An analysis of early literacy programming in Somali-American communities
The importance of early literacy is underscored when examining the powerful role that it plays in a child’s learning trajectory. Early childhood experiences are foundational in their ability to shape a child’s learning and disposition – the effects of which are evident in later adult life, particularly as it relates to their education.
Moreover, in discussions on the educational achievement gap in the United States, scholars are increasingly pointing to disconnections between student home and school culture. One component of addressing this gap lies in developing strong programs which seek to work with parents in increasing school readiness amongst minority children.
Many Somali families arrive to the U.S. with a lack of schooling or limited formal schooling. As such, they are unaware of the expectations that schools set for incoming kindergarten students. For years, literacy professionals in Central Ohio have been attempting to effectively reach out to Somali families by discussing how they can improve children’s school readiness through simple early literacy practices.
The central challenge lies in the task of adapting the early literacy information for Somalis in such a way that it is both relevant to their lives and incorporates their lived experiences. It became clear from the onset that to present this early literacy information without incorporating the unique culture and experience of these families would be ill-advised.
In my capacity as an early literacy professional, I have amassed many experiences carrying out early literacy programs in the Somali community, and continue to do so through existing projects. Ultimately, I have found that incorporating knowledge of the Somali culture, language, and experience increased the efficacy of these outreach efforts, made information more accessible to Somali parents and increased parent and community buy-in of early literacy practices.
I have come to this understanding through my time promoting early literacy through a kindergarten readiness program as well as further efforts with an initiative entitled ‘The Somali Literacy Project’ – both of which will be thoroughly explored in this article. Before delving into these experiences however, it is important to explore why such programs are significant and the potential benefits they have for the participants. Thus, certain ideas which formed the basis of the kindergarten readiness program that targeted Central Ohio residents, which included the Somali community, shall be explored.
A significant study conducted by Hart and Risley found that the language gap starts early; by age 3, children from middle-class families displayed more expansive vocabularies than their children from low-income families. This was attributed to the fact that parents in middle class families spoke 300 more words per hour to their children.
In contrast, children from low income families were spoken to and read to much less frequently which may in turn impede their ability to develop literacy skills. Precisely, Hart and Risley demonstrate that a child from a higher income family will have heard 30 million more words than a child from a lower socioeconomic family at four years of age, displaying the sheer scope of the language gap that exists for children in poverty. The study not only reflects that this language gap starts early but potently displays how this gap simply continues to widen with time.
The fact that the kindergarten readiness program targeted parents of children 0-5 – that is, parents were eligible to hear the information as soon as their child was born – speaks of the importance placed upon parents beginning to engage in early literacy practices from the very outset.
While Hart and Risley speak of the importance of parents as it relates to their language contributions to their children, the kindergarten readiness program also operated around the idea that family engagement as a whole is a key component to a child’s overall development and learning capacity.
Reese and colleagues provide a review of parent interventions and conclude that parents are “an untapped resource for improving children’s language and literacy.” The Campaign for Grade Level Reading also affirms the role of parents by stating that those children who are read to in their initial years of life and who have access to books in their homes are more likely to read on schedule.
The Campaign further states that families in poverty do not live in such print-rich environments (often lacking access to libraries and the funds to buy books); it is telling that 61 per cent of low-income families have no children's books in their homes. The kindergarten readiness program placed an emphasis on putting books in homes (by equipping parents with books in their early literacy kits) and connecting families with the library (by signing families up for library cards), as there is an underlying acknowledgment that many low-income families lack books in their homes.
The important message that accompanies the act of giving parents materials and connecting them with resources is the fact that it is the parental engagement which is at the heart of these early literacy activities that makes them a truly meaningful part of a child’s development.
An additional element of the family component lies in the ability of the parent to serve as a model for the child and the way in which the child can reach new heights by following their parents’ actions.
Vygotsky’s theories on early development outlined the idea that children can reach greater heights when they have (peer or adult) models who aid them in a certain task. In this environment, they can engage in activities that would have otherwise been outside of their ability.
By following an adult’s example, the child first engages in a certain activity only with the aid of the adult but can gradually, with practice, complete these activities on their own. Reese and colleagues acknowledge the idea that learning occurs in the home prior to formal schooling.
The motto of the kindergarten readiness program, which was directed to parents, was: “You are your child’s first teacher.” This is because the program realized the significant role played by the parents (as it relates to developing their child’s language, literacy and understanding of the world). When a parent themselves realizes the importance of this motto, they can be more purposeful in their own actions, knowing that their children can partake in these learning experiences.
