The Narrative


San Jose State University will serve as the lead institution and seeks $707,537.00 in IMLS funds, and will provide $702,517.00 in cost share along with its partners across three years. Along with San Jose State University, our team represents:

Three States

California, New Mexico,
North Carolina,
and Montana

Five Native American Tribes

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians;
The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina;
Northern Cheyenne;
Santo Domingo Pueblo; and The Yurok Tribe

Former Partnership with: The Crow Tribe of Montana

Two National Community Organizations

Head Start and Little Free Libraries

We found that despite Blackfoot parents seeing the value of reading to the future of their children, many of those children, due to a complex and interconnected web of barriers, appear to be growing up in book deserts with little access to books (Chow, LaFrombosie, & Roy, 2019). The name Reading Nation Waterfall represents an aspirational and resolute metaphor for the vision and desired outcomes of our project. As waterfalls tirelessly carry pure water that turn into streams and rivers bringing the nutrients for life to flourish, we hope to do the same for tribal communities by saturating the daily ecosystem of children and families with carefully selected books for children and their caregivers and information about culturally relevant programs and resources at their local libraries. By building and leveraging a strong network of existing libraries and community organizations, the goal is to maximize access and convenience while removing time, cost, and affordability as fundamental barriers.

Reading Nation Waterfall is a project grant in the piloting and scaling maturity level in the Lifelong Learning category.

The Project Team represents a robust and unique collaboration between tribal, public, school, national low-income school readiness program, national literacy experts, national community book exchange experts, and experienced and seasoned university researchers.
The goal is to create a team of professionals who have the experience, culturally appropriate context, and expertise to study and address a complex problem – increasing access to literacy resources and libraries for tribal children and families by identifying and breaking down existing barriers.


National 4th Grade Reading Scores Increase While Native American Scores Decrease

Since 1992, 4th grade reading scores in the United States for all races have increased at statistically significant levels except for American Indian/Alaskan Native children.

Scores for the latter decreased by 3%, and as of 2019, were 16 points below the national average (NAEP, 2019). Also, 80% of these children are reading below the proficient level and the average score of 204 is well below the nation’s 208 basic proficiency level (NAEP, 2019). The academic challenges for American Indian/Alaska Native students continue at the high school level as they have the nation’s highest dropout rate at 10.1% in 2017, over double the dropout rate of White students (4.3%), and almost double the national average of 5.4% (NCES, 2017). Finally, they also have the lowest high school graduation rate at 72.4% of all racial groups (NCES, 2017) and are least likely to continue their education after high school at 17% compared to 60% of the U.S. population (PNPI, 2018).

Reading Proficiency, Not Race, Primary Indicator for Academic Success

A 10-year longitudinal, nationwide study of nearly 4,000 students found that reading proficiency is the key variable, not race: “Gaps in graduation rates among white, black and Hispanic students closed once poverty and reading proficiency were taken into account. If they are proficient in reading, they basically have the same rate of graduation…If they did not reach (reading) proficiency, that’s when you see these big gaps emerge” (Hernandez, 2011; Sparks, 2011). The same study found that, “those who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers. For the worst readers, those (below) basic skills by third grade, the rate is nearly six times greater” (Hernandez, 2011, p.3).

Reading From 0-5 Foundational Catalyst for Brain and Cognitive Development

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that shared reading should begin at birth and it has lasting benefits for the developing brain.

This is called emergent literacy and is defined as, “the skills, knowledge, and attitudes supporting reading and writing that accrue from infancy” (Hutton et, 2015, p.467). Research finds that, “the quality of cognitive stimulation in the home, especially before school entry, strongly influences achievement and health outcomes. Children’s books are catalysts for parent-child engagement during sensitive developmental stages when brain growth and plasticity are maximal” (Hutton et, 2015, p.467). Hutton’s (2015) research found that books provide both grammatically correct material and breadth of subject matter that extends far beyond regular daily conversations and subject matter. The long-term impact on brain development resulting from the quality of cognitive stimulation and nurturing during early childhood is called biological embedding. Reading stimulates the use of language, visual, and association brain networks, and “during this critical prekindergarten period, children are highly vulnerable to disparities in cognitive stimulation, especially spoken language, as well as toys and books promoting constructive parent-child engagement,” and this “underscores the need for effective interventions applied as early as possible, when brain networks are most amenable to change” (Hutton et, 2015, p.473).

