On a recent weekday morning, librarian Annabelle Blackman stood in front of a room full of young children at the Cesar Chavez Public Library in Oakland, Calif., singing a children’s rhyme and swaying from side-to-side. Her performance was more than mere entertainment; it was part of her weekly summer storytime that is designed to promote early literacy for infants and toddlers.
At a time when youth are increasingly tethered to electronic devices, Blackman and other librarians continue to promote the value of books by engaging children long before they become formal readers.
During the summer, dozens of libraries across California offer free programs for parents who want fun and engaging activities that promote early reading skills, such as open-ended creative playtime with blocks or puzzles. Though infants and toddlers are not subject to a loss of learning momentum that summer sometimes brings for older students, literacy experts say summer is an important period for children birth to age 5 to develop new vocabulary words and sounds.
Library storytime can play a critical role in teaching these skills to infants and toddlers. Most storytellers go beyond reading a book and incorporate fun activities that encourage children to play and move. Libraries also use storytime to model early reading skills for parents so they can practice at home and help boost their children’s love of books.
One of the hallmarks of Blackman’s storytime is rhyming. In an hour-long session she read a book titled, “Snail, Where Are You?” and incorporated more than five rhyming songs. At various times, children were jumping, reaching down and shaking their arms left to right, mimicking Blackman’s movements. Most parents gathered that day sat on a colorful rug in the center of the room, a few with babies nestled in their arms and other caretakers with infants crawling close by.
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That’s what the ideal early literacy environment looks like, said Deborah Turner, child psychologist and program director with First 5 Alameda, an early childhood advocacy organization. It’s a lively atmosphere where children are exposed to play, sound and interaction through stories, she said. “When most people talk about literacy they’re talking about reading and writing,” she said. “But before children can read and write, they need to learn about sounds and how we communicate in our world.”
Phonological awareness — a recognition of spoken words, sounds and syllables — is often learned through rhyming books and songs highlighted during storytime, literacy experts said. In library settings nationwide — talking, singing, reading, writing and playing are a common part of early reading activities, said Nina Lindsay, supervising librarian for Children’s Services at Oakland Public Libraries.
“Hearing rhythm and rhyming words, asking questions for response, making up nonsense words — all these things build literacy skills in children,” Lindsay said. If children can act out reading before they know how to read, it reinforces the basic principles of reading. “They are figuring out how a story comes out of a printed page and are learning context from pictures and memory,” she said.
Storytime also encourages families to spend more time in their community and build social connections with other parents and children, said Joanna Fabicon, senior librarian for Children Services at Los Angeles Public Library. Fabicon said one of the goals of storytime is to show parents how to bond with their children though song, dance and books. “We are modeling the behavior,” Fabicon said. “So as librarians are reading stories, they are incorporating active experiences that go beyond the board book,” to demonstrate what is possible, she said.
For instance, during a recent storytime Fabicon said she read “Dear Zoo,” a children’s book that mentions snakes. “So we talked about snake sounds and the ‘sssssss’ and then I incorporated some writing by having them draw the shape of an S in the air.” Fabicon said they typically open storytime with songs to show that melody, off-key or not, helps children to understand syllables. “I tell parents don’t worry about your singing voice, you’re their parent and they love you,” Fabicon said. “Singing each note breaks the word down into sounds and it helps them to learn in a fun way.”
Turner, an early childhood expert, said language, communication and literacy are linked, so one of the best ways to encourage a love for reading is to create a language-rich environment, by asking children to talk about their day and talk about what they are doing. “Don’t wait until children are talking or until they are 2 years old or 5 years old, talk to them right away, read to them right away,” she said. In the 75 library locations in Los Angeles County, Fabicon said they ask open-ended questions during storytime to model the importance of conversation.
Back at Oakland’s Cesar Chavez library, storytime had ended and parents helped pick up toys and books scattered on the floor. Blackman walked through the room, greeted parents and made conversation in a high-pitched voice with children. In a corner near the bilingual children’s section, she explained that a library should feel like home and that her primary goal is to build a sense of community. “More and more in our modern world it’s easy to stay in your bubble but libraries are embraced by so many different people in the community; it’s like a coming together,” Blackman said. “I want our library to be an extension of a family’s living room.”
A big part of community building is ensuring parents in the neighborhood feel motivated, so Blackman said she reminds parents that everyday activities such as singing to a child at bedtime help to promote early literacy. “I affirm them,” she said. It’s also important to ensure those families have access to resources such as toys, puzzles and art and craft supplies that can support their children’s development, she said.
Summer offers an opportunity for the library to facilitate family activities that some residents may otherwise not be able to access. For instance, some families with limited finances or lack of transportation may not be able to send their children to summer camps or conveniently visit museums or zoos, Blackman said.
The library can bridge this gap and position itself as the central meeting place in the community, she said. This summer, Cesar Chavez hosted several events that included circus jugglers, animal exploration, puppet shows and art activities. Blackman said she wants children to be lifelong readers but also lifelong learners.
“We try to book all kinds of performers that may facilitate a rich use of language or different kinds of interactions that can encourage families to talk about new things,” Blackman said. “Last week we had tortoises and snakes and it was all people could talk about for days.”