Research Time, Part 5: Expanding the concept of early literacy skills

In today’s post, I want to talk a little about Tess Prendergast’s fascinating article “Growing Readers: A Critical Analysis of Early Literacy Content for Parents on Canadian Public Library Websites” (2013).

What is particularly notable for me in this article is how Prendergast pushes out the walls of the concept of “early literacy” – not only reinforcing the core concepts that we have already identified (including things like early literacy skills and practices), but embracing the complementary idea that early literacy also involves concepts like diversity and that the broader experience of the child is part of early literacy as well.  Prendergast’s article is challenging to my perspective; perhaps it will challenge yours in a good way as well.

So let’s take a tour through this piece.



Prendergast first embarks on a survey of public-library websites to look at what she finds with regard to the content of those websites, and how they discuss their early literacy programs and storytimes. She describes her findings as follows:

A word-level analysis of 150 unique storytime descriptions reveals that the ten most frequently used words across all 20 libraries’ listings were: songs, rhymes, stories, fun, books, fingerplays, learning, interactive, love, reading. Considered together, these ten words reveal the essence of most library storytimes. (p. 239)

She also finds that other aspects of storytime are emphasized, such as parent/caregiver bonding with children, preparing for kindergarten, cultural observances such as Diwali, and the simple fact of storytime being an enjoyable activity with children.

But Prendergast finds something that may come as a surprise: representation of diversity of ability is dramatically underrepresented. Librarians, this means that even if our storytimes are welcoming to children of many ability levels, we may not be getting that message across! Although it may be more beneficial for us to express this overtly, Prendergast suggests:

although not overtly welcoming to children with developmental challenges, program descriptions that welcome all “ages and stages” provide an example that sounds more inclusive of children with developmental differences. This phrase may be all that is needed to allay the concerns of parents of children who have developmental delays and disabilities, who may wonder if and how their children will be welcomed and included. (p. 243)

Parents of children who learn or behave differently than their peers may look for evidence that their child will be welcomed. I have explored some ways we can accommodate children with these differences in this post, and Prendergast highlights the importance of not only doing this, but expressing that we do this so that families know that they are welcome.

Prendergast also explores subtle ways that our web presence can signal diversity and inclusion, such as visual representation of children of diverse heritage and diverse ability in our web and print content.

In discussing her findings, however, Prendergast now shifts to a profoundly important, if disquieting, discussion of the limitations of our understanding of early literacy. She argues that our understanding of early literacy practices is limited to that found in ECRR/ECRR2 and library-industry information about early literacy which is primarily based on ECRR/ECRR2. But…

The problem with ECRRR being the primary “go to” resource for early literacy in the field of children’s librarianship (and therefore appearing frequently on library websites) stems from the resource’s very narrow view of early literacy and how this narrow view might limit its inclusiveness of and relevance for the diverse communities served by public libraries.  […] no evidence of a broader view of early literacy, beyond the skills-based, reading readiness frame, was found on any of the sites examined, nor did any of the links provided on these sites lead to resources that convey a broader view of early literacy. Of particular concern is the fact that none of the libraries’ websites portrayed a nuanced understanding that all families engage in and support their young children’s learning in ways that are culturally important to them, and that this support may not look like Western notions of early literacy (i.e., reading books to young children).(p. 246)

Prendergast cites Hamer and Adams’ proposed broader definition of early literacy as follows:

the experiences, practices, attitudes and knowledge experienced by young children in multiple settings that contribute to their understanding, enjoying, engaging with and using oral, visual and written language and symbols of their own and other cultures to express their individual identity and allow active participation in literate society.

Quite a left turn from our traditional understanding of early literacy – but I think that we absolutely must see the value in it. Consider the ways in which language is culturally bound, the role of a child’s interacting with the environment in shaping language learning, the benefit for a young person to see concepts that are relevant to his or her own cultural milieu in his or her education.

Prendergast goes on to say:

Expanded views of early literacy (i.e., those that go beyond things like phonological skills and school readiness) can help practitioners learn about ways that literacy skills can be developed for children labelled with a variety of disabilities. These expanded, flexible, and inclusive views of early literacy and the ways that libraries’ collections, programs, and services can support them should be made evident on library webpages for parents and caregivers to see.  (p. 248)

In this conclusion, then, I feel that Prendergast has proposed a bit of a seismic shift in our definition of early literacy, and this is appropriate and useful, in a big-picture, sociocultural-understanding sense. The subsequent recommendations in an on-the-ground sense are also useful and can provide us with some ways forward:

  1. Create parent pages on our websites that will help parents understand specifically what we offer and what they can do to support their children’s literacy development. Include information about our inclusion of children with differing needs!
  2. Translate web content into non-English languages. (This is fairly easily automated now – and in some communities this is an increasing must-do.)
  3. Expand our portrayal of early literacy skills and abilities on our websites. Include information about early literacy’s cultural and heritage components.
  4. Visual representation of diversity on our web and print materials.
  5. Relax our storytime rules to create a more relaxed, welcoming environment.



Prendergast, T. (2013). Growing readers: A critical analysis of early literacy content for parents on Canadian public library websites. Journal of Library Administration, 53(4), 234-254.


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