Early Literacy Asides: You Already Have What It Takes

Alex Byrne

Pierce County Library System

Contact me at: abyrne at pcls dot us

Or @HeofHIShirts on Twitter

For Storytime Extravaganza, 22 January 02016

A Modern Caregiver-General

Parents and caregivers are beset with a dizzying amount of advice and expertise prclaiming itself the One True Path of parenting. Looking at bookstores and library shelves shows off more than a few authors and characters talking about all sorts of children.

It's possible that one of these experts, in the books, or outside of them, actually understands the child in question well and is able to provide useful advice, but it's much more likely that a caregiver will have to spend a lot of time, trial, and error with experts who don't work with their child before finding someone that actually does.

Things get more complicated because some of these experts proclaim they are right because they have advanced degrees and lots of experience in the field of child care, and others proclaim their expertise because they have no advanced degrees at all or experience, but what they did for their children worked, and is therefore universally applicable to all children.

Combine this with the time crunch that many parents are under and the fact that children don't age backwards, and finding a trusted expert that works in a short amount of time becomes a high-stress affair.

An Expert Is You

The good thing is, those parents already have an expert on hand that can help them - you, the youth person.

When it comes to trustworthy things and institutions, public libararies are usually near the top of the list. It might have to do with the commitment to giving accurate, unbiased information, the willingness to let anyone come in and use the resources we have available, or some other aspect, but people trust public libraries a lot.

You can take advantage of this trust and your own knowledge to become an expert on early literacy, with the added benefit that caregivers and parents in your programs will be very likely to listen to you and take your advice. Great power, great responsibility, and all that.

No, really. You're already an expert on these matters, even if you're not sure you are.

Who, Me?

Many librarians and library workers are uncomfortable applying the expert labels to themselves. Library school teaches students that there is no such thing as a universally Right and Complete Answer that's more complex than a simple fact-check. Even if those answers existed, many of the people coming into the library don't have enough time to wait for the research and compilation of the information into a useful answer for the person asking the question.

Because there isn't necessarily a right and quick answer, library workers can give degrees of confidence in their answers. This should be enough, but often times, it isn't.

Yes, You.

Truthfully, the best that anyone is ever going to get is to have an answer that's good enough for them, for the time that they have available. Satisfaction is a good goal to shoot for, especially when it comes to children, who are unique and interesting creatures unto themselves, defying the idea that any sort of solution will work for all of them.

Getting comfortable with the idea that a better answer will arrive right after the person leaves is an important part of building the confidence that will be needed to impart expertise - give the best answer at the time you have, and if something better appears afterward, be ready to tell that if they come back or to the next person that comes in with the same question. Or just mention it in the next week of Story Time.

Couldn't Be

The other possibility is that a library worker could be completely, utterly, totally wrong.

Take a look at this code snippet:

# The actual magic itself: If the date in the column is earlier than the comparison date, keep the record as a weeding candidate.

	if Date.strptime("#{row[idx]}") < comparing_date

What do you think this code snippet does?

Actually, as it turns out, that code block doesn't do anything. (Other than, perhaps, throwing an error or two.)

If you're familiar with code and with the language involved (Ruby), you might spot that the strptime function was missing a necessary argument to make the code block work.

If you were talking to someone about this code block, and you didn't have an idea of what the code did, the comment that was present would have been a good guide to crib off of. That the code doesn't actually work isn't your fault.

It's okay to be wrong. It should always be okay to be wrong, if you being wrong is something that happens in good faith and that you're giving them the best answer that you can.

Should a manager or supervisor give you grief, or worse, formal discipline, just because you were wrong about something, shame on them forever and always. Having been on the receiving end of that kind of discipline, it is quite possibly the worst thing that a manager can do to someone they supervise.


You Already Have What It Takes

No, really. You are an expert, so you can do this.

Parents and caregivers already see you as a trustworthy expert, whether you have been in your position for three days or thirty years. If you have a firm commitment to always be learning and improving and refining your expertise into something better, there's no reason for you to feel like you're lacking what you need to be an expert.

There's a great talk by Ed Finkler (@funkatron on Twitter) gave a great talk at the Open Source Bridge conference in 02015 about the things that make a great software developer. You can substitute "librarian" or "library" worker everywhere he says or talks about "developer", and it all still applies. It's a great talk.

