What do you do when your evening storytime is not drawing the crowd it used to? It might be time to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming and reevaluate.
That’s exactly what we did at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, and the outcome is our new English Learners Family Storytime!
Our regular Tuesday evening storytime was a sight to behold, with great picture books, fun songs, and colorful flannel board stories and rhymes. However, attendance was dropping. We knew we wanted to reverse that trend, but how? From the start, we recognized that families are busy with other after-dinner activities.
We also recognized that our library serves a diverse community with multi-generational families who speak English as a 2nd or 3rd language. Occasionally, these children and caregivers struggled to communicate their needs with us at the service desk, and we knew this was an audience we wanted to cultivate and better serve. Thus, the need for an English Learners Family Storytime was identified and our planning began.
Staff researched (‘cause that’s what library staff do best) to learn what other libraries offered. Before implementing any new program, especially one we planned to offer weekly, we always spend time learning from other libraries’ successes and challenges. We asked:
- How often do other libraries offer a storytime targeted for English learners?
- Did daytime or evening hours work better for other communities?
- What are some ways that other libraries connected successfully with ESL families?
With the information we gathered, and from our own observations and experience, we developed a storytime outline which includes a variety of songs, rhymes, sharing books, and excellent picture books with illustrations that greatly supported the text. After a few tweaks here and there, and likely more to come, the format is one that our customers seem to enjoy. Here are some of the highlights:
- The repetition of songs and rhymes offers everyone, both youth and adults, the opportunity to learn the lyrics and perfect their English speaking skills.
- Providing multiple copies of three to five picture books allows us to share a different story every other week that everyone can read simultaneously.
- When staff lead the read aloud, we demonstrate excellent presentation skills for caregivers to model, including silly voices and exaggerated facial expressions!
- After the 30-minute storytime, we host a 15-minute playtime with a collection of building and creative play toys. One week adults and kids might be building mountains with cardboard blocks with dinosaurs stomping on them. The next week could find families stacking soft blocks into beds, and stuffed books characters climbing on them.
The playtime permits staff to mingle more casually and extends further development of English speaking skills. The relaxed setting also offers caregivers a time to ask questions and to meet other adults to build friendships beyond the library walls.
We are in the fifth month of offering this new program and there continues to be tweaks and changes as we strive to offer an excellent experience every week.
We recently started to include a visual timeline that helps staff progress through the program, and offers another form of communication to our guests. In our planning, we now have a checklist to remind us to include nonfiction books when possible, and to ensure 50% of the picture books portray diverse characters, families, and cultures. We know how important it is for youth to see themselves represented in literature.
Offering an English Learners Family Storytime does not require bilingual staff, which can be in short supply at many libraries, but it does help build those vital connections with customers who are learning to speak and understand English.
Rebecca King is a member of Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers and is an Early Literacy Services Supervisor, Arlington Heights Memorial Library, Arlington Heights, IL. Contact Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about starting your own English Learners Family Storytime.
Acknowledgement to Meg Ramsland, Readers’ Services Assistant, Des Plaines Library, Des Plaines, IL for her invaluable work on this program.