Blogger Early & Family Literacy committee

An Interview with Amy Forrester on Early Reader Work

The ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee’s charge includes children from birth to age 8 and their families. Thinking about the first and second graders who are learning to read reminded me that Denver Public Library (DPL) has created a team to create best practices within their library system to better support these emerging readers. Amy Seto Forrester, who has served on the Geisel Committee, and who is one of mainstays for the Guessing Geisel Blog also works at DPL. I decided to see what she could tell us.


What prompted DPL to work on emerging reader services and collections at DPL? 


In 2018 when DPL’s Grade Level Reading (GLR) Team was launched only 38% of Denver Public School (DPS) 3rd graders were meeting or exceeding expectations on the reading assessment (2018 Status of Denver’s Children, City of Denver, Office of Children’s Affairs, page 96). Put another way, 62% of DPS 3rd graders were not meeting/exceeding reading assessment expectations in the 2016-2017 school year. While there’s been a shift in a positive direction since then, the changes have been by just a few percentage points, and there’s no doubt that the pandemic will have a huge impact on learning, especially for students farthest from educational justice. 

Unsurprisingly, more recent data shows that students farthest from educational justice are less likely to meet or exceed reading assessment expectations. Race/Ethnicity and socio-economic factors are a part of this disparity, as you can see in these charts from the 2019 Status of Denver’s Children (City of Denver, Office Children’s Affairs, pages 88-89). The first chart shows the percentage of 3rd grade students by race/ethnicity that met/exceeded reading assessment expectations. The second is a heat map. The darker the purple, the more 3rd graders not meeting/exceeding reading assessment expectations in that neighborhood. You can see that reading scores are not evenly distributed across the city.  

It was with this context that the GLR Team was formed. We began by digging into the research around the science of learning to read, finding out what other libraries were doing to support developing readers, learning what reading skills were needed to become strong independent readers, and so much more. It was a huge learning curve. In general, most MLS/MLIS programs don’t spend a lot of time on developing readers. When I first started as a children’s librarian I didn’t really know what to do when patrons asked me questions about books to help their child practice reading. In conversations I’ve had with librarians across the country, I’ve realized this is something a lot of us feel unprepared to do. So our team looked at not only the need in our community, but also the ways we needed to support professional development for ourselves and our colleagues. We also communicated with the literacy curriculum specialists and Educational, Technology and Library Services department at DPS to align and collaborate as closely as possible. We heard from them that they wanted DPL to focus on the joy of reading. So, we read, discussed, brainstormed, rinsed and repeated. Finally, we came up with the DPL GLR Mission: Support and empower library staff, families and educators to connect children (K-3rd grade) with diverse books they enjoy and that inspire curiosity to foster lifelong learning. This mission has guided us as our team has shifted and the projects under the GLR umbrella have morphed to better meet the needs of community and staff. 

Carol: What changes has DPL made in response to what you have learned:


In the beginning we tried a lot of ideas. We were fortunate to receive funding for an additional, temporary full time children’s librarian to help us take on this work and that helped a lot. We were really exploring new ground, so we threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall. Enhancing collections, connecting with caregivers and educators, supporting staff development, school outreach, and more were on our initial list of projects. We were intentional about setting evaluation goals and that has and continues to help us know what’s working and what to let go of as we constantly assess and improve our offerings. 

Some of the most successful things we did included: 

  • Collaborated with our collection development and cataloging departments to create Early & Transitional local subject headings to make excellent books for developing readers easier to find in nonfiction, graphic novels, picture books, etc. 
  • Launched physical and digital Welcome to Reading Kits. In 2021 we hope to offer Spanish language kits as well. 
  • Created criteria and a rubric for leveling our beginning reader collection in conjunction with our children’s collection development specialist. 50+ staff members have been trained to use the tools and have taken part in evaluating our current collection. 

Carol: Is there more to do? And what advice would you give other public libraries about serving emerging readers, their schools and families? 


So much more to do! So far we’ve only been able to focus on English language materials, programs, and supports. In 2021 our goal is to better serve Spanish speaking kids and families, and we’ve got a fantastic team of Spanish speaking library staff working on that now. We’re also continuing to seek out and lift up developing reader materials by BIPOC creators, as well as featuring diverse representations. While other areas of children’s literature are becoming more diverse, books for developing readers are lagging behind. 

More than likely, your community is hungry for services and programs for developing readers . This isn’t just a Denver or Colorado issue, states across the country are seeing similar reading assessment scores (Chalkbeat, Reading Scores Fall on ‘Nation’s Report Card” While Disparities Grow Between High and Low Performers, 2019).The learning to read landscape is confusing and sometimes contentious (which is a blog post for another day). While there are some things that libraries can’t change, we can change and improve the way we look at, talk about, and offer collections, services, and programs for developing readers and the adults in their lives. And honestly, the look on a kid’s face when they successfully read a book on their own is worth all the effort. 

As for advice, I would say that a good place to start is to remember that serving developing readers and their families is really just a natural extension of ECRR (Every Child Ready to Read). Most libraries have really upped their game when it comes to services for babies-preschoolers, which is great. Now I think libraries have an opportunity to build on that base to support families in the kindergarten transition. The focus shifts from supporting pre-reading skills to honing learning to read skills. One thing that really helped us think of ECRR and GLR as a continuum was identifying the reading skills we wanted to focus on at DPL. We developed these five grade level reading skills through research, discussion with DPS, and dialogue with colleagues and patrons. Here’s a version on our kid’s website for caregivers. You might notice they are modeled somewhat after the ECRR practices, which was intentional and hopefully supportive for library staff already familiar with ECRR. Please note that these are not empirical reading skills. You may find something different works better for your community. Reaching out to the schools in your area is a good first step if you’re thinking of developing something similar. We shared early drafts of our five skills with school library and literacy curriculum specialists and as a result of their feedback we changed some of the terminology to match what caregivers and educators are already using to talk about independent reading. 

If you’re curious about DPL’s GLR Team or just want to chat about library services, collections, and programs for developing readers, please reach out to me anytime:

A big shout out to my fellow GLR Team members (past and present), as well as the entire staff of the Central, Children’s Library: 

  • Alyx Campbell
  • Sarah Dutelle
  • Chandra Jones
  • Gigi Pagliarulo
  • Ann Schwab
  • Warren Shanks

Carol: Thanks so much and I’ll append some links that ALSC members may find useful. 

Free, archived webinars by GLR Team members created for the Colorado State Library:

  • Today’s blog post was written by Carol Edwards, retired youth services librarian in Littleton, Colorado, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. Her pronouns are she/her, hers and she can be reached at 

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies:

  1. Commitment to Client Group

               IV.       Collection Knowledge and Management

               V.        Outreach and Advocacy 

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