Parents are not the only key players in fashioning their children’s early experiences. Early childhood professionals also play a vital role in this early literacy effort as they are the main facilitators of early literacy information for parents.
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child referred to caregivers such as early childhood professionals as “the ‘active ingredients’ of environmental influence during the early childhood years.” In the kindergarten readiness program, the early literacy specialists were the avenue through which knowledge is disseminated to the parents and as such there is much emphasis on their training and ongoing professional development.
The determination of the setting in which the early childhood professionals would operate was instrumental. Past analogous early literacy programs have highlighted the importance of outreach and meeting families in convenient locations. Upon examining the success of such programs, it was clear that meeting parents within their homes at times that were most convenient for them was a main attributable factor to the effectiveness of these programs.
The kindergarten readiness program likewise adopted an outreach approach and felt that this was necessary to reach a population that was ‘off-the-grid.’The rationale for an outreach program is to reach those parents who are not receiving early literacy information within the library setting; by going to the places where these parents naturally are, the program ensures access to low-income populations who do not readily use the library.
While the outreach approach outlines how to reach parents in the general sense, it does not encompass the unique ways to reach out to culturally and linguistically diverse communities. As such, the kindergarten readiness program also ascribed to the notion that adaptations must be incorporated into the general program in order to adequately reach out to diverse communities.
Perry and colleagues illustrated the importance of modifying one’s approach to connect with culturally diverse populations, stating that it is important to understand the home literacy practices that immigrant parents value as well as the literacy practices that they are willing to adopt. The kindergarten readiness program approached diverse populations (particularly Somali and Latino communities) in a unique fashion – tailoring the program to their needs and accessing the communities in innovative ways by taking their culture into account.
The early literacy practices that the kindergarten readiness program shared with parents was promoted across libraries nationwide, however this particular program – which was affiliated with a library system in Central Ohio – was the first of its kind to take the program outside of library walls and transform it into an outreach initiative.
The program sought out parents and caregivers of children 0-5 who were ‘off-the-grid’ and supported them as their child’s first teacher. This was done by way of promoting pre-reading skills necessary for kindergarten readiness.
The goal of the program was for students in Central Ohio to reach a level of 90% kindergarten readiness by 2020. The Kindergarten Readiness Assessment – Literacy (KRA-L), developed by Ohio’s Department of Education, provided the measure by which the goal would be evaluated.
Every incoming kindergarten student is required to take the assessment in their first few weeks of kindergarten. This tool further helps teachers understand a child’s level of school readiness as the test assesses early literacy skills such as letter-sound kindergarten readiness.
The target areas for the kindergarten readiness program were chosen based on the communities which yielded the lowest KRA-L scores. The program was set up in such a way that staff would take advantage of parents’ waiting times at locations such as food pantries, welfare office, WIC offices and doctor’s offices.
These in-the-moment interactions comprised of staff engaging parents in one on one conversations about their children and sharing early literacy practices that they can incorporate with them (while also building on what the parent may already be doing as well as the child’s interests). The interaction would culminate by staff giving the parent a free early literacy kit containing items that would enable them to put the discussed practices into actions (such as books, crayons, and writing tools).
The parents who staff was unable to reach could be directed to a kindergarten readiness training in their neighborhood, as there were frequent trainings that took place across the city. The kindergarten readiness information would also be disseminated in more formal group settings with an established time and location for the parents to attend (daycares, mosques, community groups, etc.) as well as community events (such as health fairs). Following these interactions, participants would be contacted in order to assess how the program impacted their level of engagement with their children.
The two most prominent immigrant communities in Columbus are the Somali and Latino communities. In light of this, the program sought to initially focus on these populations and tailor the kindergarten readiness message in a way that took into account their respective cultures. The Somali community will be discussed as it relates to challenges the kindergarten readiness program faced trying to reach out to the community as well as the resultant solutions that came about.
The ways in which the kindergarten readiness program modified their approach for these communities generally falls under two categories: access and content.
As it relates to access, this encompasses successful outreach strategies in the physical sense as well as the linguistic sense (having the language capability to access the population). In terms of content, this refers to modifying and framing the early literacy message to make the discussion relevant and applicable to these communities.
The Somali population in Columbus, Ohio amounts to more than 45,000 people. Somalis steadily began arriving to the United States following a civil war in Somalia which resulted in the collapse of the country’s government. Their entrepreneurial spirit was manifested upon arrival – evident in the many Somali shops that line the streets on the Northside of Central Ohio. They also remain a very family-oriented people who have a rich oral culture.
