AIR Ready To Learn Project Profile - Case Study


Many literacy campaigns highlight the activities parents should engage in to help increase their children’s reading readiness. But for many low-income families, simply knowing what steps they should take to help their children—like reading to them daily—is not enough to encourage new behaviors.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s (CPB) Ready To Learn (RTL) program, run under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education (2005-2010), focused on improving the early literacy skills of low-income children ages 2 to 8. Together, CPB and its partner, PBS, used a comprehensive 360-degree approach to produce breakthrough, scientifically-based literacy content, television programming, innovative literacy-based online games and instructional materials for childcare centers and schools through the PBS KIDS Raising Readers initiative. PBS KIDS Raising Readers uses new distribution platforms and focused community engagement strategies to surround children, parents, caregivers, and teachers with content where they live, learn, and play.

To ensure the quality and efficacy of the materials, CPB assembled a team of highly respected reading, media and social science researchers to design and implement a rigorous research strategy. In addition to testing all content (TV and online) as well as the effects of the integration of RTL literacy content into school instructional materials, the initiative implemented an innovative social marketing research approach, led by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), to better understand the target audience and design outreach and community engagement activities that would encourage change in the literacy-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of these parents and caregivers.

The PBS KIDS Raising Readers campaign promotes early childhood literacy skills and is directed to helping low-income parents help their children get ready to read. For the first time social marketing principles were applied to a national education campaign and formative audience research was used for effective messaging and outreach.


Social marketing relies on commercial marketing's conceptual framework, which places consumers at the center of an exchange process where they act mainly out of self-interest. For the Raising Readers initiative, this translated into identifying low-income parents’ wants and needs regarding their child’s early literacy skills and developing ways to satisfy them, rather than defining strategies independently and then trying to convince parents to act upon them.

The focus of the campaign was to help parents and caregivers increase their children’s literacy skills through a multi-media and multi-platform approach (i.e., educational programming, interactive computer games, one-on-one and group activities etc.). AIR conducted extensive formative research with the targeted audience that significantly informed the message creation. Formative research began with an environmental scan and key informant interviews to obtain important contextual information and identify aspects of the target audience. Claritas’ PRIZM marketing data (including demographics and purchasing and media behaviors) was used to select eight market segments that included the target audience. The data was used to develop audience profiles, define communication channels and opportunities to reach them where they “live, work and play.” This information was also used by the individual communities to inform their local literacy educational outreach efforts and local marketing strategies. AIR also conducted in-home observations and focus groups with parents to understand their knowledge, attitudes and beliefs. In other parent focus groups, concepts and messaging strategies were tested, which were used by PBS to develop ads and marketing materials.


The audience research provided direction on literacy messaging strategies. Instead of using traditional messaging—which typically relied on telling parents the importance of literacy, often suggesting "reading to your child for 30 minutes every day"—AIR’s social marketing approach was driven by parents’ expressed knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about their children’s well-being, child literacy, and their families lives. AIR’s research showed that messages should:

  • Relate to parents’ desire to help their children succeed in life 
  • Explain how simple behaviors (rhyming, word games) can help a child’s reading readiness 
  • Show how these activities can fit into their everyday lives 
  • Emphasize that these activities are ways to have fun with their children.

Consequently, the campaign slogan became “Anytime is learning time”. Primary messages changed from 1) readiness for school to readiness for life, 2) from asking parents to be their child’s first teacher to asking parents to help their children succeed in life, and 3) from asking them to engage in “special literacy activities” to asking them to engage everyday activities, which were fun and easy. AIR’s research also showed that PBS stations are trusted information sources and would be an appropriate channel for these messages.

This research shows how social marketing can be used to communicate effectively with low-income parents around reading readiness for young children. Audience-based research is essential to developing and implementing messaging strategies tailored to parents’ attitudes and beliefs. It was clear that many previous assumptions about low-income families’ wants and needs were erroneous. By defining simple things parents can do to promote their child’s literacy skills, this campaign sought to decrease the current literacy gap between young lower- and higher-income children. As part of the five year grant, AIR also assisted CPB with the creation of community engagement activities that the 20 participating PBS Stations could plan, execute and evaluate in their local and sometimes state-wide markets.

These activities included literacy skill building programs throughout the communities, such as grocery stores, libraries and zoos. AIR created a series of success stories that highlighted stations’ efforts in community engagement and also produced reports for each of the 20 participating PBS stations that captured key results of all the research activities in their communities.