What Is An Early Literacy Aside?

An early literacy aside is a short snippet of information, based on research, practice, or Cool Things, that gives parents and caregivers something they can do with their children that promotes the child's ability to read (or do math, or other things).

Story Time programs are the most common places where asides come out, but they're useful everywhere there are programs or practices going on in the library.

Example, Please?

Here's an example of an early literacy moment, courtesy of Parenting Counts:

It's Never To Early To Start A Conversation

Parentese is a useful demonstration for what counts as an early literacy moment. Notice the choice of a male-appearing, football-watching caregiver as the main character who starts speaking parentese, pointing out that it's not just women who can do it. And that it happens in multiple languages, by people of all sorts of colors and body types.

If there's anything that I don't like about that video, it's that the other male-appearing people in the video are giving looks to each other like the parentese is somehow not masculine. If there were a way of throwing shade on them for it, that would be the thing to do.

The aside form of that video might be something like: "Speaking parentese to your children helps them learn the sounds of language."

What Makes A Good Early Literacy Aside?

There are a couple things that can make a good early literacy aside:

  • Short Is Good
  • Encourage the Parents
  • Transition Times Are Great
  • Note Literacies at Work
  • Provide Reminders

If you get all of these in one aside, you're doing good. If you can get most of them, you're still doing good.

Short Is Good

The less time you can take to deliver your message, the better.

  • More than 15 seconds = bored children. This is bad.
  • More than 30 seconds = bored chlidren and confused caregivers. This is worse.

Try to give enough information to get the message and a hook across. That way, the parents and caregivers can do the research behind your early literacy material on their own time, if they want.

For example, Project VIEWS2 from the iSchool at the University Washington has a lot of research and information about the effectiveness of Story Times and Youth Services practices. It's quite possible to have a deep dive off of a simple search.

If you want to provide some of that information, a handout, or the back page of a handout, is a good place to infodump.

Multnomah County Library, in Portland, Oregon, commissioned a poster with the five practices (Read, Write, Talk, Sing, Play) of early literacy. It's a great visual representation of an early literacy aside.

Sometimes another agency really gets it - like this outdoor advertisement, declaring "Look, a big purple rectangle!" - which is the perfect jumping-off point for an early literacy conversation in the car.

So what might this kind of aside look like?

  • "Did you know that singing with your kids helps them learn language better? Try it at home, or here at Story Time!"
  • "Picture books are full of weird words, like giraffe or tesselation. Reading books full of weird words with your kids helps them build the vocabulary they'll need to tackle reading on their own."

Encourage The Parents

Sometimes, it can seem like suggesting anything to parents is playing with fire, or will provoke some sort of explosive reaction...

Suggestions phrased as encouragement to caregivers that what they are already doing right now will go over a lot better than others. Truthfully, what parents and caregivers are already doing is probably pretty good, in terms of getting their children ready to read. After all, they're coming to the libary already, right?

Every now and then, though, the caregivers need a little bit of a prod to participate.

What much of these practices and asides boil down to is "Do what you are already doing, but more mindfully, and possibly, more often."

Here's some examples of encouragement:

  • Do you talk to your kids at home? Great! The more you do it, the quicker they learn language. The more words you use, the more words they have."
  • If you speak more than one language in your family, use all your languages at home - your kids will benefit from hearing all the possible sounds they'll need to know to be able to communicate."

If you need to prod the caregivers a bit:

  • "Singing with your kids helps them learn language. Nobody here will judge you on your singing voice, so feel free to join in and sing lots."
  • "A good way of knowing what your child is thinking is by looking at what they're looking at. Shared engagement makes children feel loved and important, which is great for their learning."

Transition Times Are Great

Transition Times - those bits and pieces that are in between activities in Story Times and programs - are just long enough to have an Early Literacy Aside put into them before you're ready to go again.

Here's a couple ways to get your transition times sparkling with early literacy asides:

  • "Ever notice our blocks are different shapes, sizes, and colors? While we put them away, talk with your little ones about the blocks using words and concepts like enormous, miniscule, rubedo, verdant, prismatic, rhomboid, and spherical."
  • "Have your child tell you what color scarf they have, and see if you can find some rhyming words for it. See if you can rhyme back and forth until we're ready to start. This helps children make connections between sounds, which will help their ability to recognize words, later."

