Storytime: A Classic Library Service Boosts Literacy and More, Studies Show

Storytimes in libraries and other community learning opportunities are viewed as critical components of young children’s preparation to enter school.
Artwork © Mo Willems. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

When Annisha Jeffries started working as a library assistant at the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) 21 years ago, she would sometimes pull a random book off the shelf, sit down with a group of children, and hope for the best.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” says Jeffries, adding that sometimes she hadn’t even read the book herself. Two decades later, she approaches storytime armed with preparation and forethought about the needs of her audience. She reads more nonfiction books because of the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on informational text, incorporates songs, delivers “pop-up” storytime sessions in childcare centers and hospitals, and uses a large touch screen to complement the story she’s reading.

“We are well aware of what’s important as far as the development of children,” says Jeffries, now youth services manager for the system. “We want to make sure we are fresh.”

As the first library system to create a children’s room in the late 1800s and among the first to offer organized children’s programs, CPL provides a window to the multiple ways libraries have adapted the simple storytime to respond to research on how young children learn and the importance of early literacy.

A foundation for school

Multiple reports and studies emphasize the need for young children to be surrounded with books, to hear and learn big and interesting words, and to interact with language through play. In addition to those vital elements, storytimes in libraries and other learning opportunities in the community are now viewed as a critical component of young children’s preparation to enter school. They are also vehicles for giving parents guidance on how to encourage early literacy skills at home.

Librarians “have entered the early learning world, and in doing so, there is more pressure on that storytime than ever before,” says Susan B. Newman, an education professor at New York University and an expert on early literacy. “We’ve called it a more expansive view of literacy development.”

According to an April 2017 Brookings Institution report, children’s engagement in learning before pre-K can make a big difference in how they progress during the pre-K year.

“Children enter pre-K classrooms with widely varying prior experiences,” according to the report. “The science is clear: early experiences in the home, in other care settings, and in communities are built into the developing brain and body with lifelong effects on learning, adaptive behavior, and health. These experiences provide either a sturdy or fragile foundation upon which young children’s pre-K teachers construct the next stage on their educational progressions.”

As part of an evaluation of Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR), an initiative of the Public Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children, Newman and Donna Celano, an assistant professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, are observing the variety of ways in which storytime has evolved. ECRR emphasizes the importance of five simple practices to support early literacy: singing, talking, reading, writing, and playing.

Beyond introducing young children to stories, book characters, and print concepts, storytime expectations today range from encouraging executive functioning skills in children to introducing them to the latest technology and learning apps. It is no longer a passive listening experience—it is as much about play as it is the stories, Newman says.

Tailoring storytime to specific audiences and taking these events outside of the library are also strategies for libraries to stretch themselves to reach more families with young children.

In Cleveland, Jeffries holds a weekly gathering for refugee women and their children in which they sing songs and read books. She partners with a music school for “Read to the Beat,” and librarians bring storytimes to the local Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. Elsewhere, libraries hold bilingual and sensory storytimes; ones involving dogs and other animals are also popular.

Mary Kuehner, with ukulele, leads storytime
at Arapahoe (CO) Libraries.
Photo by Cynthia Kiyotake

Engaging parents

It’s no secret that parents also play a much larger role in storytime than they used to. “There’s an expectation, almost a requirement” that caregivers participate in the activities with their children, Newman says. In addition, many librarians—taking on the “media mentor” role—are ready to offer suggestions about how parents can help their children at home or to explain normal stages of development if a child doesn’t want to participate with the rest of the group. Story sessions often end with take-home handouts or even books and other materials parents can share with their children at home.

In Colorado, for example, Mary Kuehner, early literacy outreach librarian for the Arapahoe Libraries, runs Stories and More. The monthly program includes a read-aloud for ages birth to five, followed by literacy activities and handouts or books parents can take home. Kuehner also offers a “make and take” program in which adults can create tools—such as sensory bottles or story cubes with pictures on them for visual storytelling—and then receive suggestions on how to use the tools with their children.

In the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma, WA, storytellers often explain why they are leading children in a specific activity so that parents and caregivers will better understand how the activity connects to early skill development.

“Research is really clear about how we can help parents be stronger parents,” says Judy Nelson, a customer experience manager for youth with the Pierce County system. “We’re here to work with the kids, but we’re also here to help parents work with their kids.”