The challenges associated with the Somali community can roughly be divided into the following categories: language, perception of parental role, and transportation. These challenges shall be discussed followed by the solutions that were a response to them.
As far as language, this serves as the greatest and most visible barrier to conveying the kindergarten readiness information. Many Somalis are not proficient in English which would naturally cause an obstacle to the staff whose main mode of communication was English.
Arguably the most important aspect of the program as it relates to parents is the ability to effectively communicate with them. Effective communication often allows staff to gain the buy-in from the parents which then transforms the exchange from a formal, one-sided presentation to an engaging conversation where both parties are involved.
There are further challenges which may prevent Somalis from connecting with the content of the kindergarten readiness message – especially as it pertains to books. Somalis have a rich oral tradition, as the culture places a heavy emphasis on storytelling and poetry as an avenue to learn about tradition.
The oral culture also constitutes the main mode of passing on information. There is not, then, as much of an emphasis on books; it is common to come across Somalis (particularly newly-arrived Somalis) who do not have books within their homes. Thus, one notes the evident barrier in getting Somalis to understand the importance of books and shared reading.
While it has been established that many Somalis are not proficient in English, perhaps one would posit to give Somali families books in Somali. However, even for those parents who feel the early literacy information is relevant, a further barrier exists as many Somalis are not literate in Somali and cannot read the language.
Further challenges were noted in terms of the perception of the parental role in education as well as transportation constraints. Due to the nature of school in Somalia, many Somalis believe that education begins at school and is the responsibility of the teacher.
The belief that “the village will raise the child” is prevalent and thus education is a communal responsibility; often times children will get acclimated to language through the care of their relatives and grandparents. Moreover, many Somalis have had no formal education and lack confidence in their role as their child’s first teacher.
Additional challenges in the form of transportation constraints are present as families may lack transportation to come to kindergarten readiness programs and the multiple children characteristic of Somali families may also make travel difficult.
The challenges that were posed created opportunities for the kindergarten readiness program to employ different approaches to meet the needs of the Somali community. As for the potential language barrier, staff who were fluent in the Somali language were hired to reach out to the community.
Incorporating Somali staff into the kindergarten readiness program represented a significant step in further gaining the trust and buy-in of the community. This did not merely allow staff to simply translate the kindergarten readiness message, but rather it allowed them to modify the message in such a way that Somali parents could connect with the importance of early literacy and understand the significant role they play in their child’s development.
For example, if a program targets practices that are not common in a community’s culture, there would be a need to set the stage and discuss the importance of such practices – thereby gaining buy-in – before simply launching into the intervention itself.
While many Somali parents are fully proficient and literate in English, this is not the case for all Somali parents. One might call into question the benefit of books for parents who are unable to read (both English and Somali text), which was the case for some Somali parents.
In this regard, these parents were encouraged to do ‘picture walks’ with their children where they would use the pictures to engage with their child and tell a story (removing the obligation to read the words). This provided a powerful outlet for Somali families to participate in the book reading practice, and further promoted book reading as a conversational event.
Many scholars have mentioned that book reading is extremely beneficial to children when it is not merely adults reading the text, but rather when parents and children are engaged in conversation around the story’s events and adults can further scaffold, comment and ask questions to the child as they both participate in understanding the meaning of the story.
The Somali oral culture was also taken into account when staff would encourage parents to tell their children Somali folktales and lullabies. It is important for early literacy professionals to acknowledge the primacy of a community’s culture and how members uniquely engage in early literacy practices. In this way, one can incorporate these aspects into the conversation, making for a more fruitful engagement.
The oral culture further informed the program’s method of advertising; word of mouth was found to be the most successful form of advertising. In particular, Somali mothers who benefitted from the program would readily tell other mothers about the program and the early literacy kit they had received. Moreover, gaining buy-in from community leaders who could influence other families and encourage them to attend the programs was especially beneficial.
Parent as Teachers
The road to changing perspectives on parental roles in a child’s education began with a conversation about how the American school system works and the need for parental involvement (notably different than the Somali context). The fact that learning begins at home before school was stressed and simple everyday opportunities for that learning to occur were introduced in an effort to motivate the parent (who may not have felt that he/she had much to impart).
Parents are indeed their child’s first teacher, and discussing the importance of getting children ready for kindergarten stressed the importance of the home setting as an optimal environment for learning.
The transportation difficulties in the community brought about the first home program, in which staff presented the information in a Somali mother’s home, in the company of her friends who also had children under five years of age. Prior to this, the kindergarten readiness program had never operated in homes, but the success of this home event inevitably led to more programs taking place in homes. This represented an exciting, new avenue the program took to reach out to Somali families.
