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Mobilising Family Literacy

Yarra Plenty Regional Library Service are taking their literacy programs into the community.
Ann Stuchbery reports

Yarra Plenty Regional Library Service provides public library services to the municipalities of Banyule, Nillumbik and Whittlesea. Situated northeast of Melbourne, Victoria, it covers an area of 983 square kilometres and includes metropolitan, urban fringe and rural populations. It reaches a population of 275 000 of whom 135 000 are library members.

Branch libraries are located at Diamond Valley, Eltham, Ivanhoe, Lalor, Rosanna, Thomastown and Watsonia. Mobile library service is provided to outlying areas and a specially designed van visits housebound and institutionalised residents in the region.

Yarra Plenty Regional Library Service has a strong commitment to providing library service to all sectors of the community. In 1994, the library services developed a 'Literacy Strategy 1994-96' outlining Yarra Plenty's literacy services and a framework for their continued development.
Within the region, the range of literacy needs is broad, varying from children through to adults with general literacy needs, a large proportion with English as a second language needs and disabled users with special needs.

Specific literacy collections are provided within the region. These aim to meet the needs of adults and teenagers who are functionally illiterate, or who are seeking to improve their proficiency in the English language. In addition, all branch libraries have strong general collections which cater for a range of community needs at a variety of levels. Collections such as large print, multikits, audio books, videos and magazines as well as selected materials in the fiction and non-fiction collections are useful to some people in developing literacy skills.

The library service liaises extensively with local literacy providers, enabling the service to provide better resources and services to meet the needs of the community. Support is provided to local groups in terms of resources, venues and involvement with meetings.

Reading with Your Child Program
In February 1995, Yarra Plenty Regional Library Service developed a proposal to conduct a series of family literacy programs in the West Heidelberg area over a period of 12 months. A report entitled Working Towards a Healthy Heidelberg (May 1994) acknowledged West Heidelberg as being a seriously socially disadvantaged area. Statistics from the report indicated 49.8% unemployment, 21.4% of the population from a non-English speaking background, low levels of income (32% of households rely on an income of less than $16 000 per annum compared with 18% of the Melbourne population), and low levels of education (56.73% left school under the age of 16).

Literacy levels are not the only determining factors of success in our society. However, lack of literacy is linked to unemployment and underemployment, poverty and crime. These statistics, together with the library service's desire to better serve the West Heidelberg area and comments from the Further Education Collective in Heidelberg (FECH), local schools, kindergartens and other local organisations, led to development of the program.

When an initial funding request to the Victorian Government's Office of Library Services was not successful, other sources were pursued. Support from the local literacy service provider, FECH and local organisations in West Heidelberg demonstrated the need for such a program to be conducted in the area and hence, the library service persisted in finding funding alternatives. As a result of these efforts, funding from a number of sources was received, enabling the program to be conducted on a smaller scale from February 1996. Sources of funding included:

In addition, the local council and service clubs were also approached.

Family literacy programs are an innovative concept to public libraries in Australia. Until recently, there have been few programs conducted with a focus toward libraries. Similar projects have been run in American libraries and have proved to be extremely successful. Programs of this kind endeavour to 'enhance the lives of both parent and child; to improve skills, attitudes, values, and behaviours linked to reading' (Nickse, 1990, p. 4).
Such programs help increase adult literacy levels, broaden reading skills for children, and foster good reading habits for all family members. Parents are also able to actively participate in their child's learning. As quoted by Talan (1990, p. 32), 'parents are motivated by their concern for their children, an issue that often brings them into adult literacy programs in the first place'.

Family literacy programs are most effective during the early years before the child enters school. Those are the years when the child spends the most time within the family environment. Intervention at this time is also most effective. As Mansour (1991) states, 'children who grow up in an environment where books and readings are valued tend to become good readers; those who grow up without family support for reading do not'.

'Reading with Your Child' is aimed at parents or caregivers with low literacy skills or of non-English speaking background who need assistance in learning to read English and have pre-school children between three and five years old. It focuses on encouraging parents to read with their child and the importance of reading from an early age. The program is conducted during school term time, breaking for school holidays.

At Yarra Plenty, we decided to take the family literacy program out into the community rather than hold it at one of our branch libraries. There were many reasons for doing this. First, many residents in West Heidelberg rely on public transport or walk. The closest branch library is approximately four kilometres from the centre of West Heidelberg. People in West Heidelberg also have a perception that libraries are not for them. There is apprehension in stepping into a place which unconsciously promotes itself to the literate. Books appear synonymous with literate people. This highlights the need for librarians to work in their community in an effort to promote the library, and to dispel any myths which people may have about libraries.

The venue selected to host the program, West Heidelberg Community Centre, is centrally located, has the facilities required and, more importantly, has established itself as being a place that residents frequent and feel as their own.

Extensive consultation with the literacy tutor, children's librarians and myself as manager of the program ensures that we are all working towards the same goals.

The program consists of a number of components: pre-school storytime sessions for parents and their children; structured literacy classes for parents; child care facilities for pre-schoolers while parents are attending literacy classes; weekly visits to the mobile library; and visits to local branch libraries at the conclusion of the program.

Pre-school Storytime Sessions for Parents and their Children
Storytime sessions are held weekly. Initially, these were held as part of the program and available to participants only. At the conclusion of the first program, it was decided to offer this as an open session held in conjunction with the 'Reading with Your Child' program. The reasons for doing this were to encourage other families to become part of the program, and to offer a continuation and incentive for parents who had completed the program to continue reading to their children.

