Beyond Bilingual: Making Storytime Inviting to All English Language Learners

Here's how two Brooklyn librarians are making storytime more inclusive.

A storytime session at the Brooklyn (NY) Central Library. Expressive storytelling makes these events more ELL-friendly. All images courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library. Above photo by Gregg Richards/BPL.

Take the Stage!

Model with wordless books. Show families how they can “read” these books in any language.

Play a video of a storytime song or rhyme in another language. Always use videos from trusted sources or preview any video, preferably with a native speaker, before you share it.

Use props and puppets. Visuals help communicate story line, characters, emotions, and more.

Sing a book. Sing a classic illustrated songbook such as Jane Cabrera’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (Holiday House, 2012), or set a simple book, like Byron Barton’s My House (HarperCollins, 2016), to an easy tune such as “Frère Jacques.” The illustrations help convey what the song is about.

Read big books. Love ’em or hate ’em, these overpriced, oversize picture books are great for ELL families. They can follow along as you read.

Be expressive! Some stories can be told and understood mostly through sounds, facial expressions, and tone of voice, such as Moo! by David LaRochelle and Mike Wohnoutka (Bloomsbury, 2013) or Look! by Jeff Mack (Penguin, 2015).

A bilingual staff member recalls chatting with a Spanish-speaking mother who frequented storytime at the Cypress Hills Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) located in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. Her daughter loved the program, and she knew the child was learning. But the mom admitted in Spanish, “I don’t really understand what the librarian is telling me. I know it is important, but I have no idea what it is.”

When we heard this story and other similar ones, we knew that despite our well-crafted parent engagement strategies, we were leaving many families behind. We needed to find a way to support those who were English language learners (ELL).

But how to do it in 33 languages—the number reportedly spoken by families who attend our programs? According to information from the U.S. Census, more than 300 languages are spoken across the United States. One in five U.S. households does not speak English at home, according to a 2015 American Community Survey. We want to encourage parents to read, talk, sing, write, and play—the components of Every Child Ready to Read (ECRR)—in the language they know best, but how can librarians bridge this divide?

With resources from two funders, $100,000 from the Altman Foundation, and additional support from the New York City Council, BPL has been able to offer storytimes in nine languages and train our staff to make their storytimes more accessible to ELL families. We are still growing in this area, but here is what we’ve learned so far.

The bilingual edge

Often, when we tell parents they should read with their child in their native language, parents say, “No, I want my child to learn English.” Educators used to espouse the idea that children might develop “language confusion” with exposure to more than one language. However, more recent research shows bilingual brains have an edge. Speaking two languages actually benefits children’s overall learning, marked by larger vocabularies, flexible problem-solving skills, and higher-level cognitive abilities. Bilingual learning also supports executive function, a set of mental skills that allow children to thrive academically, regulate emotions, and grow into efficient, productive, and physically and mentally healthier adults.

It is critical that children whose first language is not English have engaging learning opportunities in their first language to improve their literacy success and support development of a second language,” says Jamie Campbell Naidoo, professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama and coauthor of Once Upon a Cuento: Bilingual Storytimes in English and Spanish (ALA Editions, 2016). “Bilingual storytime is a natural environment for English language learners to hear stories and songs that are culturally and linguistically relevant, supporting both their ethnic identity and language development.”

The BPL Storytime Guide handout is translated into nine languages.

Storytime in nine languages and counting

Simone Groene-Nieto, public services coordinator for special populations at Jefferson County (CO) Public Library, believes that multilingual programming “sends the message loud and clear that we care about diverse patrons and work hard to serve them at the same level we do our English-speaking patrons.” At BPL, we wholeheartedly agree. But how could we make storytime in multiple languages happen?

To start, we hired and trained facilitators with early childhood backgrounds who spoke Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), French, Japanese, Kreyol, Spanish, Russian, and Urdu. We created a manual for these programs that introduced them to ECRR and provided templates for them to create their own storytimes in their language. This multilingual team promotes programs in their communities, assists in translating flyers, and recommends new foreign language books to add to the BPL collection. Since the fall of 2016, we have offered 328 sessions and we plan to make this program a regular part of our early literacy offerings.

Though not without growing pains, so far this approach has been a win-win for our libraries and their communities. Abby Garnett, a supervisor at our Cypress Hills Library branch, is enthusiastic about the outreach benefits of the program, which she scheduled adjacent to an English language discussion group. “This program was wonderful in welcoming Bangladeshi families into the library who previously may have been unaware of our programs for young children,” she says. Beyond children’s programming, storytimes in other languages can be a point of entry to the library for many adults. They “engage these families and often serve as the first introduction to people who may not be familiar with the wide array of services American libraries provide,” Groene-Nieto says.

What’s a monolinguist to do?

How do you proceed if you only speak English and have no funds to hire bilingual staff? Should you cram with Mango Languages and develop your own bilingual storytime? Naidoo and his Once Upon a Cuento coauthor, Katie Scherrer, say no. If you are not truly bilingual, don’t advertise your storytime as such, they advise. You may be able to share “La araña pequeñita” (the Spanish version of “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”), but are you going to able to answer a mom’s complex query in Spanish? “At a minimum, we recommend that anyone offering a bilingual storytime on his or her own be competent enough in both languages to handle basic polite conversation and common library transactions,” they write.

