The birth of a new storytime: ESL skills for everyone!

So I probably mentioned that I’ve been doing a little bit of research on serving ESL families in my community through storytime. For awhile I had three families who spoke a foreign language at home coming to my storytimes on Saturdays. When that number dropped to just one family, I still noticed that we had many patrons who are not native English speakers- maybe even (roughly) 15% of our patrons. (Note: I attempted to do actual research into how many families in my communities do not claim English as their mother language, but apparently, that information does not exist. That would be a really handy bit of information, census makers. If you happen to know of a way to find this info, please let me know.)

15% may not seem like a lot, but public libraries have a long history of making a place for everyone who is easy to overlook–the disabled, the impoverished, the LGBTQ community, the aging, etc. Beyond that, 15% is not a faceless statistic to me. I can remember faces and names of people I’ve helped who could benefit from a more immigrant-friendly world. So to me, these people are significant and I owe them my effort and care.

So I’ve been poking around the internet, observing what other libraries have published and are practicing as far as ESL-oriented storytimes go. What I’ve found has been diverse and both encouraging and confusing. To begin with, not everyone has the same idea of what an ESL storytime should mean or do. Some people interpret ESL storytimes to be equivalent to bilingual storytimes, using their time to read books in foreign languages and dance and sing to multicultural music. They may even have a craft that’s related to a cultural tradition. Some include a mixture of English and bi-lingual books, with opportunities to communicate in different languages and share cultural stories. Then there are those who are using ESL storytimes to promote growth and proficiency in using the English language and immersing patrons in their country’s cultural norms, helping them assimilate into a new society.

One thing is for sure, with all of these versions out there, it’s very hard to find a definitive direction when you embark on this journey. There are best practices being published here and there, but you almost have to decide what you want to do before you can see how best to do it in this case. If you’re out there asking the same questions as me, believing you can do more for your immigrant kiddos and feeling out your options, I can only say that I simply went with my gut. That’s not helpful is it? Sorry. I’m just out here throwing spaghetti with the best of ’em.

I had a tough call to make right off the bat because my library’s budget depends on me providing a certain number of a certain kind of storytime. It has to be a storytime for ages birth-5 and it has to be based on ECRR principles and school-preparedness. It even has to have a certain name. Next fiscal year, the number that I’m required to do decreases (for good reasons, I assure you), so I will have more flexibility in providing other kinds of storytimes. Sooo…if I wanted to do this new ESL-friendly storytime as a whole new storytime offering, I would have to wait until August to start it (after the new fiscal year started and after SR). However, I could also choose to make every storytime into an ESL-friendly storytime and change nothing about the way it’s marketed.

The second option is more appealing right now, and it’s not just because I’m in a hurry to try it out. I would be really thrilled to see native English-speakers interacting with these families and I fear that if I market it as an ESL-oriented storytime, they’ll shy away from coming.

So, I’m trying something that’s a mixture of everything I’ve read and is a halfway point between my two options. I’ll begin implementing this storytime approach this summer without really saying too much about it. (My plan is that if people start to notice and ask about the changes, then I’ll do a little explaining.) In August, I’ll begin calling this new storytime something to the effect of “Grow Together ___.” I’ll also go back to having my usual version of storytime too and will then fully explain the different goals of both and encourage families to try both and see which one works best for their child. (So I’ll have three storytimes each week with two being my usual, regular storytime, and one being the new one. Currently, I have three but they are all the regular, ECRR-ish storytimes.)

As you know, ECRR encourages us to build strong readers with a little life literacy sprinkled in. With ESL families, your goal is not to teach them to read English, but to feel more comfortable in a world they can’t always interpret. The goals are very similar, but instead of focusing so much on preparing to read, I’ll be flipping ECRR upside down by focusing on building strong learners and more confident citizens. Which. Is a pretty worthy cause, even for a librarian. 😉

Now, the truth is, library professionals are still figuring out the best way to accomplish this goal. After all my reading, I’ve combined the patterns I’ve seen others using and added in some things to try on my own as well.

ESL-friendly storytime will be different from regular storytime in the following ways:

Instead of focusing on a theme like pirates or arctic animals, it will have a broad focus on building vocabulary and life experiences that will lead, especially, to school preparedness. For instance, naming our clothes and practicing putting them on.

There will be more emphasis on basic concepts like shapes, counting, the alphabet, colors, and even animals.

I will do fewer and simpler books, probably going to one easy picture book, and a sing-a-long book as well. I’ll try to find books that have repetitive text and patterns, too.

I will ask more questions to help families understand what’s happening in books and ask them to repeat some important words with me if it seems appropriate.

I’ll include lots of traditional songs and nursery rhymes to get families acquainted with our cultural norms.

Flannel activities will revolve around those basic concepts I mentioned.

Crafts will be short and will be followed by a playtime so that parents can socialize and share resources. I’ve just purchased a few cooperative board games, card games, and building toys that will help facilitate communication. (I’m really excited to see how this part goes!)

Here’s a sample storytime I drafted today:


Hello song
Sing ABCs
Rules and intro
Ready for a story song
The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse
I’m a Little Teapot
Sing-Along Book
Color recog. flannel
5 Little Ducks
Little Mouse, Little Mouse
Unexciting sample? You betcha. That’s the basic lay of the land, though. As you can see, it’s something that could really work for anyone, but hopefully it will be a great fit for my ESL families.
More on this adventure as it unfolds.

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