Newman and Celano are finding, however, that while some children’s librarians have embraced the emphasis on parent engagement, others are not as comfortable with that new aspect of their mission.

Kuehner believes improving young children’s early literacy and skill development is too important not to actively involve parents in storytime. That presents a challenge for some children’s librarians, she says. “A lot of us feel super comfortable being silly and talking with the kids, but when you have to talk to the parents, that can be really scary,” says Kuehner, who founded Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy, which provides training in storytelling skills and collaborates with other organizations to increase awareness of early literacy.

While most children and youth librarians see high-quality early literacy experiences as a “core library service,” convincing library administrators to support funding for materials and training can be a challenge, she says.

“We still occasionally see pushback. Not everybody outside of children’s services always gets it.”

Advances in research

Librarians continue to respond to the body of research on early learning, but until recently there was no hard data that storytimes could improve children’s pre-literacy and school readiness skills.

Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) Information School found that when storytellers intentionally focus on early literacy skills, children demonstrate increases in those skills. Funded with a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the study Valuable Initiatives in Early Learning that Work Successfully 2 (VIEWS2) was conducted in 40 small, medium, and large libraries across Washington State.

Graduate students from the UW Information School were trained to use two research tools—the Program Evaluation Tool (PET), which focused on the delivery and content of the storytime, and the Benchmarks Curricular Planning and Assessment Framework (BCPAF), used to record observations about children’s behavior during storytime.

During the first year of the project, the graduate students videotaped 120 storytimes. Researchers found that when storytellers incorporate early literacy skills in these sessions, children are more likely to exhibit those skills. During the second year, they split the libraries into a control group and an experimental group to determine if training for librarians would lead to an increase in skills among children. Librarians in the experimental group participated in a series of webinars focusing on skills such as phonological awareness and alphabetic knowledge. A community of practice was also formed so the participants could share ideas and feedback with one another as they practiced what they learned.

“We took a look at the year-two data and we saw a significant difference in the experimental group,” says Katie Campana, a doctoral student at UW Information School and part of the research team. “Being intentional in including early literacy makes a difference.”

Since the study, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), which provides training and other services to libraries worldwide, has developed the intervention into Supercharged Storytimes, a professional development course now available across Washington and five additional states. A guidebook based on the intervention is also available.

Storytime competencies

Besides the VIEWS2 project, libraries are also implementing their own surveys and tools to measure librarians’ storytime skills and encourage strategies that build literacy skills.

At the Los Angeles Public Library system, with a central library and 72 branches, librarians provide feedback to peers according to “storytime competencies”—a set of expectations covering a broad array of skills. The competencies fall into six categories: preparing for storytime, setting the stage, presentation, interaction, literacy message, and professional development.

“In a system as huge as ours, there is an infinite variety of programming options for the zero-to-12 age range,” says Madeline Bryant, a principal librarian and associate director of the Youth Services Department. “We use it as an opportunity for peer mentoring and collaboration, as well as a mechanism for identifying areas in which Youth Services can offer training.”

Since the competencies were introduced four years ago, Youth Services has used the feedback, Bryant says, to “identify areas in which librarians could use additional training,” such as fingerplays, rhymes, songs, and other components of baby storytimes and techniques for managing disruptive children or handling large crowds.

Research on the impact of library services—particularly storytime—can be challenging due to the drop-in nature of such programs. In VIEWS2, the BCPAF instrument addressed this issue by capturing a snapshot of skills across the whole group, without focusing on individual children.

Because families often sign up for Kuehner’s Stories and More in advance, the library system has been able to use a variety of measures in a pre- and post-test format—from parent surveys to individual child assessments—to see if there is growth in children’s skills. Comparing the results to those of toddlers and preschoolers not in the program, Kuehner says that in “some areas, we were moving the needle.”

Librarians’ efforts to model good literacy practices and encourage at-home learning might also be contributing to another recent study’s findings that gaps in school readiness skills between children from high- and low-income households have declined since 1998. According to the study, which appeared in the August 2016 American Educational Research Association Open journal, the improvements can be partially attributed to “cultural changes in parenting practices that have increased low-income children’s exposure to cognitively stimulating activities at home.”

“We’ve started to understand the role that we could play [in] helping a child grow and play, even before they entered school,” Kuehner says. “Now we have the knowledge to be able to share that with parents. We understand the importance of the work we do.”

Storytimes through the ages at the Cleveland Public Library

All vintage photos in this slide show courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library

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