The American Academy of Pediatrics also noted that, “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most significant predictor of high school graduation and career success.”

They recommend that, “pediatric providers advise parents of young children that reading aloud and talking about pictures and words in age-appropriate books can strengthen language skills, literacy development and parent-child relationships.” Time spent reading together also helps “create nurturing relationships, which is important for a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development” (O’Keefe, 2014). Shanahan (2018) noted that, “Reading can lead to learning and that is true if the reading takes place independently, socially, or under the supervision of a teacher. It is true whether the reading is oral or silent, self-selected or assigned, done at home or at school. It is a good idea to require children to read. It is a good idea to encourage children to read on their own” (Shanahan, 2018). According to Piaget (1972; Piaget & Inhelder, 1966/1969), the act of reading in elementary school can be conceptualized as the coordination of many types of processes, including phonological and semantic processes, into an overall system, and there is a significant relation between domain-general multiple classification skill (e.g., classifying objects by shape and color simultaneously) and children’s reading skill (Arlin, 1981).

Increased Local Library and Individual Income Linked to Increased Usage, Circulation, and Quality of Life

One of the biggest obstacles and sources of frustration for librarians is knowing that a sizable percentage of children and families in their communities, that could benefit most from using them, do not. While the 2017 IMLS statistics show an increase in library usage nationwide — per capita circulation (Table 4), library visits per person (Table 5), and attendance at children programs (Table 39) (IMLS, 2017) – research also consistently finds a strong correlation between higher education and income levels and increased library usage (Chow, 2019; Carlozzi, 2018; Geiger, 2017; Rainie, 2016). In addition, a strong correlation between funding and library activity, at least as measured through the variables of circulation and annual visitations, has also been found (Swan et al., 2013), “[Library] revenue was a positive predictor for visitation, circulation, and program attendance” (p. 13).

Chow and Tien’s (2019) big data study of all public libraries in North Carolina over a 10-year period found, through regression analysis and predictive analytics, that print book circulation per capita had a statistically significant impact on a community’s high school graduation rate and that both library visitation and amount of local funding directly impacted that print book circulation. The higher the local per capita income of a public library, the higher per capita library visitation and per capita print book circulation, which was the single library output found to be a predictive, causal, and stable variable across multiple quality of life variables, including education level, income, and number of jobs (Chow & Tien, 2019).

Access to Books, Culture, and Recreational Reading Connected to 4th Grade Native American Student Achievement

The University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) will serve as the lead institution and seeks $707,537.00 in IMLS funds and will provide $702,517.00 in cost share along with its partners across three years. Along with UNCG, our team represents:

In 2015, a landmark study conducted by The National Indian Education Study (NIES) surveyed 8,500 AI/AN fourth graders and found statistically significant differences in high-performing vs. low- performing students due to differential access to three main resources:

  • a school library that contained materials about their own culture and people,
  • access to more than 25 books at home, and
  • owning a computer.