What you can do is incorporate some multilingual content into your storytime. Karen MacPherson, children’s and youth services coordinator at the Takoma Park (MD) Library, enthusiastically includes English language learners in the storytime community. “The overall language of our programs is English,” she says. “But we always say ‘good morning’ to each other in a variety of languages, starting with the four most spoken by our patrons.”

Librarians can also use the many books that have phrases in other languages. Try to get a native speaker to help you with your pronunciation. Consider translating a couple of words or phrases from your favorite English songs and rhymes. Shamsa Chaudhri, BPL’s Urdu Storytime facilitator, adds elements of Urdu to English songs and books. “I use books with very few words, or interactive books, such as No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli (Candlewick, 2008) or Press Here by Hervé Tullet (Chronicle, 2011), and I will translate a word or two per page into Urdu. I also sing English songs like ‘Wheels on the Bus’ and use Urdu for the action words.”

Miriam Lang Budin, head of children’s services at the Chappaqua (NY) Library, has offered multilingual-friendly programs in 27 languages by asking parents and caregivers to contribute songs and rhymes. “It occurred to me that they must have plenty of songs and rhymes in their native languages,” she says. “I thought it would be great to have the opportunity to learn some of them.”

A BPL storytime leader uses puppets to convey story elements visually.

Make it inviting

While a bunch of toddlers and grown-ups making their fingers crawl up waterspouts may make sense to us, it can be confusing to parents with limited English proficiency (LEP). To help them make sense of our storytime activities, we created the BPL Storytime Guide, a simple, brightly illustrated handout translated into nine languages, that explains what to expect and key things we hope people will learn. We also borrowed an idea from our sensory storytime programming and created storytime cards, which can be displayed in different sequences in a pocket chart. These act as an illustrated picture schedule and orient parents and children to the storytime elements.

To help parents and caregivers join in on “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” we created a large-format, illustrated songbook of 17 favorites that can be displayed on an easel. Yesha Naik, a children’s librarian at BPL’s Central Library, uses chart paper to write popular songs and encourages parents to take a picture of it so they can sing on the go.

“It is impossible to overstate the critical role of trust in serving ELL families, perhaps now more than ever,” Scherrer says. “Build on the trust that you are able to establish as a storytime provider to ensure that families have access to all aspects of library service.” To bring trusted individuals from the community into BPL, we’ve recruited a few storytime ambassadors. These community members, usually bilingual parents, welcome and orient families to storytime in their own language.

Eva Raison, BPL immigrant services coordinator, suggests using English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) best practices by utilizing Plain English (or Plain Language; “Use accessible language, common words, as well as short declarative sentences to give directions during activities. Avoid idioms—“the cat’s out of the bag!”—and jargon,” Raison says. “Speak slowly, not louder; pause and check for understanding. Define key terms, like ‘fingerplays,’ and repeat key messages in different ways.” Also, consider using English words that are cognates in other languages, such as “picture” instead of “drawing.”

Libraries are for everyone, but more often than not, our everyday storytime practices can become barriers to families who do not speak English. We’re still learning how to better serve ELL families at BPL, but we hope our initiatives send a strong message that the library is for everyone. In a country where people talk a lot about walls and borders, let’s start building bridges—one cuento, or story, at a time.

Rachel G. Payne is BPL’s coordinator of early childhood services. Jessica Ralli is coordinator of early literacy programs at BPL.

  Resources for Multilingual Storytime  Online resources Jbrary’s Beginner’s Guide to Multilingual Storytimes: Resources for adding other languages into your storytime. Burnaby Public Library’s Embracing Diversity Project: Songs and rhymes in 15 languages! Story Blocks: Songs and rhymes in nine languages from Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy. Plain Language: Tips for using Plain Language in your oral and written communication. Guidelines for Outreach to Immigrant Populations (EMIERT): A guide to support the development of library and programming that facilitate recent immigrants’ inclusion and participation. Books Once Upon a Cuento: Bilingual Storytime in English and Spanish by Jamie Campbell Naidoo and Katie Scherrer, ALA Editions, 2016. Early Literacy Programming en Español: Mother Goose on the Loose Programs for Bilingual Learners by Betsy Diamant-Cohen, Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 2010.  Easy Bilingual or Multilingual Books to Read Aloud The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred by Samantha R. Vamos, Rafael López (illus.) (Charlesbridge, 2011) How Many Donkeys?: An Arabic Counting Tale by Margaret Read MacDonald, Nadia Jameel Taibah ; Carol Liddiment (illus.) (Albert Whitman, 2009) Say Hello! by Rachel Isadora (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010) The Wheels on the Tuk-Tuk by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal, Jess Golden (illus.) (Beach Lane Books, 2015) How Hippo Says Hello! by Abigail Samoun, Sarah Watts (illus) (Sterling Children's Books, 2014)

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