The information was presented in a casual style that gave way to much participation and engagement. Moreover, the fact that it was held in a home and refreshments were provided encouraged parents to stay afterwards, chat, and ask more questions. The conversations among the mothers after the presentation displayed their eagerness to continue the momentum and get together and do more activities with their children.
Along with parents getting early literacy kits, many also checked out library books and signed their children up for library cards. One mother expressed that now that she got a library card for her son, she needs to make a habit of going to the library to get books for him; while another mother inquired about baby story times at the library. The mothers collectively expressed appreciation for the program being held in their home and noted that it was an ideal setting.
This approach for reaching out to Somali parents proved to be an effective step in promoting the message of early literacy. It also had the added benefit of providing a support network for Somali mothers, for they were engaged in the kindergarten readiness program and hearing its message alongside friends, who could ultimately encourage one another to engage in more varied activities with their children and share their stories and progress with one another.
Ultimately, the way that the kindergarten readiness program addressed the challenges that were posed by the Somali community highlights the importance of accommodating programs for diverse communities in order to increase their efficacy.
After having completed my involvement in the kindergarten readiness program due to pursuing graduate studies, I was still passionate about engaging in promoting awareness about early literacy within the Somali community. This led me to co-found The Somali Literacy Project with my sister Sirad Shirdon, an initiative which seeks to connect Somali families with resources concerning early literacy, language, education and disability.
The project was created in response to the needs that we saw within the Somali community through our time working with the community in our differing capacities – me, as an early literacy professional, and my sister, as a speech language pathologist and education researcher. We have provided workshops in our community along with teleconferences around varied topics including kindergarten readiness, parental involvement, early intervention, autism, and disability.
For example, one early literacy workshop which emphasized the importance of conversing with one’s children and engaging in shared reading began with discussing how the American school system differs from the school system in Somalia.
While the former requires the parents to play a central role in their child’s learning, the latter distinguishes the teacher as the sole educator. The workshop was very interactive and provided a space for Somali mothers to discuss their own experiences with one another, further posing questions and soliciting advice from the presenters along with the group of mothers.
Thus these workshops are less formal, didactic presentations than engaging, facilitated conversations with participants. They represent an ideal context for Somali women to talk about issues related to education, language, literacy, and disability, while sharing their ideas and posing questions.
When the workshop came to a close, parents had the option of choosing a book to take home – either “Goodnight Gorilla” or “Goodnight Moon.” These classic children’s books promote much interaction and engagement between parents and their children and incorporate vivid pictures which serve as the focal point for the story.
As mentioned earlier, “picture walks” in which parents use book illustrations to guide their storytelling is especially important for parents who may not be able to engage with a book’s text. “Goodnight Gorilla,” for instance, is a mostly wordless picture book, which allows parents and children alike to use the pictures to tell the story. Ultimately, such workshops enable us to promote early literacy while also building a support network among Somali parents.
Beyond serving as a resource for Somalis, The Somali Literacy Project also seeks to educate and consult with professionals who work with Somali students and their families in order to most adequately meet their needs. In this vein, we explore issues that include culturally responsive practices in classrooms, identity and belonging, culturally representative children’s literature along with lessons learned through our experiences working with the Somali community and professionals who readily engage with them.
Through my experiences promoting early literacy for the kindergarten readiness program along with my efforts for The Somali Literacy Project, I have come to understand the sheer importance of tailoring intervention programs for diverse communities. Too often, intervention programs follow a ‘one size fits all’ model, seeking to promote practices that can contribute to a child’s growth and development while remaining ignorant of a community’s nuances.
It is important, however, to explore community practices in an effort to increase understanding – modifying existing programs to ensure that they are culturally responsive. To avoid the pitfalls of viewing communities in a homogenous way and thus incorporating intervention programs in a routine manner, educators and researchers alike should seek to investigate and understand the communities they wish to engage with and tailor programs to meet the needs of the community and achieve optimal outcomes.
The author is a 4th year doctoral candidate in School Psychology at The Ohio State University. Her core research interests include early literacy, culturally responsive pedagogy, social-emotional competence, and autism. A forthcoming research project she is working on involves exploring the experiences of Somali families with children diagnosed with autism. She is actively involved in literacy promotion through her work as a graduate research assistant at The Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy as well as her community efforts at The Somali Literacy Project.
Photos: Naima Shirdon
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Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Harvard University Press.