Note Literacies At Work

Here's a secret - most of the things that you do in youth programs and Story Times cover more than one of the five practices of early literacy. While it's easy to cover the entire spread in specific programs, caregivers may feel like if they're not doing the same, they're not doing well enough or helping at all.

It's worth pointing out that many of those things that do get done cover more than one of the practices by themselves. Play is sometimes the easiest gateway to all the other practices, but all five can link easily and seamlessly between each other. Foregrounding this may help make caregivers feel less anxious about making sure they do everything right.

Here are some ways of helping caregivers feel better about their work:

  • "It doesn't take complicated rules and lots of pieces to play good early literacy games with your child. Pointing out everything around you is a good way of adding vocabulary, and as they get older, you can ask them to list back to you what you said as a memory game, exercising multiple parts of the brain."
  • "When you count, count to more than ten. Count by twos or threes or different numbers. It helps numeracy and math skills as well as exposing children to the names of higher numbers."

Provide Reminders

Unsurprisingly, there's a big world outside your library. And while it's easy to remember all the good practices from Story Time while in Story Time, outside, there's all the other pressures that impose cognitive load on them. It's easy to forget the good stuff just learned at the first thing that goes sideways.

The same thing goes for Youth Services people - so there's no shame in putting up a few reminders for ourselves to remember to do the things we think are cool and will be good for program attendees.

Pierce County Library System puts up their early literacy reminders above the changing tables in their bathrooms. There's going to be a caregiver, and a child, and at least a minute or two where there's going to be an interaction. Why not do something for early literacy while the hands are busy changing diapers? The Association of Library Services To Children has posters you can download and print for your own changing tables.

For parents with smartphones and tablets, Vroom is a free app that provides reminders and activities to do with children through the day, tailored for a specific age from birth to four years old. Vroom also offers their tips in print forms for those parents that don't have smartphones or don't want to download the app. They're great in that they have both the tip and a bit of the science behind the tip or further explorations to do after doing the tip.

Have a couple reminders about reminders.

  • "If you're lost for things to do with your child outside of Story Time, maybe use an app like Vroom that has tips already selected for your child's age."
  • "If there's something you want to remember to do outside of Story Time, I have some sticky notes here - write it down and take it with you so that you'll have a reminder of what you want to do."

Constructing An Early Literacy Aside

Now that we have an idea of what makes a good aside, it's time to get some practice building them. Melissa Depper, of the blog Mel's Desk, provided this method at an American Library Associaion poster session and talk in 2013 called Anatomy of a Storytime Literacy Message:

  1. Parents, when you [do foo],
  2. your children learn [bar].
  3. This helps them become good readers because [baz].
  4. [foo] with your chlldren helps them get ready to read.

Here's an example:

Parents, when you sing with your kids, your children learn different words. This helps them become good readers because big vocabularies make reading easier. Singing with your kids helps them get ready to read.

This is one way of constructing a message - if that works with your style, go ahead and use it. If it doesn't work with your stlye, don't use it. Keep in mind your audience and their developmental level when choosing the asides you want to construct.

Okay, time for some practice. Using this method or some other one, bulid some early literacy asides. (If you're doing this at a staff meeting or big grouping, throw your constructions into a big bag and shake it all up when everyone has contributed a few asides to the bag.)

This Sounds Unnatural

How did you do? Did building some asides come naturally, or was it some work to get everything together the way you wanted to?

Library workers sometimes feel like giving advice sounds like they're experts (which you are) delivering the Word of Law from On High to groups and want to sound less pretentious or pompous. Alternately, some library workers feel like their tips are the equivalent of a used car or late-night informercial pitch.

In either case, practice helps smooth these things out, but there's also coworkers that can help calibrate the delivery of the message so that it has the right balance of authority and casual-ness. And remember, there's SCIENCE! backing all of these things, so that will hopefully help it feel less like an infomercial.

After all, everyone needs what you're talking about, and they're there to get it from you.

Practice, Practice

Great! Now that you've created them, it's time to practice some delivery. Read your asides in your very best librarian voice. (If you've got a big bag o' asides, grab one or more from the bag and read them aloud in your best voice.)


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