By: Dr. Matt Finch
Auburn’s not the first place people think of when asked to imagine Australia. Its suburban streets are lined with African restaurants and Chinese bazaars; in this densely populated Sydney neighborhood, far from the surfers’ beaches and without a kangaroo in site, you’re as likely to be greeted with a Somali ‘See tahay’ as an Aussie ‘G’day’.
Early one morning in June of this year, I watched as educators, community health staff, booksellers, performers and local government officers all descended on this multicultural suburb in the name of a unique Australian literacy scheme, Paint the Town REaD.
Marquees, balloons and banners sprouted throughout the neighborhood announcing a Community Reading Day, and a local mascot, Auzzie, led songs, dances and stories for young children and their carers.
Pre-schoolers and their parents flocked to the event, joining storytelling sessions at venues that ranged from the local police station to cafés, shops and even supermarkets. Amid music, dance and storytelling from the various cultures of Auburn, a great procession of adults and kids moved through the neighborhood to celebrate reading.
At one coffee shop, the manager, Vincent, read to children from a series of picture books. He was a consummate performer, engaging with the kids, making them laugh, talking through the pictures with them. Each group that came to that coffee shop adored his enthusiastic, heartfelt delivery.
After the session I got talking to the 25-year-old café manager. Vincent came to Australia from Taiwan at the age of 15, with hardly any English. After settling in Sydney, he developed his language skills and started to work in the café. He noticed that every day, local moms would arrive for mid-morning coffee with their babies in strollers.
As people at neighboring tables chatted over coffee, friendships formed between the diverse communities of Auburn. When Paint the Town REaD came to the suburb, Vincent was keen to use this natural meeting-place as a vehicle for the literacy skills that had brought him success in his new home – spreading the message to ‘read, talk and sing with your child from birth to kindergarten’.
Over the last few years, I’ve encountered literacy organizations from around the world, all dealing with the same challenges: engaging communities, sustaining child language development, and helping parents find the skills and confidence to support their children’s literacy.
Whether it’s Behind the Book’s author workshops in NYC, the one-to-one mentors of England’s Volunteer Reading Help and South Africa’s Help2Read, or the hospital-based initiatives of Reach Out and Read in the USA, all over the planet people are striving to give our children the opportunity to be literate for life.
The unique response of Australia’s Paint the Town REaD scheme is to engage whole communities in the issue of early literacy. Although inspired by research into child development, it’s a down-to-earth, grassroots movement which has spread across the country over the past 16 years.
Through ongoing events as well as annual Reading Days like the one in Auburn, Paint the Town REaD thrives on community – spreading the word throughout a town or suburb, so that it’s café owners, police officers, pharmacists, shopkeepers and high school students who all get involved and bring the scheme to life for parents, children and the community at large.
I’ve attended events like the inspiring 24-hour readathon for LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day in Times Square before, but Paint the Town REaD goes beyond profile-raising. Vibrant one-off Paint the Town REaD events like Reading Day come with a year-round commitment to literacy in each town, until everyone from pre-school to the retirement home joins the commitment to ‘Read, talk, sing with your child from birth to kindergarten!’
High schoolers read with younger brothers and sisters, local businesspeople and public services donate their time to the cause of early literacy – and the whole community focuses on the goal of helping children become literate for life.
As organizations increasingly recognize that youth literacy development is as much about the whole community as the individual child, whether it’s New Zealand’s Literacy Aotearoa supporting parents who want to read to their children or Behind the Book implementing a whole-school approach to author-supported literacy workshops, Paint the Town REaD leads the way in demonstrating how an entire town can get behind the message of lifelong literacy from birth.
Dr. Matt Finch is a writer-educator and curriculum consultant for Behind the Book who has worked around the world from Shakespeare’s birthplace to Brooklyn and the mountains of Peru. Find out more at his site, http://booksadventures.wordpress.com/about/