfield, CT, Program Honors Kids’ Burgeoning Literacy

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.

Enfield’s first “class” of First Readers was recognized at the town’s Fourth of July festivities in 2011.

“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.

All First Readers certified during the year are invited to march in Enfield’s annual parade.

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.

A smiling First Reader is congratulated on stage wearing her distinctive orange shirt and reading medal.

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.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. Cheryl Conley says:

    In its current state, the First Readers program is less sensitive than forcing children to wear their report cards on their chest: the main difference being that a report card shows what a student has demonstrated overtime while First Readers looks at what happens during a period lasting a few minutes. My statement on the program is that: no emergent reader should be told that his/her effort is not good enough to earn a reward or that he/she already earned the award so they don’t need to keep trying. This article focuses on the handful of kids who receive the award in the class each time it is given. What about the 20 (or so) children who don’t get to participate in each celebration? The Director of the program does not think it is her responsibility to send a letter home to parents prior to children being evaluated (and possibly rejected) and she compared the accomplishment to celebrating when a child learns to walk or talk. I didn’t need someone else to define when my child walked or talked. I didn’t need someone’s permission to celebrate those milestones. Reading is no different. As a mom who has both small and school-aged children: it’s annoying when another mom brags about her child walking, talking, or using the bathroom, because these skills cannot be forced. They can be encouraged, but they develop differently in each child. Specific to potty training, the children who are forced the most often develop the latest. Our schools should not be trying to force skills, rather encourage them. It’s wrong to teach our children to brag. The best thing about raising children in 2013 is that we’re a really sensitive. We help each other out, we include everyone. We work as teams so that everyone accomplishes more together. First readers should update its practices to match our inclusive society.

  2. My daughter saw The First Readers marching in the parade before she was ready to start reading herself. She would ask from time to time when she would get to be a first reader, but never indicated a sense of failure when told she wasn’t ready yet. Rather, it provided a positive sense of anticipation. She looked forward to it. Many things about becoming a reader excited her. This was one of them.
    The day she was certified, she was so proud. She was celebrating her literacy with her peers and the rest of her community. I think that’s pretty awesome.

  3. My son had a difficult time learning to read. Together his teacher and my husband and I told him it would come when he was ready. He saw his friends becoming First Readers and came home one day after his BFF was recognized and told me he was going to read. For the next few weeks he came home every day and asked me to read with him. His teacher called home and told us whatever we were doing to keep it up. A formerly reluctant reader was now an avid reader. The day he was certified as a First Reader he told me it was the best thing he had ever done! He read a book all by himself! He now reads frequently and asks to visit the library to get more books. His self esteem has increased. He recognizes that effort and perseverance is rewarded. We credit the First Readers program with helping instill a love of reading in my child. He was so proud to participate in the ceremony last November. He insisted that the whole family attend and we did. He wears his medal all the time. When someone asks him what he won, he corrects them. “I didn’t win anything, I earned this!”

  4. As a teacher, I love this program. Working in partnership with the schools and library,this group of volunteers makes a difference in young children’s lives. They truly understand how to motivate children. The program is not structured as a competition. And it allows each school to administer the program as best meets the needs of the individual school. It’s not cookie cutter and respects the schools culture. This program is a model for other school systems looking to motivate children to achieve!

  5. I cannot fathom anyone would think anything negative about this program. I think the committee shared that they have certified almost 1000 children and no one has ever saw this program in a negative way. This program is amazing and really encourages children to read. The positive reinforcement and recognition only catapults these kids to continue reading. As a proud mother of a son who struggled with ADHA and struggled with reading, I was ecstatic when he came home with this earned award. He never got discouraged from all his friends receiving the award; he got it at his own pace when HE was ready. Thank you to the committee members for all your hard work, it really shows with the community support you receive and I am honored to have my son a part of this wonderful group!

  6. How typical for the town of Enfield to refer to an idea that left every surrounding community generations ago as “innovative” and “unique.” I guess First Readers hasn’t noticed how many families are trying to sell their home and move to one in a better school district. The only thing unique about this program is that there is no communication with parents. My son has a reading disability. Lack of motivation has nothing to do with his inability to read on grade level. I thought his sorrowful description of “kids bragging about reading parties” was part of his very active imagination. In reality my 7-year old had more sense than the adults who educate him. Reading disabilities are the most common special needs. Children with reading disabilities are included in every classroom. It’s completely wrong to assume that they don’t want to read as much as other kids. This program is hurtful and should be updated.

