Fellow Early Literacy Evangelists (may I call you evangelists?),
Yesterday I did my first baby storytime in… well, years, and I had the opportunity to slip in a few early literacy messages that really resonate with me. And I was super excited to do so. But I know that’s not always the case.
I am a 44-year-old childless librarian who ostensibly tells parents how to raise their kids without having any experience of my own. I know, awkward, right? I suppose it could be. I could be saying to myself: “Self, who are you to tell these parents that they should talk to their kids all the time to give the kids a big vocabulary? How do you know they aren’t already doing that and you’re just going to make them defensive? Aren’t they going to look at you and think ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’
But I don’t, and here’s why: I, myself, am AMAZED by what I’ve learned about early literacy and brain development. I find it incredible that by simply talking and singing with babies, we can set them on a path for learning that will last their whole lives. I’m fascinated by the brain science – it takes a toddler 5 to 7 seconds to respond to a question because there are 4 different parts of the brain involved in hearing, processing, and speaking? Wow! Babies brains grow from 25% developed to 75% developed in the first year of life? Holy cow!
This is powerful, life-alerting (literally) stuff, and I just want everyone to know how easy it is to give young children the best future possible.
I work with parents who are both affluent and highly educated and those who are less so. Personally, I think everyone can learn something new about their child. I haven’t yet heard of a child born into this world with an owner’s manual, so I think lots of parents are just figuring things out. But the universal thread is that they ALL love their children and want the best for them, and simply by bringing them to the library for storytime, or to an outreach event for a parent presentation or play and learn group, they’re demonstrating that.
But I get that it’s challenging to feel like the “expert” in many situations where you DON’T know what parents already know. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think tailoring your message to your audience helps a lot. If you’ve got parents whom you suspect already know about phonological awareness and rhyming games, maybe focus a little more on the brain science – they’re less likely to know all of that (heck, I have a master’s degree – and I didn’t know ANY of that until I started working as a librarian!). If you think your audience is parents who are simply struggling to get through the day, maybe offer a little praise for the good things they are doing (like bringing their kids to storytime) and encourage the simple activities, like singing in the car or talking while making dinner.
Here’s how I might (and do) share early literacy messages with parents who may or may not already know what I’m telling them:
- I like to call the little one-or-two-sentence bits of information “early literacy reminders” instead of tips. That assumes that the parent already knows what you’re telling them – but don’t we all need to be reminded of things every now and then?
- I try to present my “reminders” in such a way that demonstrates my genuine fascination with the information.
- I’m always positive and never accusing or “YOU MUST DO THIS” in tone. I prefer to focus on what they already are doing and recognize it. Doesn’t everyone need a little praise, even for the little things?
- I often tie my “reminder” into something I’m doing – a song, fingerplay, book, etc. For me, it helps me remember what I want to say AND makes it more specific.
- I try and use humor if possible. I play on what I didn’t know before. If I didn’t know it, I’m pretty sure some of the parents don’t know and can’t we all discover together?
- I rarely use more than one or two sentences. And never more than 2 “reminders” per storytime.
- Avoid using the phrases “you should” or “you need to.” I know hearing those things really make me defensive, so why would I say them to other adults?
- Transitions are a great time to slip in a “reminder.” We’re standing up; we’re passing out scarves; let’s talk about why movement is fun and important!
- “Grown ups: fingerplays help little guys strengthen their fingers so that later they can hold a pencil and write. Isn’t that cool?“
- “Thank you for bringing your little ones to storytime today! We’re growing brains and when you share books at home you’re doing that too!”
- “I love seeing how happy the babies are sharing songs with their grownups. Isn’t it neat that happy babies are better learners? You’re helping your baby learn right now!
- (Before starting a new book): “This is one of my all-time favorite books. I bet your kids have their favorites too and want to hear them all the time! I know it’s not so much fun for grownups to repeat the same book, but it’s great for building literacy skills!
- “I love to sing and it was so exciting for me to learn that singing helps with learning to read! Singing slows down words so that we can hear all the little sounds. That’s pretty neat!”
- “Grownups: did you hear the word “insufferable” in that book? We’re growing our kids’ vocabularies when we share books!”
I know that adding early literacy reminders to storytime is a challenging task and can feel unnatural at first. But with practice, it WILL become easier. Trust me. REALLY. I swear. And it’s perfectly okay to plan your reminders in advance and write them on a sticky note or piece of paper. Practice with a colleague if you want some feedback on how something sounds.
In the long run, you’re doing SO MUCH GOOD by sharing this information with families. Even if one parent is bothered that you’ve stopped reading a book for 30 seconds to offer two sentences of brain development goodness, the majority, whether they already know what you’re saying or not, appreciate it.
This is a topic that resonates with a lot of us, so visit the Jbrary blog on Friday, June 19 for a roundup of ALL the “Early Literacy Messages in Action” posts that are happening this week! On twitter you can catch all the posts by following #EarlyLitInAction. You’ll find lots of great suggestions and “reminders” that you can use right away! And please – share your own “best practices” in the comments. I’m sure you’ve got ’em!
Now, GO FORTH AND BE AWESOME, you world-changers, you!