Advocacy, Not Pity: An Interview about Early Literacy for Special Populations

For this blog post I interviewed Sarah McNeil, Outreach Librarian and Read Aloud Program Coordinator, and Lauren Dennis, Library Program Associate, both from the Early Literacy Department (ELD) at the Denver Public Library, CO (DPL). I have compiled our discussions, however, please note that the answers in this post are not verbatim quotations.

What special population(s) do you serve?

The largest special population served by DPL’s ELD is children who are affected by poverty or lower socioeconomic factors. They may be from immigrant families, families with low levels of literacy, and/or English language learners. This population is not identifiable by sight, which can make it difficult to serve.

Do you create programs specifically for this special population or  make your programs more inclusive?

ELD aims to make programs more inclusive, while still targeting the special population. If something is good for a special population it tends to be good for all community members. For instance, ECRR applies to all families, not just special population families. ELD assumes that everyone can use this information, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, etc.

What are some of the planning elements you consider when serving this special population?

  • Look to create partnerships with organizations that are already working with your target audience.
  • When choosing materials, look for a diversity of titles that reflect the experiences of your target audience, as well as provide a window into other cultures. Consider all the demographics of your target audience, not just one facet.
  • Movement is a great way to get everyone involved, no matter the language in which you are reading or speaking.
  • Use humor to establish trust as you build relationships.

What can libraries do (in-house or outreach) to make early literacy more accessible this special population?

Book/material giveaways are attractive to this special population. ELD tries to pair them with modeling opportunities, so that giveaways can be used to bring early literacy activities home. you can model dialogic reading when giving away books or make a song cube with parents and show how it can be used to encourage singing at home.

ELD has had great success with their Play and Learn Groups. These sessions take place at community centers outside of the library and use a storytime + craft format to connect with families and model early literacy practices. Each session focuses on a different ECRR2 practice (read, sing, talk, play, write). These sessions allow ELD to frame storytime as a learning activity and the library as a community resource.

What are some of the challenges serving this special population?

  • The Fear Factor – If you’re not a part of a population, it’s common to feel as though you don’t have anything to offer. No matter your life background, you have something to offer. It’s hard to walk the line between being a community resource and being preachy. Just remember, your job is to advocate, not pity.
  • The Language Barrier – If you don’t speak the language of your audience, choose materials that can be understood by language learners, such as picture books that rely on visuals to tell the story. Whenever possible, bring materials in the language of your audience.
  • Generalizing – Every person is a unique individual, so don’t expect all members of a special population to behave or like the same things. Think about validating the individuals’ experiences.
  • The Slow Build – It can take a while for a program to settle in and become successful. Start small and slow to give your program time to succeed.

How do you measure the success?

Lauren and Sarah admitted that the success of their programs can be difficult to determine. Attendance numbers are important, but they have found other ways to define success. For instance, ELD provides many parent presentations on early literacy. At the close of a presentation, a provider will often ask for participant feedback, such as what they will take home and use. They also look for evidence of relationship building, such as being invited or referred for another presentation or establishing a new community relationship, as successful markers.

Experience shapes brain architecture by over-production followed by pruning. Source: Center on the Developing Child - Harvard University.
Experience shapes brain architecture by over-production followed by pruning. Source: Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University.

How do you get special population parents/caregivers to buy into the importance of early literacy?

Sarah suggested showing them brain research. Caregivers always love to see and hear about the brain development of children when delivered in an easily digestible and humorous. Visuals, such as images of brain scans, are universal and helpful.

Sarah also encouraged library staff to think about what families want to do or be, rather than what they have or do now. It can help to show them how their goals can be met using the resources you are sharing with them. Because at the end of the day, parents are parents and they all want the best for their children.


Amy Seto Musser. Photo courtesy of Sherry Spitsnaugle/Denver Public Library
Amy Seto Musser. Photo courtesy of Sherry Spitsnaugle/Denver Public Library

Amy Seto Musser has her MLS from Texas Woman’s University and is a children’s librarian at the Denver Public Library. She is always on the look out for creative ways to incorporate the arts into children’s services and programming to extend books beyond the page. Check out Amy’s blogs: http://picturebookaday.blogspot.com/http://chapterbookexplorer.blogspot.com/

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.


  1. Lisa

    Huh? So curious as to why Amy’s ukulele has 6 tuning pegs.

    1. Amy Seto Forrester

      Great question! It’s actually a 6 string uke (the top and bottom notes are doubled), but when I was learning to play I took off those extra strings to make it easier. And I’ve just never gotten around to putting them back on! 🙂

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