In Western Australia, 17% of five-year-olds starting their first year of mandatory schooling have developmental vulnerabilities in their language and cognitive skills (Australian Early Development Census, 2018). Better Beginnings, a family literacy programme coordinated by the State Library of Western Australia, reaches over 60,000 families each year, supporting parents as their child’s first teacher, and building the early literacy skills children need to become good readers and to succeed at school.
When parents have the ability and confidence to share books and rhymes with their children, literacy and language development are improved, which in turn fosters a love of reading. Early intervention is key to building capacity in the home and in supporting a child’s early literacy development in the critical first five years when up to 90% of brain development occurs.
Western Australia is Australia’s largest state - if it were a country, it would be among the world’s top 10 in size. The state has about 2.6 million inhabitants – around 11 per cent of the national total, so delivering an accessible and inclusive family literacy programme across the State presents enormous challenges. For effective delivery, the programme needs partners. Better Beginnings works alongside the communities’ schools and children’s health nurses, and with all 140 Western Australian local governments, operating 232 public libraries.
The programme strategically targets three age groups. Reading packs are given to families at their baby’s eight-week health check, at two years of age, and before the first year of full-time schooling at age four.
The packs contain developmentally appropriate books and supporting resources to build parents’ understanding of early literacy, and to encourage them to read, talk, sing, write and play with their child. The reading packs are supported by library programmes (such as Baby Rhyme Time) to model early literacy practices for parents and encourage their continued use at home. To support Aboriginal families, a customised component was developed in response to their unique needs.
A recent return on investment analysis found that every dollar invested in early literacy development through Better Beginnings yields $5.64 in social value. This reinforces a longitudinal evaluation with nearly 15 years of independent evidence, attesting to the programme’s success in positively influencing parents’ attitudes, behaviours and confidence in introducing literacy-building activities to their child from birth.
“As a teacher of over 30 years, I have witnessed the Better Beginnings programme helping to transform children’s lives and given them greater potential to grow, learn and develop, perform well at school and succeed in later life,” said Councillor David Lagan, Deputy Mayor, City of Stirling.
Since 2004, the programme has grown to reach 96% of families with new-born babies and 99% of Kindergarten children across Western Australia. The programme is funded through an alliance of the Government of Western Australia, Western Australian local governments and Rio Tinto. Through Better Beginnings, libraries are an integral building block, helping to improve literacy levels and creating a skilled workforce for future economic development.