In addition, higher performing children reported that reading was one of their favorite leisure activities (NIES, 2015). A 2018 international study of 31 countries also found that growing up with home libraries with 80 or more books had statistically significant benefits in adulthood, “… adolescent exposure to books is an integral part of social practices that foster long term cognitive competencies and…(that) home library size has a loglinear effect on cognitive, numerical, and problem-solving skills that endure throughout life” (Sikorra, Evanish, & Kelley, 2018, p.15). An annual national study conducted by Scholastic finds the average home library for American children ages 6-17 was 103 books, but for frequent readers it was 139 books and for infrequent readers it was 74. Similar disparities were found based on income with families of $100k or more who averaged 125 books at home while those making $35k or less averaged 73 (Scholastic, 2019). Scholastic’s CEO also noted that the digital age has increased the importance of reading skills as, “…children are growing up in a world full of digital information, which makes it even more important for them to know how to analyze, interpret and understand complex texts, to separate fact from opinion, and to develop a deep respect for logical thinking” (Scholastic, 2013, p. 2).

Self-Selection Key to Intrinsic Love of Reading

When students were asked what teachers could do to get them more involved in reading, many stated the importance of self-selection (Bruckmann, 2002). Numerous studies have found a strong correlation between book choice and developing intrinsic motivation (Gambrell, 1996) and when students are allowed to self-select the books they read, standardized test scores increase (Ley, Schaer, & Dismukes, 1994; Vaughn, 1994). Students like to read books that are of interest to them and ones they can personally connect to, or that speak to their interest and embrace their cultural, ethnic, and linguistic identities (Sewell, 2003). This helps them make connections to the characters and their personal lives and future aspirations (Bruckmann, 2002). How often a child reads can be explained by two factors — the child’s initial success in acquiring reading skills and motivation to read (Fuchs & Morgan, 2007).

When students have limited reading choices they often choose not to because they feel the material is uninteresting or un-engaging (Mercurio, 2005). This often leads to a negative feeling about reading, especially if it is teacher initiated. One student stated, “when they force you to read stuff you don’t want to read, it becomes a big annoying chore” (Mercurio, 2005, p.132). According to Follos (2007), when students are compelled to read material in school that they find dull and old fashioned (material that they often struggle with both in terms of interest and skill level) it reinforces and substantiates their distaste for reading. Some students find that their extreme dislike for reading can change when a wide array of self-selection material is available (Stairs & Stairs-Burgos, 2010).

Scholastic’s 13 years of research has found this to be a constant finding: “when kids choose, they read” (Scholastic, 2019) and that frequent readers are more likely to cite increased access to books, and sources such as public libraries, school book fairs or clubs.

Libraries Already Addressing Inequity and Unequal Access but Even Stronger Together

A primary role of libraries is to address unequal access and inequity in their communities, but are they connected and working together?

An appropriate analogy is how a wireless network functions – individual access points have limited coverage, but when connected together they form one larger network that is much stronger and covers a broader area increasing access, speed, and stability (Google, nd). Libraries represent individual access points to books, information, technology, etc. in their schools, tribal communities, and general public. These different types of libraries are already present at each of the five partner sites, but are they as connected and collaborative as they could be? In the process of forming our partner cohorts for this proposal, it is clear there are definite opportunities to work closer together to form a “literacy mesh network” that is convenient, accessible, and strong at multiple points in a child’s life. The excitement of the potential partners to work closer together to address a singular focus – increased literacy and access to libraries for tribal children – is palpable.

Libraries Serving Indigenous Populations

Most of the extant literature on library interactions with Indigenous communities focuses on collection development and management, and the need for their input and partnership in ensuring cultural relevance and appropriateness. Traditionally, the knowledge structures of indigenous populations, especially in relation to information storage and transmission, are different from traditional Western structures and library paradigms. It is often difficult to easily fold their knowledge into existing library collections (Duarte and Belarde-Lewis, 2015). The most fundamental step in working with indigenous populations is to find ways to appropriately represent and work with them to understand their priorities and how best to serve them in culturally relevant ways. The University of New Mexico has an Indigenous Nations Library Program, in which indigenous community members are hired as librarians to work with their cultural materials (Brown, 2017). Also, the State Library of New South Wales (Thorpe & Galassi, 2018) and Grand Valley State University in Michigan (Shell-Weiss, Benefiel, & McKee, 2017) partnered with the indigenous community to develop and refine policy changes around access to their collections. The U.S. officially recognizes approximately 600 Indian tribes (, 2019), and each has its own unique culture, so no one type of library programming or service will appeal to all. Northern Arizona University held a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, where Indigenous students learned how to edit Wikipedia articles and then did so, correcting bias and emphasizing Indigenous perspectives (Bishop, Pringle, & Tsosie, 2017). In efforts to welcome and preserve the lives, voices, history, and culture of indigenous communities, they must be invited to the table, listened to, and respected. This would serve and provide culturally relevant and appropriate library and information services that will benefit them and their communities across their lifespans.

