Innovative Community Reading Programs Spread the Love of Literacy

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Mikkaka Overstreet

Senior Contributor

Mikkaka Overstreet is from Louisville, Kentucky by way of Saginaw “Sagnasty”, Michigan. She has been an educator since 2006 and earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in 2015. By day she is a mild-mannered literacy specialist. By night she sleeps. In between, she daydreams, writes fiction, and reads books. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband and cats.

Mikkaka Overstreet

Senior Contributor

Mikkaka Overstreet is from Louisville, Kentucky by way of Saginaw “Sagnasty”, Michigan. She has been an educator since 2006 and earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in 2015. By day she is a mild-mannered literacy specialist. By night she sleeps. In between, she daydreams, writes fiction, and reads books. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband and cats.

All over the country, innovative community reading programs work to spread the love of literacy. Many of these programs were created out of a clear need in their communities. They are typically little to no cost for participants.

Community literacy is about bringing people together to improve society. According to one such organization, Decoda Literacy Solutions, “Community literacy involves the development of literacy and learning skills for any individual or group of individuals outside of the formal education system. It is learning that happens in the context of home and community, and it happens as a collective approach.”

Furthermore, innovative community reading programs benefit everyone. The Georgia governor’s office says that “every dollar invested in literacy programs returns $30 to the community in the form of reduced recidivism, better public health, engaged parents, and knowledgeable workers.” The National Endowment for the Arts says that “reading for pleasure reduces stress, heightens empathy, improves students’ test scores, slows the onset of dementia, and makes us more active and aware citizens.” Community reading programs meet our need to read, talk, and grow together.

Hopefully, the programs highlighted below will inspire you. Find and participate in existing opportunities in your community in the future, or borrow these ideas to create your own!

Books and Breakfast Louisville: Louisville, Kentucky

Books and Breakfast Louisville “is a monthly space held to discuss social issues affecting the community in a unique way and encourage and promote reading among black children and adults,” according to their Facebook page. Each month, participants gather for discussion, community, and breakfast. The pancake breakfast, books, and fellowship are all free.

Group leaders and volunteers actively seek community input to determine programming. They target Louisville’s West End, the predominantly poor and majority Black area of town. Adults discuss topics like Black power history, building community power, and voter engagement. Meanwhile, children engage in empowering, age-appropriate activities. The group also hosts charitable events, such as a blanket and toiletry drive for the large homeless community situated under a West End underpass.

Similar Books and Breakfast groups and events exist in many communities around the country.

Books with Barbers: Columbia, South Carolina

Books with Barbers (BWB) focuses on bridging the so-called “reading gap” among African American males. Their website states their mission as “to fully equip local barbershops with brand new literacy stations that will allow children to feast upon interest based text as they enjoy getting their hair cut.” BWB uses donations to fund bookshelves. Donors can even “adopt a shop” for $150. That fee covers a shelf, 30 picture books, 30 replacement books, and a decal for the barbershop’s window. BWB’s book list prominently features texts about Black boys and men.

Additionally, there are innovative community reading programs based in barbershops around the country. Books and Barbers in Lexington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, encourages kids to read aloud to their barber during haircuts. Afterward, children receive a sticker and can keep the books. Similar programs exist in New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and many other states.

Laundromat Story Time: Chicago, Illinois

If there’s one evil none of us can get away from in life, it’s laundry. For many families that means spending hours every week in a laundromat. Because of this, the American Librarian Association reports, in 1989 a Chicago Public Library children’s librarian began hosting laundromat story times. With a few books and puppets in a cart, Elizabeth McChesney turned a tedious chore into a learning opportunity.

Over time, the Chicago Public Library expanded to create a weekly program at 14 laundromats across the community. Librarians bring books, instruments, board books, colorful mats and other materials to engage participants. Among the reading, singing, and dancing, librarians also share ideas with parents so that they can take some of these early literacy practices home.

Chicago isn’t the only place where you can find literacy and laundromats paired. Similarly, there are both local and large-scale programs in communities across the country. New York’s Laundry Literacy Coalition is a collaboration between several nonprofits, libraries, and educational institutions that provide Family Read, Play & Learn Spaces to participating laundromats. According to a recent press release, these kits include “sturdy, school-grade furniture, book storage, and other kid-friendly amenities.” Local partners help laundromat owners plan story times and organize their spaces. Additionally, each kit includes a Scholastic book subscription so that families can be given free books. The goal is to encourage families to keep the learning going at home.

One Book, One Irving: Irving, Texas

The public library in Irving, Texas, has hosted a community read every year since 2005. Each year during kickoff events, adults can pick up copies of the selected book. They can also checkout age-appropriate related books for their children. Along with the reading and discussions, the Irving Public Library hosts related activities. For example, in conjunction with the 2015 read of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the library hosted a screening of the movie. Children participated in story times, puppet shows, and book crafts while book characters roamed the library as further entertainment.

Recently, One Book, One Irving has been a part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read initiative.”Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.” Further, according to their website, the NEA Big Read “annually supports approximately 75 dynamic community reading programs, each designed around a single NEA Big Read selection.” NEA provides grants of $5,000 to $15,000 to support programming and marketing.

READ ENC: Greenville, North Carolina

According to their website, READ ENC’s “overall goal is to provide a common vision and resources needed to create and expand efforts to grow awareness, programming, and community/family resources to stimulate cognitive development during the critical period, birth–age 5, leading to grade level proficient reading at the end of grade 3”. In 2014, a group of concerned community members including teachers, librarians, professors, nonprofit leaders, and others, started the program.

Executive director, Dr. Terry Atkinson, says  “the need for book access in our rural area…is one of the main reasons why our community literacy coalition organized.” Consequently, READ ENC “seeks to provide some of the resources needed to help ENC parents, guardians, and caregivers as they serve as their children’s first and most important language and literacy teachers.” In addition to providing books for children ages birth to 5 via Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, READ ENC’s website and FB page provide resources to parents. These include shared reading pointers, events sponsored by community partners, and a variety of other resources, including a map of community lending libraries, Home Reading Helper (a resource for parents to elevate children’s reading at home provided by Read Charlotte), and information about local public libraries, school attendance, and summer learning.

Lastly, Dr. Atkinson says, “READ ENC promotes initiatives meant to increase our community’s engagement in and awareness of the importance of literacy.” For example, READ ENC’s Book Nook Project turns “waiting time” into “reading time” by putting books in spaces where children and families wait. They’ve set up dozens of book nooks in local doctor’s offices, laundromats, and barber shops.

READ ENC also sponsors community World Read Aloud EventsSummer Learning Activities (including the Kids Read Now summer reading program), and the #PCSStriveForFive Attendance Campaign.

Learn More About Community Literacy

Are you interested in learning more about why community literacy is important? Would you like more information about starting your own innovative community reading programs? Check out the resources below!