Originally Published: March 14, 2018 6:03 a.m.
Talk is cheap – and priceless.
Just ask Denise Murphy, a veteran Taylor Hicks Elementary School teacher in Prescott who is in her third year as director of the Arizona Reads Now early childhood literacy project.
With cheerleader-like enthusiasm, Murphy talks of how “magical” it is to use the $450,000 grant-funded initiative to empower parents and teachers to help young children become readers, beginning with from-the-heart talks, or conversation, between parents and their babies or toddlers.
“Words are really powerful. Our brains are built for oral language. Children want to be spoken to, and they need to speak,” Murphy said. “The neuro-connections from conversation is what they use to read and write. Every sound and every sentence is logged in their brains, and builds pathways that they then draw on to decode words.”
Through dinnertime chats, or conversation prompted by a bedtime story, Murphy said conversation with young children is what prepares them to read and write “and it’s free.”
“We’ve forgotten the power of conversation,” said Murphy whose business card touts the Arizona Reads Now motto of “Talk, Connect, Read!”
At a recent literacy night at Lincoln Elementary School, some 150 families were able to see for themselves the connection between conversation and reading with young children. Not to mention the joy that comes from watching a child pick up a book and read aloud to their parents, Murphy noted.
“Reading changes your life,” Murphy declared. “To be able to read is freedom.”
Arizona Reads Now is a partnership between the Yavapai County Education Service Agency and the Prescott Unified School District sponsored by the Arizona Community Foundation of Yavapai County, James Family Foundation, Margaret T. Morris Foundation and the Massie Family Foundation. The funders pledged $150,000 a year with expectations that the inaugural initiative might spur future endeavors in other Yavapai County and Arizona districts.
The initial partnerships have expanded to incorporate other literacy and educational partners, including First Things First and the Prescott Public Library, as well as this year launching a vison project sponsored through the Sunrise Lion’s Club, Prescott optometrist Dr. Jonathan Bundy, Vision Service Plan and the Sunglass Emporium that provided computerized vison screenings that then led to 96 vision referrals for comprehensive eye exams and glasses.
Foundation Regional Director Carol Chamberlain said she has received messages from pre-school to third-grade teachers across the district who hail this program, and Murphy’s leadership and targeted training workshops, with “reenergizing their passion for teaching.”
Part of the grant enabled the district for the first time in a decade to align its pre-school and kindergarten with the “Reading Street” reading curriculum used by the first through fifth-grade teachers.
Taylor Hicks kindergarten teacher Shelley Soifer praised the curriculum for adding “a new energy” into her reading block.
“My students really enjoy the teacher read aloud texts. The stories are so engaging! Our new curriculum takes a very skilled approach to the reading process which allows all children to have success,” Soifer said.
Money was also allocated to professional development, in particular a phonics-based program known as LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. The program – Murphy is now a trainer – helps teachers better assess testing data to benefit individual students.
Quoting still another teacher letter, Chamberlain hailed the project as one that engages students so that they can individually celebrate reading success.
“WOW is all I can say!” the teacher said.
“They can see such a difference in the classroom,” Chamberlain said.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
For the 2018-19 school year, Prescott Assistant Superintendent Mardi Read said she expects Murphy to elevate the project so new, and veteran, teachers alike are equipped with strategies to benefit all readers, whether or not they come needing to be challenged or require some intervention. With the tools provided through this project, teachers are able to inspire children to not only be competent readers, but to love how words open up their world, Read said.
In her role, Murphy has built numerous community links from support of the library’s summer reading program to starting a local chapter of “Read on Arizona,” she said.
Like Murphy, Read, too, is eager to see broader literacy awareness in the community so more children are engaged in conversation that builds their ability to speak in sentences, seek out the printed word and welcome the rigors of a new school day. She envisions posting information in places where families are likely to visit, including pediatrician offices.
Both women expressed gratitude for the foresight of the foundations and donors that enabled the district to wrap “our arms around our wonderful schools” and reinforce the hard work of the PUSD teaching staff who Murphy said prove every day how much they “love these kids and want what’s best for them.”
“Literacy is the foundation of all learning, and to impact these children in their early years will help make them successful adults,” Read said, noting this project has impacted every pre-school to third-grade student in the district.
Murphy said she sees herself as a “bridge,” bringing people together to spread literacy awareness throughout the community.
“This is all about accomplishing great things for children by working together,” Murphy said. “Early literacy is everybody’s business."