Little Free Libraries (LFL)

In 2019, LFLs celebrated their 10th anniversary and began as a book exchange started by Todd Bol, who quickly recognized its enormous potential to bring people together around the love of reading. Today, it is a worldwide book-sharing movement with more than 100,000 registered LFLs in all 50 states and 91 countries, with more than 120 million books shared. Strengths include free and open access and convenience, especially important in communities with scarce access (LFL, nd).

Cottrell (2018) and Kozak (2017, 2019) discussed, however, three main potential drawbacks of LFLs:

  1. They encourage the idea of libraries as simple book warehouses;
  2. LFLs are usually overseen by non-librarians, so the quality of selection could be an issue; and
  3. Some policymakers could mistakenly see LFLs as supplanting public libraries, allowing local governments and schools to divert library funds to other projects.

The LFL organization has joined as a partner to this proposal and has existing experience working with Head Start, public libraries, and tribal communities. One of their largest partners uses LFLs in more than 20 Head Start Classrooms and they are presently working with more than 500 public library systems across the country. LFL Executive Director Greig Metzer notes, “We believe that Little Free Library can provide complementary support to local, brick and mortar libraries by being an outpost and promoter of traditional library services they provide” (Metzer, 2020). Lastly, LFL has installations in a number of Native American communities and has worked with the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries & Museums and currently has a LFL installed at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. Duane Yazzie, a teacher and reading specialist at Tséhootsooi Diné Bi Ołta’ School in Window Rock (who is a member of our national advisory committee), recently won an award for establishing the Navajo Nation’s first Little Free Library working with four sixth-grade girls, through LFL’s Impact Library Program.

Yazzie noted, “Reading has the power to transport us and move us beyond the present, to show readers what’s possible, (and) the places they could go.”

(Bland, 2019)

Libraries as Community Leaders and Catalysts for Lifelong Learning

The project differs from most other community literacy projects because it situates libraries as the leaders and systemic change agents in attempting to address early children literacy. By developing formal and long-term collaborations between different types of libraries, Head Start, Little Free Libraries, and the community, Reading Nation will assertively build the capacity to facilitate, support, and sustain lifelong learning. Drawing upon existing research, the project seeks to curate a systematic process where quality and culturally relevant books are given away for free while providing children with the opportunity and enough options for self-selection. Furthermore, increasing access to books is not enough without building reading partnerships with parents and caregivers to encourage and spark increased home reading.

The project also seeks to create a current of momentum to increase use of local libraries by providing funding to develop customized and culturally relevant programming and leveraging LFLs as a way to inform and connect children and their caregivers to such opportunities at their local libraries. The focus is on both ends of the lifelong learning spectrum – children and their adult caregivers. It complements current practice of different types of libraries working closer together to share collections and increase access to library services for children. It builds upon existing theory and scholarship in cognitive development that continues to show how important reading is to early children’s brain development and human cognition. By situating libraries as a community catalyst, this means taking a systematic approach to understanding barriers and then piloting and scaling potential solutions. Our project design is process oriented so that it is flexible to the local needs of different tribes and communities. It is both a pilot in terms of working with local communities to identify their own unique barriers, and potential ways to address them, and it is also scaling in terms of using the community assessment process, lessons learned, and the intervention we piloted in our planning study.

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