Blogger Tess Prendergast

Why & How to Offer Supportive Early Literacy Tips

I will never forget the look of utter surprise on one of my babytime mom’s faces when I dropped an early literacy tip about how rhyming helps get their babies ready for reading later on.  I don’t remember exactly, but I probably said something like: 

“Have you noticed how these little rhymes we say actually – you know –  rhyme? The words at the end of each line all end with the same sounds, right? Well, hearing these rhymes helps your baby figure out how language actually works. Knowing that words are made up of little sounds and noticing how they are different will help your kids learn to read someday, isn’t that cool?”  

This mother just stared at me for a second and then she said:

Do you mean that all this singing and stuff when she’s just a baby will help her in school? I thought we were just doing this for fun! I had no idea it could help her at school too!” 

I told her that it is both – it is definitely fun now but so valuable and important for later on too. She looked both happy and relieved. Although I thought she was an absolutely wonderful mother, she really struggled with self-confidence, so hearing something validating meant a lot to her.

As librarians, we know that the early literacy material we offer at storytime helps to support children’s early language and literacy development in many different ways. Parents and caregivers play key roles in their children’s language and literacy development. However, no one is born knowing exactly how to support early literacy and language. Caregivers simply might not know the high value and lasting impact of everyday things like talking about different food items in the grocery store, or singing together. Therefore, as children’s librarians we are well positioned to help pass on this information by offering what are called early literacy tips (also called “asides”) during storytimes.

For caregivers who are already singing, talking, reading, writing, and playing with their children, these tips might seem superfluous. However, as my anecdote shows, we cannot assume that caregivers know much about the specific developmental impacts these activities can have for their children. For caregivers who do not yet know why kids need rich language and literacy experiences, early literacy tips should offer validation, support and encouragement, not judgement. For example, many adults haven’t thought about playdough, finger paint, or crayons since they were kids themselves, and that’s okay! Our tips can help them understand that these kinds of fine motor materials – besides being super fun – actually help little hands get ready for writing later on.

Offering these kinds of upbeat, no-pressure, positive tips might be just the thing a new parent or caregiver needs to feel confident about encouraging their child’s language and literacy growth. I cannot think of a better place for parents and caregivers to learn something new (and fun) about the power of early literacy than at storytime. Here are some pointers on devising and using early literacy tips during storytime and other encounters with caregivers in the library. 

Early literacy tips do not need to be scientific or even very specific. They just need to be friendly, warm, encouraging, sincere, and validating. 

Be yourself. Don’t “prepare” a recitation that doesn’t sound like how you usually speak. Your early literacy tips should be conversational and focused on the dual wonders of early literacy and how children learn.  

Offer encouragement, not advice. Think about it like this: Encouragement makes someone feel like you have noticed what they’re doing right. Unsolicited advice might feel like you have noticed something they are doing wrong and you think they need your help to fix it. If you have a parent in front of you at a library, they have already done something praise-worthy. Just say “It is so great that you came today! There are so many things to explore here, so have fun and keep coming back!”

Build on what you find interesting or exciting. First, pay attention to what the kids in your storytime groups are doing.  Then, point out something that you have noticed about how they are responding and connect it to early literacy. “I am really impressed with how many new words your kids are saying today! Isn’t it great how the books we read to little kids encourage new vocabulary? I loved hearing them say all these new words together today. And what a bonus that kids with big vocabularies usually have an easier time learning to read later on!” 

Here are some more examples of what some upbeat asides might look like using some popular storytime fare.  Please note: These tips are not meant to be delivered as speeches – they can be chopped up, changed, and become part of natural conversations.

In Dinosaur vs. bedtime kids will recognize their own routines of bath, teeth brushing etc. It is important for kids to see aspects of their own daily lives reflected in the stories they have shared with them. Children need to see reading as relevant and meaningful when begin to learn to read. Kids need to feel confident with what is sometimes a long, slow and difficult process. So, being able to relate to what happens in stories on a personal level will help keep kids’ energy and enthusiasm for reading up. 

Go Away Big Green Monster is a great book about empowerment and helping children conquer their fears. You and your child can make your own version of this silly monster story with simple materials like construction paper, wool, fabric and a few googly eyes. Add magnets to your creations and you can tell the story on your fridge or a cookie sheet at home! Telling stories together from beginning to end supports the development of what we call narrative skills which are important for learning how to read later on.

Press Here is a great opportunity to play with your child with a book. All the language interactions between children and the adults who love them (that part is very important!) form the foundation upon which early literacy and later, reading is actually built. So have fun with this whimsical book and other playful books! Sharing books in storytime is for sure wonderful, but sharing books one-on-one with your child while you play and interact with what you discover is magical! 

When we sing simple songs like Roly Poly we can add words in any of the languages we know. How we move our arms and hands in this song helps to show children the meaning behind the words – in any language. How do you say “up up up” and “down down down” in your home language? Understanding what words mean (the concept) is the most important thing about language learning and your children love learning words with you – so speak and sing to your child in the language you know best. We might have books in your home language too – just ask! 

You can read more about early literacy tips/asides here (and please pop your own suggestions and thoughts into the comments too!).

The Art of Early Literacy Asides in Storytime

This post is intended to address the ALSC Competencies I. Commitment to Client Group and III. Programming Skills.

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Blogger Tess Prendergast

Tess Prendergast worked as a children’s librarian for 23 years. She has a PhD in early literacy education and now teaches librarianship and children’s literature courses at The School of Information, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. She currently facilitates the ALSC Preschool Discussion group and has served on both the Geisel (2023) and Caldecott (2016) committees.

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