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Story Last modified at 9:33 p.m. on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Preparing toddlers to read starts when they are infants

Librarian Terri Chang has a perception challenge. As the manager of the Ready To Read Resource Center, her mission is to promote early literacy in young children throughout the state of Alaska. All too often though, parents and caregivers think she is encouraging adults to teach babies to read.

"People don't understand. I run into a whole mentality of 'this is just a little baby who doesn't know what a book is.' When children get to 3 years old, 4 years old, then their parents are interested (in building skills). They think early literacy is getting kids to read at earlier and earlier ages. Not so," she insists.


Terri Chang will discuss early literacy at a presentation 2-3 p.m. March 19 at the Chugiak-Eagle River Branch Library. She also will speak from 4-5 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Muldoon Branch Library.

Singing songs, playing with blocks, talking to the child – that's what early literacy is about, according to Chang. It is not about flash cards; it's not about teaching the alphabet. It's playing with blocks and puzzles to learn shapes. It's singing songs to develop a toddler's ability to sound out words and to listen. It's talking to very young kids to expand their vocabularies so they will have a bank of words to draw on when they are learning to read. Early literacy can be as simple as hanging a mobile over your baby's crib so he or she can start to learn about shapes.

Recent brain study backs up the importance of early learning for children. From the time they are born until they are about 20, children are actually forming the connections in their brains based on their environments. Each person's brain is different depending on personal experiences at an early age. In childhood, hundreds of thousands of connections are made. This explains why learning multiple languages is so easy for children and so difficult for adults. As part of their environment, the languages become part of the initial structure of their brains. So obviously, the earlier one starts laying the foundation for literacy, the better children will read later on. (To learn more about brain development, go to to access KSKA Line One's host Dr. Thad Woodard's interview with Douglas Fields, an expert in nervous system development.)

The Ready to Read Resource Center, established several years ago at Loussac Public Library, is a statewide program funded with a grant from the Alaska State Library. To promote the Center and its principles, Chang travels throughout the state giving talks about early literacy.

"What early literacy is is laying the foundation for learning how to read. So basically it's groundwork. We're not teaching young children how to read. It's not getting young children to read at an earlier and earlier age. Early literacy is learning the foundational skills for eventual reading and writing."

As part of its outreach, the Center provides reading kits in the form of 140 tubs and 84 lapsit bags with board books and picture books designed for kids up to age 3. The kits can be borrowed by anyone who works with infants and toddlers throughout the state via Anchorage Public Library's Inter-Library Loan system. Communities without libraries can apply directly to Chang by e-mail ( or phone (907-343-2970).

"This is an evolving project and has been going quite well," Chang said. "I'd like to see more people taking advantage of this resource."

The kits have been used by Early Head Start programs, infant program workers, home visit workers and libraries across the state. Parents are able to borrow lapsit bags and they reportedly love them, Chang said. Preschool teachers have a lot of interest in the kits. Even though the materials are geared for early learning they find that their students enjoy the picture books.

"As a library we offer a lot of books and a variety of books. We've tried to make them easily accessible through this project," Chang said. "Early literacy works in various ways in our state. Some agencies provide books in the homes. Others do programs for, say, low-income families who need the extra support.

"What we do is make the universe bigger. So after they've read all the books in their homes, after they've learned some things about the importance of reading, that's when the library comes in.

"We can give them more and more and more and more. And we do it on a shared basis because that's really the only way we can provide so much to so many people. The library is for expanding your universe."

Chang, originally from Hawaii, received her library degree from the University of Washington at Seattle. She worked as a public services librarian in Barrow for a couple of years before starting at Anchorage Public Library.

As the one-person staff for the Reading Resource Center, she has become a passionate advocate for early literacy.

"I am always happy to do talks about early literacy," she said. "I love seeing how people react as they understand how early literacy can help their children. They might come to the presentation blasé, but when the leave they're like, 'oh wow!' "

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This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 23, 2011.