At a parent breakfast at the Otis Elementary School in East Boston, Elsa Flores leads an early literacy workshop in Spanish to a packed cafeteria of 40 parents. Meanwhile, in a kindergarten classroom upstairs, Malika El Hadeg leads the same workshop in Arabic and English for 15 more. In their different languages, Flores and El Hadeg ask parents to consider the universal language potential of young children: “On average, toddlers can learn ten new words a day!” and “Did you know that the size of a child’s vocabulary determines later reading success?”

parents read from picture books
Parent Literacy Leaders practice their interactive reading skills during a ReadBoston training.

Elsa Flores and Malika El Hadeg are two of 18 ReadBoston Parent Literacy Leaders (PLLs) who encourage their peers, often unaware of the imperative of early literacy development, to engage their children in reading and verbal activities. Created in 2012 with support from a Coordinated Family and Community Engagement (CFCE) grant, ReadBoston’s Parent Literacy Leadership Initiative is designed to tackle the problem of kindergarteners starting school without the necessary literacy and language skills.

This year PLLs will lead 24 multilingual workshops reaching 400 parents across Boston. At every workshop PLLs distribute children’s books, literacy materials, puzzles, and literacy handouts in any of eight languages.

“We know from the research that parents are more receptive to receiving information from other parents, particularly those who face similar challenges,” said ReadBoston’s Anna Adler, who leads the initiative. “We want parents at the center of the program, authentically leading and engaging in meaningful work.”

With the help of community organizations, ReadBoston recruits PLLs from across diverse bands of the city. Once accepted, PLLs – most of whom have had no experience leading workshops or speaking in front of groups – agree to 25 hours of intensive training and ongoing individual coaching and mentoring.

The class curriculum teaches parent leaders how to promote early literacy strategies, speak in front of others, develop an authentic leadership style, manage workshop logistics, forge community partnerships, and address the needs of multilingual families.

For many parents, this training translates into bolstered skills and confidence they can use to pursue new employment opportunities.

“We are proud that our Parent Literacy Leadership Initiative supports the goals of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development,” said Kerri Schmidt, ReadBoston’s interim deputy director. “A growing number of ReadBoston’s Parent Literacy Leaders have secured fulltime employment, pursued new teaching opportunities, and returned to their communities to steward other projects.”

Additionally, their work for ReadBoston pays the equivalent of more than a living wage. PLLs receive a $100 gift card per workshop, which with organizing and prep, works out to $25 per hour for personally meaningful work.

“I really enjoy reaching other parents,” said PLL Nicole Beckles. “They tell me they didn’t know the many ways you can approach reading and storytelling. You can be very innovative.”

Back at the Otis School, Elsa Flores is putting on a virtuosic display of lively reading strategies herself. Holding up the picture book “El ratoncito, la resa roja y madura y el gran oso hambriento” (i.e., “The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear”), she points to the illustrations, asks questions, and pantomimes a mouse drooling over its beautiful strawberry. Before long, the room bubbles with the sounds of reading as her audience of parents practices on each other.

woman teaching others in classroom
PLL Malika El Hadeg leads an early literacy parent workshop in Arabic at the Otis Elementary School in East Boston.

Upstairs, Malika El Hadeg is fielding questions from her group, something that was a challenge for her last year.

“ReadBoston gave us the power to face people and to help them, to share information with them,” El Hadeg said. “Before I was a shy person, but now I feel more confident in myself. I’m strong. I’m everything.”