How Southwest Human Development is using an interactive, family-based effort to improve preschool literacy

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The earliest years of a child’s life are formative in many ways, not the least of which relates to language and literacy development. Their brains are growing at a rapid rate and they’re absorbing everything they see, hear and feel. What a child learns before they enter the classroom will set the stage for future academic growth and is even a predictor of high school performance.

That’s why Southwest Human Development brought Raising A Reader (RAR) to the Valley. RAR is an eight-week program for parents that teaches them about the importance of early literacy skills and how they can help their children develop these skills so that they are ready to learn when they enter school. It’s a national, evidence-based program designed to help families of young children develop, practice, and strengthen a culture of reading at home, and to ensure that children have tools for school success.

Families that get involved benefit from a series of 2-hour sessions, where the RAR literacy specialist shows parents how to engage their children in reading, and also teaches them ways of using music, movement, and play to help their children develop their language skills and prepare to enter Kindergarten. Parents are given a book bag every week filled with high-quality, age appropriate books so they can read at home together. At the final session each child receives their own book bag with five new books to build their home library. All family members are invited to participate in RAR activities.

Southwest Human Development video: Raising a reader

Southwest Human Development introduced RAR to Arizona in 2010. Today, the program serves 1,000 children and families and distributes over 3,500 books each year. To date, the RAR program has served more than 6,500 low-income families across the valley, thanks in part to broad corporate, foundation and community support, including Valley of the Sun United Way, Arizona Community Foundation, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, and many others.

Through partnerships with various community organizations, the RAR program model literally meets families where they are. Trainings are held on-site at apartment complexes, faith based organizations, pediatric well-child clinics, neighborhood schools, mobile parks, and family resources centers. By meeting families where they are, we reduce the need for transportation, which is a common barrier for the target population. It also helps to build a sense of community among participants. RAR brings information about a wide variety of community resources to families, many of whom are socially and linguistically isolated, and not involved with formal child care or other social services and health programs

Program Outcomes

The success of RAR is measured using a pre and post survey completed by all participating families. Results from an independent evaluation of our program, published in August 2017 and authored by Jeanne M. Powers of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, demonstrate a strong positive impact on parent confidence, children asking to read, the creation of family reading routines, frequency and length of family reading, child enjoyment of reading, books in the home, and visiting the library, even among those parents who were originally least comfortable with reading to their children. The impact RAR has locally will create long-term benefits for the families involved, since currently only one-in-five Arizona 3 and 4 year olds are enrolled in quality early learning. Beyond that, fewer than half of Arizona third graders passed the most recent AzMERIT language arts exam, which the Arizona Education Progress Meter aims to increase to 72 percent by the year 2030. That won’t be possible without programs like RAR.

Specific RAR results include:

A majority (90%) of parents or guardians agreed that reading to their child was ‘important’ or ‘absolutely important.’ However, before participating in the program, 19% reported that no one in their households had read to their children in the past week and an additional 37% read to their child between one to three times in the previous week.

  • After participating in the program, 72% of parents or guardians reported that they or someone in their household read to their children four or more times in a week.
  • When asked if adults felt comfortable in their role as their child’s first teacher, 68% responded ‘very comfortable’ as opposed to 47% responding this way prior to program participation.
  • Finally, the program increased children’s access to reading materials in the home, with most families reporting an increase in the number of books in their homes.

The evaluation results make a compelling case, but the best illustration of the program’s effectiveness comes from the parents themselves:

  • One mother stated, “As a first time mom, I didn’t know of the free programs to help and support parents. I am extremely happy and thankful to have found Raising A Reader! This program has showed me the importance of reading daily to my daughter at an early age, it has also helped me to find and obtain the tools to encourage my daughter to read. This program has made me feel proud of my daughter’s learning progress.”
  • Another mother wrote, “My child talks so much more now than he ever did before and even though he can’t read he tells me the story by reading the pictures.”
  • Another parent wrote, “I want to say thank you to Raising A Reader for coming to my community and showing me that I am my child’s first teacher.”
  • Another family wrote, “Thank you so much for this program. As first time parents we want to give our child the most opportunities to succeed – and after completing this program I realize now how much this will. We were not confident in teaching our 1 year old how to read or what to do to foster a love of reading. Now we are and we see our child learning so quickly! Please continue to do this. It has made such a difference.”

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