Storytimes are conducted by a children's librarian who the participants will see when they visit the branch libraries. Originally storytime was held at the community centre in the room used for the remainder of the program. As this was designed for classes it was not inspiring, nor did it attract outside attention. Hence, it was decided to relocate to the mobile library to a place where the environment was more stimulating and there was more chance of attracting additional interest. Should the demand grow to the extent that the mobile library can no longer accommodate this, the sessions will be held outdoors in the park (weather permitting) or at the local school which is adjacent to the community centre.

Timing of the storytime session is also important. We have conducted storytime both at the start and the end of the program. Numbers indicated that commencing the program with a storytime session worked better for the total program. Parents are more inclined to stay for the literacy session if they are already there. When storytime was held after the literacy session, families came along for the storytime session but did not make the effort to come to the literacy session.

We also decided to commence the program at 9.00 am so that parents who had older children could come directly to the program after dropping them off at school. If they had to make more than one trip, they were less inclined to come. This was further supported from questionnaires filled in by participants.

Literacy Classes for Parents
The literacy sessions are conducted by a trained adult literacy tutor and focus primarily on the literacy needs of the parents. Elements such as the importance of reading with your child, using the library, listening and talking with your child, children's literature and nursery rhymes and songs are covered.

The program is modified to fit into the Certificate of General Education for Adults. This assists participants in the program who would like to further their literacy needs and may wish to achieve this certificate.

There is an expectation that parents attend as many of the sessions as possible to complete the total program. During first term the program was booked to capacity with a total of ten families. An evaluation of the program after first term suggested that a review of the length of the program was required. Initially it was set at ten weeks. It was decided that this was too long for most parents to commit to and it acted as a deterrent for others. This became even more evident during term two when numbers dropped right off. As a consequence, the literacy component now focuses on five consecutive weeks during the school term. To date we do not have conclusive results which indicate that this is better, however, comments from families suggest that it is preferable.

Childcare Facilities for Pre-Schoolers While Parents are Attending Literacy Classes
Originally it was thought that childcare was an essential component of the program as the parents could attend literacy sessions and not worry about their children. However, limited use of the facility during the first two terms and negative reactions from parents made us reassess this. Parents felt that they had come along to the program to learn how to read with their children, hence their children should be with them. As a result, the literacy program has been re-developed to include the children. This has meant more attention towards developing activities for the parents and children to do together. Initially this was to be a component of the program where some time was dedicated to the parents and children having a combined session. Now it has become a focus.

Weekly Visits to the Mobile Library
Visits to the mobile library are an integral part of the program in developing regular library patterns and educating participants about the library service and what it can offer. Many people feel less threatened visiting the mobile library than using one of the branch libraries and these visits act as a progression to building confidence in using both.

The library service decided to coincide the program with the mobile library's scheduled time in the area: 9.00 am-12.00 pm on Fridays, with participants using and borrowing from the mobile library each week. Although the mobile library visits West Heidelberg weekly, unfortunately space limitations prohibited the total program being conducted on the mobile.

Visit to Local Branch Libraries at the Program's Conclusion
The aim of this session is to encourage participants to take full advantage of the library's resources and services and to gain confidence in using a library in addition to the mobile library. Free transport to and from the library is arranged for the parents and children utilising the Council's community bus.

Free Book
At the concusion of the program, participants receive a book as a memento of the program and to further encourage the parents to continue reading with their child. It also encourages parents to introduce books into their home environment. As mentioned earlier, this was made possible through generous sponsoring of books from library suppliers and a publisher.

Marketing Advice
Do not underestimate the importance of marketing and promotion of the program and the time that it takes. Ideally, the program requires someone who can focus on marketing aspects. At Yarra Plenty, this became part of my role as additional funding was not gained for this position. I developed a good rapport with local institutions, the media and local businesses to assist in the promotion of the program. It is also vital to network with organisations who are involved with the target audience and where possible, to talk to the groups and conduct a story session for them so that they are aware of what is happening. The intensity and level of marketing needs to be ongoing for any new program such as this to be successful. Initially at Yarra Plenty this happened, however, we could not maintain the level of marketing due to other commitments.

A program such as this does not happen overnight. It takes extensive research and consultation with many organisations. Anyone planning such a program needs to be prepared to modify or change the program if required. Listen to the participants and take their suggestions seriously. After all, it is for them that the program is being conducted. Finally, patience is required. It takes time to gain the confidence and commitment of such groups. To make it work successfully, organisations need to be prepared to go into the community and work with them. The community organisations and the library service may know that such a program is worthwhile and needed, however, it is ultimately the community members themselves who need to be convinced of the benefits of the program.

Bibliography

Adult Literacy: The Role of Australian Public Libraries. Report. Australian Library and Information Association Literacy and Public Libraries Section with the support of the Victorian Ministry for the Arts and the Victorian Ministry of Education, Division of Further Education, 1990.
Brizius, Jack A. and Susan A. Foster, Generation to Generation: Realising the Promise of Family Literacy. Michigan: High Scope Press, 1993.
Broughton, Beverley and Rod Campbell, 'Promoting positive family literacy practices', Good Practice, Jan. 1994, pp. 8-9.
Monsour, Margaret, 'Librarians and family literacy: a natural connection', School Library Journal, Feb. 1991, pp. 31-37.
Nickse, Ruth, Family and Intergenerational Literacy Programs: An Update of 'The Noise of Literacy'. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. Ohio: Columbus, 1990.
Nickse, Ruth, 'Overview of family literacy practices in the United States: Implications for Australia', Fine Print, vol. 16, no. 2, 1994, pp. 4-6.
Parents and their Children: The Intergenerational Effect of Poor Basic Skills, Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit (ALBSU), Apr. 1993.
Talan, Carole, 'Family literacy: libraries doing what libraries do best', Wilson Library Bulletin, 1990, pp. 30-32.
Walker, R., Working Towards a Healthy Heidelberg. West Heidelberg Health Centre Inc., 1994.


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