The Link Between Public Libraries and Early Reading Success

Is there a positive relationship between public library services and early reading success?

Storytimes, lap-sit programs, and other services for young children area major part of most public libraries’ missions. And, according to children’s librarians, these services play a significant role in preparing children for success as readers. But is that really true? Of course it’s true, most readers would respond. Just look at the well-used collections of books, audiobooks, and videos—all chosen to encourage the love of reading—that libraries provide. Or check out the abundance of kids’ programs, ranging from homework help centers to summer reading campaigns, offered at most libraries. But anecdotal evidence aside, can we actually associate these services with measurable, long-term, positive differences in the lives of children? Do we have real evidence about the impact of our work that we can share with parents, community groups, elected officials, and library funders? Based on a first-time look at new state data from across the country, the answer is definitely yes.

Illustration by James Steinberg

Looking at the data

State-by-state data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in November 2007 provides evidence of a strong, positive link between the amount of children’s materials circulated by public libraries and fourth-grade reading scores on the same agency’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Since 1990, NCES has been collaborating with the 50 states and the District of Columbia to compile basic statistics about public libraries, including the circulation of children’s materials and attendance at children’s programs. (Beginning this year, national public library statistics will be compiled and released by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.) Since the 1970s, NCES has also conducted the NAEP, the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas and at selected grade levels, including reading. Comparison of the reading scores with children’s circulation statistics shows a strong, positive link, while comparison of the same reading scores with attendance at children’s programs demonstrates a positive, if somewhat weaker, link. These findings support the position that, the greater the amount of circulated materials and the greater the attendance at library programs, the more likely kids will do well in reading. The correlation between reading scores and circulation of children’s materials is an impressive .514 (out of a maximum of 1.000) as well as being highly statistically significant at p < .01. What does this mean? It means that there is less than 1 chance in 100 that this relationship occurred by chance. The correlation between reading scores and attendance at children’s programs is a more moderate, but respectable .288. For you statisticians out there, this falls into the lower, but still significant, level of p < .05. In other words, there are fewer than five chances out of 100 that this was an accidental result.

Books out, learning in

Another way to get a handle on how much children’s circulation and reading scores line up is to look at which states fall in the higher and lower halves of all states on both statistics simultaneously. Colorado, Minnesota, and Ohio—the three states whose programs we highlight in the accompanying sidebar—ranked in the top quartiles (the top 25 percent) in both reading scores and children’s circulation per capita. Of states ranking in the top half of all states on reading scores, more than four-fifths (82 percent) ranked in the top half on circulation of children’s materials per capita (see Chart 1). Conversely, four out of five states (83 percent) in the bottom half on reading scores also rank in the bottom half on children’s circulation (see Chart 2).

The attendance factor

Similar to circulation of children’s materials, the relationship between children’s program attendance and test scores can be better understood by looking at both variables simultaneously. Of states ranking in the top half on reading scores, seven out of 10 (70 percent) ranked in the top half on attendance at children’s programs per capita (see Chart 3). By contrast, seven out of 10 states (71 percent) in the bottom half on reading scores also rank in the bottom half on children’s program attendance (see Chart 4).

The role of adult educational attainment

p>If children have well-educated adults in their lives, do public libraries impact their test scores? After all, better-educated adults—parents, other family members, and friends—probably exert many positive influences on children’s test scores. For starters, they encourage their children to borrow books and other materials from the public library. Plus, they tend to have more reading materials in their homes. Their children also have ready examples of readers, and these parents may take a greater interest in their children’s education. Taking these factors into consideration, is there any evidence that the link between children’s services in public libraries and reading scores is more than coincidental? In addition to the kind of correlation analysis previously discussed, we also employed a statistical procedure called partial correlation, which weighs the relationship between one variable and another (such as the number of years of education that adults have completed and children’s test scores) while “controlling for”—or removing—the impact of a third variable (in our case, the amount of children’s materials circulated). When adult educational attainment alone is correlated with reading scores, the correlation is .576, definitely a strong relationship in this context. That strong relationship is also highly statistically significant at the .01 level. But when the effect of children’s circulation per capita is removed, the correlation between the percentage of adults age 25 and up who graduated from high school and reading scores drops to a more moderate .376. In other words, when the impact of children’s circulation is removed from the relationship between adult educational attainment and children’s reading scores, the strength of that relationship is reduced by more than a third. This finding suggests that the impact of parents borrowing children’s books from public libraries accounts for a substantial portion of the impact of parents’ education on their children’s reading scores. Certainly, the factors affecting children’s reading scores are many and complex. But by using readily available data about reading scores, children’s services in public libraries, and adult educational attainment, this analysis supports the widespread belief that the efforts of public libraries to promote early literacy pays off in terms of higher reading scores during elementary school. There is a positive and statistically significant relationship between children’s services in public libraries and early reading success at school. In fact, there is even the probability of even stronger statistical evidence in the future, but first we need more ambitious research on the relationship between children’s services and early reading success. In the meantime, the evidence at hand suggests that the services of children’s librarians make a real difference in children’s lives.
Keith Curry Lance recently retired as the longtime director of the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library. Robbie Bravman Marks is president of Marks Information, a consulting firm based in Denver, CO.