  7. As a school librarian from a different district I do not see the value in labeling kids as “readers” or “non-readers.” Reading is a lifelong process and everyone improves along the continuum. When I first read the article I began to understand why our district is gaining so many students from Enfield and why Enfield has the unusual need for multiple private schools. However, when I re-read (something mature readers do as not everything is learned on the first read through.) I understood that this program is even practiced in private schools. What a shame. My point being, that even the most mature and passionate readers make mistakes on an initial read-through. It would be impossible to accurately determine a child’s reading ability based on a single read through. We teach our students to re-read passages when taking all other tests. Not to mention that skills cannot be accurately determined when a child is either nervous or excited, emotions that would be very present during this type of assessment. Parents, please teach your children that even the librarian makes mistakes. They don’t need to wait for an award to feel good about reading.

  8. I was just e-mailed this article from a neighbor as last year I was complaining about my daughter crying about “reading parties” and received no answers or accountability from her school. Nobody in our very large neighborhood knew anything about this at our summer barbecue. I thought it was just a nasty misunderstanding. This article should’ve gone home in her backpack. Parent’s shouldn’t have to be telepathic to understand what’s going on with their kids at school. We receive notification about all other programs in the school. I’m glad that some kids are doing well because of the program, but it was very negative for my child. I thought our practice was that No Child was Left Behind?

  9. As an educator who works with special needs children in Enfield, I find this program supportive, encouraging and fun! My students work hard and many have been recognized as First Readers. It was not an easy accomplishment for many. What is most exciting about the program is that my students are so proud of their accomplishment that they continue to read on their own. They have discovered a love of reading. Sometimes it’s the simple things that make the biggest difference. This programs one of those simple things that has a big impact.

  10. I learned about this program for the first time at the Hazardville Memorial Open House last year. My son’s teacher talked about it at our Parent-Teacher Conference. I also received a flyer sent home. Not sure why some parents complain about not knowing about it. As for not every child getting recognized, my son was not recognized last year. He was disappointed but we used it as a teaching moment. Not everyone will be able to do everything at the same time. Everyone learns differently and at their own pace. We attended the recognition ceremony last spring when my son’s best friend was recognized. He asked to go because he was proud of his friend. Many positive things learned as a result of this program.

  11. My niece has struggled with reading. When she was certified last winter, at the middle of Second Grade, after several tries, her pride in her accomplishment beamed from her. She was so excited by the recognition of this ability, that like other students mentioned in these comments, she began to want to read with me every night. It was no longer a matter of “having” to read. She even took it so far as to read simple chapter books and write book reports for me – all on her own initiative. I credit First Readers for turning my reluctant reader into and enthusiastic reader.

    Certainly, we often celebrate her accomplishments at home, but earning a medal, a tangible acknowledgement of her work, and a handshake from the Mayor made all the difference to her. When I asked her this summer why she doesn’t wear her bright orange T-shirt more often, she told me that she wants to save it for “special”. She doesn’t want anything to happen to it.

    First Readers is a wonderful program that I hope continues for years to come. As a society, I’ve found that the children who are rewarded for participating (the soccer trophies that go to all the teams in the league, not just those who win) become the young adults who expect a corner office and a $20 an hour internship during the summer after their freshman year of college. The children who earn their rewards seem better adapted to the realities of life.

    I can’t wait for my kindergarten age twin to begin reading and become First Readers. I expect that one will be certified before the other and actually, I hope it does work out that way. That’s a wonderful opportunity for me to teach important life lessons to both of them. One of those being, while it’s rude to brag, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of your accomplishments.

  12. I can’t wait ’til the town of Enfield catches up with surrounding towns and banishes this program. I think the only reason it still exists is because nobody knows about it. It’s based off an idea developed in the Tennessee public school system – the 10th worst educational system in our union. Luckily, nobody takes it seriously. There is low turn out at the parades and a u-tube video was e-mailed around town depicting the director poorly. She was screaming at the students and volunteers. Our inspirations should come from programs that work. First readers is totally ineffective and a waste of classroom time. The town of Enfield should be more careful about what they allow into our schools.

  13. I can’t wait ’til the town of Enfield catches up with the rest of the state and banishes this program. It is based off something developed in Tennessee – the 10th worst school system in our union. I think the only reason it still exists is because nobody has noticed what’s going on. The parades are under attended an a u-tube video circulated through e-mail displaying the director as comical, when really it’s not funny at all. She was yelling at volunteers and children. She is no example for educators. First readers is a waste of classroom time. I know it’s become an antiquated term – but I expect a little more “class” from a school system in Connecticut. It’s great for students to have unique and rewarding times with their teacher, but outright bragging is wrong. This program is no different from encouraging children to walk around holding their latest math test. Some students would have fun, others would be ashamed, a handful would be confused ’cause this particular test didn’t depict what they’re capable of, but they ALL would feel awkward. Young children have a conscience, a little voice inside them that tells them bragging publically is wrong. My son earned the reward early on, but refused to participate in the ceremony because he didn’t want his friends to feel left out. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I wish more parents would teach their children basic values and class.