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More than Bedtime Stories

Librarian Garrette Smith stood in front of a group of homeless women, many illiterate, to discuss reading with their children. Worried that they would see her as a professional woman talking “at” them not “with” them, she found common ground – motherhood.
Garrette and Garrison SmithLibrarian Garrette Smith stood in front of a group of homeless women, many illiterate, to discuss reading with their children. Worried that they would see her as a professional woman talking “at” them not “with” them, she found common ground – motherhood. 

“I started my presentation by asking them, ‘Tell me about yourself and your child.’ I noticed going around the table that their faces shined more when they talked about their children,” Garrette said. “When it got back to me, my comment was, ‘I know you want the best for your children. What better way to do that than to prepare them before they actually get to school by giving them the tools they need to understand reading and writing?’” 

Garrette was at the American Red Cross to teach these mothers the shared reading technique, part of United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Success by 6® initiative. Its vision is that by age six, all children in the region are safe, healthy and prepared to succeed. 

Research confirms that what happens to children before the age of three affects the way their brains develop and if they are wired for learning or not. 

Success by 6® grew out of initiatives proposed by Cincinnati CAN in 2003 and adopted by Better Together Cincinnati (BTC), a group of funders managed by GCF. It was a strong national model that could recommend strategies that help children get ready for school by working with parents, early childhood professionals and policymakers who can make a difference in a child’s success. 

Research shows that more than half of children entering kindergarten within Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) are not on track for school readiness in early literacy and language development. 

“We know kids are going into CPS less prepared,” said Success by 6® Executive Director Stephanie Byrd. “This creates an achievement gap over time. Research shows that kids that start behind never catch up.” But shared reading can result in substantial changes in preschool children’s language skills. 

Supported by this knowledge, Success by 6®, in collaboration with The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, trained a group of librarians in shared reading. The librarians in turn trained child care providers, parents and agency workers. 

Garrette, a former children’s librarian (now a library acquisitions manager) and mother of two, also uses shared reading with her three-year-old son Garrison. 

“Shared reading, in a nutshell, is taking the lead of the child and letting them tell the story,” she said. 

Shared reading is a conversation that uses three simple steps: comment and wait; ask questions and wait; respond by adding a little more. “For example, my son Garrison is really into football,” Garrette explained. “If we were looking at a book with Rudi Johnson, I might say, ‘He has a helmet just like you,’ and I’ll spark that conversation. 

“Or you could say, ‘That is a big helmet – it is humongous,’” she said. “I’ve learned through shared reading that children repeat after you. They might say, ‘Humongous?’ They’ll make the effort to say the word they’ve just been introduced to.” 

“I might say, ‘That is a beautiful butterfly,’ and I’ll sit and wait and my child might say, ‘Oh, flowers,’” Garrette said. “So then you start your questioning off with what they are interested in. I might think that butterflies are great to talk about but my son might think flowers are great.” 

Shared reading has made such a difference with Garrison that he may enter preschool early, Garrette said. 

As for the women she met at the Red Cross, she believes she empowered them to use shared reading, whether they could read or not. 

“There is a fear in parents who can’t read or write that they can’t help their child,” Garrette said. “This is the perfect thing for them.

“Just because they don’t have a good economic situation doesn’t mean parents don’t care and don’t want the best for their children.” 

In a nutshell, that’s what Success by 6® is all about – wanting the best for our children. 

Better preparing them for kindergarten gives them a fair shot at success as they progress through school. Every child in our community deserves that opportunity. 

Success by 6® received $500,000 from GCF in 2002. This support was a result of GCF’s Future Directions II “community listening” process held to identify priority community issues in its six grantmaking areas. More than 300 community leaders and volunteers participated. As a result of these conversations, GCF committed $2.2 million over five years to four new initiatives, including Success by 6®.

Originally published in the 2006 Annual Report to the Community

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