Blogger Tess Prendergast

To Virtual Storytime and Back Again: What Recent Research Can Tell Us

As children’s library workers, we have all tangled with questions and concerns about young children and digital media. What helps and supports child development? What distracts and detracts from their learning? What information do parents and caregivers find helpful as they make decisions? If you are asking these questions, that’s a great sign – you care about the kids and families in your communities!

I recently found an open source article published in 2020 with a title that caught my eye.

Preschoolers Benefit Equally From Video Chat, Pseudo-Contingent Video, and Live Book Reading: Implications for Storytime During the Coronavirus Pandemic and Beyond

The study authors are:  Caroline Gaudreau, Yeminah A. King, Rebecca A. Dore, Hannah Puttre, Deborah Nichols, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff.

I encourage you to follow the hyperlinks and read more about these researchers’ important work in early childhood learning.

In this article, they report on an interesting study that took place before the pandemic started. However, I think this study addresses some of the concerns we may have about kids growing up during COVID-19.  

What they did:

A researcher read the same picture book to groups of 4 year-old children across 3 different conditions: live, video chat, and pre-recorded. To strengthen their findings, they also conducted the same set of pre and post tests on a control group who were not read the book. If you’re curious, the picture book they used is The Busy Beaver by Nicolas Oldland. Especially relevant to children’s librarians, they incorporated dialogic reading techniques into all three conditions. In each condition, the reader would pause and ask children the same questions. In the in-person reading and the live video chat, the reader was obviously able to respond individually to the children. They could ask follow-up questions or give specific feedback. In the pre-recorded video readings, the same questions were asked and pause time added, but the responses to children’s statements were generic and did not include any follow-up questions or feedback.

What they found:

First, they found that in both of the live conditions (in-person and video chat) the children responded more to the reader’s dialogic prompts than they did to the prompts offered in the pre-recorded video readings. This suggests that most 4 year old children can readily tell the difference between a live digital interaction with a person and what might occur in a pre-recorded medium such as a television show where the host speaks to their intended audience. In a pre-recorded condition, responding to prompts would not be as engaging because the interaction cannot take on that back and forth quality that we know engages children. Both the in-person and video chat interactions offered that back and forth to them.

This study offers some validation that what you are doing online is valuable and supports early literacy growth.

Second, they found that all three conditions led to comparable gains in children’s vocabulary and story comprehension. I thought that this somewhat surprising finding in particular may help to alleviate lingering concerns about the early literacy learning potential offered by libraries’ online live and pre-recorded storytimes. This study offers some validation that what you are doing online is valuable and supports early literacy growth. Watching a pre-recorded storytime offers a child a different learning experience than attending a live storytime which would obviously include person to person interactions with other people, including age peers. However, both storytimes support children’s vocabulary growth and story comprehension (narrative skills). For children who access storytime online, know that the work you do is worthwhile and benefiting your child participants.

Their conclusions

Gaudreau et al wrap up with some thoughts on their study’s limitations. They point out the homogeneity of the participating children, who were mainly from middle-class white families. Importantly, they acknowledge that disadvantaged children might need more support to benefit from story reading across various conditions. The authors discuss to some of the affordances of virtual storytime “during COVID-19 and beyond.” They offer instances of families living separately (for example, deployment or incarceration) where the adults spend time during video chats reading to their children. This study’s results may reassure all separated parents that virtual storytelling activities – whether live or pre-recorded – support their children’s learning.

Some questions for you!

What this study does not offer is any specific insight into library storytimes. I have not found any recent research that focuses specifically on what young children learn from library virtual storytimes. This is a research gap I would love to see filled someday. However, I think we can confidently draw correlations between the outcomes seen in this study and those we might also find in our own storytime offerings.

Are you still offering virtual storytimes? Are they live or pre-recorded? What outcome measures are you gathering from participants? What have parents told you about their children’s participation in your storytimes. Do you plan to continue offering virtual storytimes alongside in-person programs? Why or why not? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below!

Tess Prendergast teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She has served on many ALSC committees and is currently serving on the 2023 Geisel Award committee. You can read more about her work here and here. 

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