State librarian calls for schools, libraries to push for increased literacy

With a 29 percent failure rate last year on 10th-grade literacy testing statewide, educators and librarians need to put new emphasis on early childhood reading, the state librarian says.

"Our public libraries need to do more outreach to preschool children who are not coming to the library, and they need to enroll many more children in summer reading," State Librarian Jim Scheppke said in an April online newsletter. He reminded librarians that, under new state laws, students will not be allowed to graduate unless they pass the 10th-grade reading and literacy test.

"We estimate that about 167,000 children participated in summer reading last year. That sounds like a big number, but it represents only 19 percent of all children 0-17 in the state," Scheppke wrote. "We need to do more."

Scheppke said school libraries, too, need to promote more reading programs such as Battle of the Books, a statewide voluntary reading motivation and comprehension program sponsored by the Oregon Association of School Libraries.

"Success in reading begins at birth," Scheppke said in an interview. "There's no quick fix, but research shows you have to take kids to libraries at least once a week starting no later than age 2 if they're going to get the reading habit — and that's not happening."

Early literacy is one of the top strategic goals for Jackson County Library Services, said Director Denise Galarraga. Local libraries offer story times for babies through pre-kindergartners, and volunteers deliver bags of books, videos and songs biweekly to 52 child care centers or homes, she said.

"It's a sad thing, the 29 percent failure in literacy for 10th-graders. It needs to be turned around," she said.

In storytime classes at branches throughout the county, children chant nursery rhymes, are read to, sing, dance and look at pictures in books, all the while bouncing on laps of doting moms or caregivers.

It's not just for fun or play, said Margie Cicerrella, Ashland children's librarian. Studies show that children — whose brains double in size in their first year and are three times more active than adult brains — need personal contact to learn.

"They did a study of children learning Mandarin Chinese, and kids learning with physical interactivity learned a lot while those learning from a DVD or CD, well, you might as well have been playing a vacuum cleaner to them," Cicerrella said. "They made no connection with it."

Ashland mom Ashley Graham brings her daughter, Emma, to the Wobblers classes for babies age 12 to 36 months.

"We love it," she said. "Margie always gives us little tidbits about how babies' brains develop and what we can do at home to continue the learning process. Emma is excited when she hears we're going to story time."

Cicerrella tells moms that babies are "born learning" and that new research shows genetics play a minor role in the future intelligence and reading skills of children compared to activity, experience, attachment and stimulation.

Karen Phelps said she brings her 19-month-old daughter, Edie, to reading circles for the dancing, singing, storytelling and social interaction that's critical to literacy.

"It's similar to what I had as a child, being raised by very busy parents, both with master's degrees in a very bookish atmosphere," said Phelps, who has a master's degree in fine arts.

After a reading circle with her 5-month-old daughter, Paige, Jamie Collins said, "We started as early as we could, reading, looking at the pictures in books, playing, getting her socially active with other babies. They have sponges for brains."

Amy Blossom, director of the Ashland library, said the 29 percent failure rate among 10th-graders means "somehow we've missed getting these kids interested in learning and have to work on it from the very beginning. It's a red flag."

Scheppke noted in his newsletter that librarians statewide have been asked to coordinate efforts with providers and funders of services to preschool children through the Early Learning Council.

"The Governor wants the Early Learning Council to aim to have all Oregon children ready to learn when they enter kindergarten and to have all children reading at the end of the first grade," he said.

"The Governor is right about the fact that the long term solution to having all our students become proficient readers begins at birth," wrote Scheppke. "We will be advocating for a bigger role for public libraries and school libraries which research shows can make a huge difference."

Test results for reading and literacy can be viewed by school district at

Students who fail the test, called the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, may retake it at three points in both their junior and senior year, said Suzanne Smith, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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