Three of the Best

Many state library agencies and associations across the nation—as well as individual libraries—are building up their early literacy (prereading/prewriting) programs, bolstering support for services to children ages birth to six. What’s happening in Colorado, Ohio, and Minnesota—states ranked in the top quartile for both 2005 NAEP reading scores and for circulation of children’s materials per capita (see Off the Charts, p. 44)? Here is a brief sampling of some of those activities.

Ripe to read in the Rockies

Since 2004, the Colorado State Library (CSL) has spearheaded an effort to provide the state’s public libraries with enhanced early literacy skill-building resources and support, including staff-training workshops, grant funds, research reports, coalition building, and an e-list that helps practitioners share best practices. Using the American Library Association’s “Every Child Ready to Read @ your library” (ECRR) as its model, CSL encourages public libraries to develop in-house and outreach programs for children and caregivers that emphasize relevant research and prereading skills (print motivation, vocabulary, print awareness, letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and narrative skills). One outcome is the new Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL), a task force whose mission is to strengthen children’s literacy through library services and community advocacy. Made up of representatives from each of the 13 different library jurisdictions, CLEL’s steering committee is planning statewide programs, staff mentoring, a resource-sharing Web site, and advocacy help for early literacy leaders to raise awareness about ways public libraries provide valuable early literacy services. Training and community partnering are both a focus in Colorado. In suburban Denver’s Douglas County Libraries, Training Specialist Carol Wagstaff leads formal early literacy staff-training programs, coaching the staff to feel confident in their storytime leadership skills and working with them to evaluate how well they are meeting the district’s storytime program goals. Wagstaff reports that the staff “have seen firsthand the difference that this program makes in giving children a successful foundation on which to build reading readiness.” On Colorado’s Western Slope, in partnership with a nearby alternative high school and a local social services organization, Mesa County Libraries offer workshops designed to help teen mothers develop their children’s early literacy skills. Participants attend seven programs a year and receive at least one free children’s book to take home at each session. Children’s Services Director Maxine Curley says that through this process, library staff members help these young women feel comfortable sharing books with their children at the public library. “We reinforce that the mothers are primary role models for their children’s reading readiness,” she says.

Book-ready in the Buckeye State

Encouraged by Governor Ted Strickland’s interest in early literacy and his creation of an early childhood cabinet-level position, the Ohio Library Council and the State Library formed Ohio Ready to Read (ORTR) to provide public library-based support and advocacy for young children’s early literacy needs. State Library Consultant Ruth Metcalf says the task force wants to ensure that local librarians “have the proper tools in place to implement ORTR.” To provide at least one staff member in each of the state’s public libraries with ECRR’s basic and storytime training, workshops were held for librarians and child care providers. In mid-2008, ORTR also launched a network of regional coordinators to serve as trainers and liaisons. Services that target specific communities have received a lot of attention in Ohio. And Kimber Fender, executive director of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, says her library’s services to young children and their caregivers have responded to those needs. Based on the results of a standardized readiness assessment given to preschoolers, the library plans to offer additional ECRR-based programs in neighborhoods where young children have shown the greatest need. Fender says libraries across the state are implementing similar programs, though “everybody is doing something a little bit different.”

Minnesota’s early literacy database

Although there’s no overarching public library-based early literacy initiative in Minnesota, individual libraries, agencies, and organizations are actively promoting early literacy services. In 2005–2006, the Minnesota State Library, through its grants, provided the Minnesota Library Association (MLA) with LSTA funds to underwrite ECRR storytime workshops for library staff and early childhood providers around the state. Minnesota has benefited from a storytime database and a commitment to program evaluation. Hennepin County Library’s (HCL) Early Literacy Storytime Ideas Exchange database ( contains more than 600 annotated entries—and it’s still growing. The database offers recommendations for books, songs, and rhymes that emphasize ECRR’s six early literacy skills. Early Literacy Librarian Kelly Wussow explains that “each annotation tells why the librarian chose that resource, ways it is literacy-rich, and how they used that resource successfully.” The library plans to add more audio files of songs and hopes to include videos of fingerplays, too. Libraries often “don’t have enough information about the outcomes of their programs,” says Gretchen Wronka, HCL’s external relations and partnerships librarian. “We have so little good evaluation about what happens in a public library preschool storytime.” Consequently, HCL has collaborated with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development on several storytime evaluation projects.

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