Family Storyteller program wins national award

10/18/2010 - By: Jim Sloan

Family Storyteller — a family-literacy program that has helped bring lasting educational and economic benefits to more than 16,000 Nevada families by incorporating books and reading into their everyday lives — has received national recognition from the federal government.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension program was selected for a 2010 National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Partnership Award. Extension Specialist Sally Martin—who created the program with Extension Specialist Dan Weigel—will travel to Washington, D.C., to accept the award at the NIFA Day of Appreciation on Oct. 6, 2010.

UNCE's Family Storyteller program was selected over scores of programs developed at more than 100 land-grant universities throughout the country eligible for the NIFA award. Parents in the Family Storyteller program learn that reading to their preschool-aged children builds a strong language foundation that helps children learn to read and allows them to progress through school with greater success, helping them to avoid falling behind or dropping out of school.

“Kids who struggle in school become the people likely to end up unemployed or in low-paying jobs,” Martin said. “So it’s really exciting and positive when they gain these foundation skills.”

UNCE’s Family Storyteller program, designed especially for families with limited language skills and few children’s books at home, is available in English, Spanish, English Language Learner and Native American versions. UNCE collaborated with the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, KNPB-TV, Washoe County libraries, the Washoe County School District, Nevada’s College of Education, the Northern Nevada Literacy Council, State Library System, Children’s Cabinet, Head Start, Even Start, preschools and private donors to develop the program. The late Jo Anne Kock, an Extension Specialist in Clark County, was also involved in creating the program.

Local public television station KNPB joined the Family Storyteller project early in the process, producing short videos featuring parents reading to their children. Over the years, Family Storyteller resources and services have found a very special place in the Ready To Learn activities of the station.

“We teach parents to watch our children’s programs with their children, then turn off the set and read a book,” Vice President of Education Patricia Miller said. “What we have learned through taping these families reading to their children is the power of the book. All the studio distractions of multiple cameras, bright lights and television crew fade away when the parent begins to read.”

The need for the program was made clear when studies ranked Nevada 47th in the nation for the percentage of parents who say they read to their children. Other studies found that 51 percent of third-grade and 47 percent of fourth-grade students in Nevada read below the basic reading level.

Weigel said national recognition for Family Storyteller will help to illustrate the importance of reading to children at an early age.

“The early foundations—before children do what’s called conventional reading—start before formal school,” Weigel said. “These are things like learning to enjoy books, learning the sounds of words and learning that words have meanings.”

Many parents with low-literacy levels have benefited from the program and have improved their own reading comprehension and vocabulary, Martin said. The Family Storyteller program often incorporates the entire family.

“The parents in our program want what’s best for their children and work very hard, so we are very excited to see them come and participate with their children,” Martin said. “Sometimes children show up with their brothers and sisters, too.”

UNCE Dean and Director Karen Hinton said the program’s impacts were easily identifiable.

“This is a program that has produced measurable outcomes for the families participating,” Hinton said. “It also produces long-term, positive outcomes for communities and the state as a whole.”

Through selected book-reading techniques, grammar lessons and practice-reading sessions, parents who have completed the Family Storyteller program show marked improvement in their vocabulary and reading comprehension.

“Parents feel much more certain that they can help their children learn,” Weigel said. “They’ve definitely increased their confidence.”

HOW IT WORKS:

Family Storyteller is a six-week series of workshops featuring 10-minute videos, lessons on book-reading techniques and the practice of reading to children, and other literary activities. A book and packet of materials go home with the parents and children each week so they can continue their reading and activities together.

At the weekly sessions, families discuss key parent-child reading techniques; watch a video that models the techniques; practice reading; learn about additional activities that can contribute to achieving better literacy skills; and receive a free book and materials to complete activities at home.

Project videos illustrate important parent-child reading techniques. Parents and children participate in literacy activities together, but also are trained separately for brief periods that provide a rich opportunity to observe skill development, coach families and take note of what should be emphasized next.

This program has enlisted more than 300 voluntary instructors who have delivered Family Storyteller throughout Nevada. Web-based training sessions have allowed more than 70 Extension professionals from across the country to develop the program in their own states.


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