How to: Teach early literacy to preschoolers

I’ve mentioned before that I work in a preschool. We are a faith-based, developmental school, serving ages 2 through Kindergarten. It’s a diverse group of kids from about 15 different countries and speaking numerous different languages at home, and a similarly diverse staff. We teach early literacy skills at all ages and stages, and we have a BIG range of abilities represented in our school. I feel like it’s great preparation for working with children in the library too.

So I want to highlight some tips from NAEYC on teaching in the classroom, because I think it’s useful for pretty much any setting with children – including parents! (Read the whole thing here: Essentials of Early Literacy Instruction)

Can we do all these things in every storytime? Probably not! But we can incorporate these ideas throughout our program so that we hit each of these strategies for learning. I hope they are helpful for you!


The idea of “rich talk” is so useful. Rich talk includes words and ideas that might be new to kids – along with the context to understand it. We can do this by enriching our storytime themes with content. For example – are we reading Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar? We can enhance that theme with vocabulary around fruits and vegetables, with pictures or real ones for kids to touch and look at. We can talk about sweet, sour, crunchy, soft, and other attributes of things. Just imagine how many words can be explored this way!


We got this one, right? Don’t worry about reading favorites over and over again. Repetition is good and useful and helpful.


Playing with words and sounds is fun. All kids like books with rhyming sounds in them. Sometimes they can predict what the word will be because it rhymes! Kids a touch older – like 4’s – can tell you other words that start with the same sound, or words that rhyme. You can write the words on a whiteboard so they see the word and hear it said at the same time.


We do “letter of the week” in school, but we have the kids for a whole school year so we have that continuity. For storytime, in addition to reading books with alphabet awareness, we could also theme around a letter. An example: Storytime Katie’s “E” storytime.


Providing a book list to parents and bringing out a selection of books that are related to what we did in storytime can help parents promote emergent reading, too.


For emergent writing activities, it’s useful to consider what’s developmentally appropriate for our storytime guests. Younger children display emergent writing in the form of scribbles and sometimes tracing or writing mock letters. Here’s a useful graphic describing how a child’s writing develops over time:


If you do center times, you can also do hands-on activities like allowing children to form letters with a finger in a tray of rice, or in a sealed bag of paint. (Here’s a handout on sensory ways to promote letter development with young children.)


These are some simple concepts related to books and reading which we might forget to discuss – but which promote fundamental understanding of how to use a book.

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These ideas reinforce why play in the library and in the context of our programs can be useful – these ideas represent using hands-on activities to give children an opportunity to explore the ideas we’ve been talking about in storytime.


Idea Roundup, Part 2

To continue with yesterday’s idea roundup, today I want to explore additional library programs focused on early literacy and see if I can begin to work out some patterns in what is already successfully being done, and to consider what we might do in our own libraries as well.

Literacy Totes & Kits
The Sandusky (OH) library received a grant to establish a collection of literacy totes intended to enable parents/caregivers to purposefully and effectively promote early literacy with their children.

Providence Public Library has something similar. Watch this video to see what it looks like!

Simple Downloadable Resources
The NYPL has a section for early literacy resources that is written in accessible language, and most of it is available in Spanish as well (though it is probably needed in lots of other languages too!). I love this simple set of infographics and suggested activities that give parents very simple and very accessible tips.


The rest of this page has resources for families throughout the community – cultural experiences, places to take your child and explore, even links to community health resources and other resources families may need at home. This could be viewed as a subtle way the library can demonstrate its investment in families as a whole and understanding of families’ needs in a broad sense, generating trust in the community.

Engaging Culture
Providence Public Library has a cool series called Family Learning Sundays. One Sunday a month, they do something culturally based and interesting. Cultural learning promotes a sense of self, interest in other people’s way of life, gives a vocabulary for varied experiences, and is just interesting and fun!


Idea Roundup, Part 1

Today I have been looking around at various children’s library websites to see what interesting ideas are out there – for spaces, programs, early literacy promotion, and more. I want to round up my ideas and observations here.

An Interactive Presentation on Children and Literacy


(image: screenshot from the Prezi linked below)

Here’s a cool Prezi presentation that walks through some of the brain research regarding early learning and development in children, specifically incorporating literacy ideas. This would be a great presentation to share on our website or on social media, because it’s a bright, interesting, interactive presentation and easy for parents to view at their own pace.

Prezi doesn’t play nice with wordpress, so here’s the link: Early Literacy & You

Queens Library Children’s Discovery Center

I’ve been looking at the Queens Library website – because this is a library with a huge, innovative space and I want to know more.



Look at this bright, light, beautiful space. Notice, too, these interactive stations shown in this picture. These stations include discovery about insects, magnets, mirrors, and other hands-on topics. And now let’s look at a screen shot of a cool feature of the library’s website…


What I love about this is how the library website links a hands-on activity to suggested books that children can look at in the library or check out to further explore an idea. It’s brilliant that the design team has set this up so well – a family can come into the library, explore an interactive station, and then find additional resources for exploration of the theme of that interactive station.

I’m impressed by the continuity between the website and the physical space, and how we could use our web resources to provide additional resources and opportunities for learning around the themes of our storytimes or programs.

Swing Into Stories

Here’s an absurdly simple, really fabulous, super easy idea for getting the word out and engaging the community.


To quote the SFPL website:

The Green Bookmobile is going to play at the park! Movement and play are an important part of growing into a reader. So we’re partnering with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department to bring reading and stories to where young children are movin’ and groovin’ outside. That’s the park, of course.

The Green Bookmobile has a variety of juvenile, teen and adult materials available for check out with an SFPL library card. The mobile library is able to circulate materials, create library cards, and provide the public with information about library services and programs.

Come to the playground and hit the swings with a good book or take some books home to cuddle up with later.

File this one under “Now why didn’t I think of that?” The park, the county rec center, the play area at the mall – all over the community are places people go with their kids. I’ve looked a lot at ways to bring play into the library, but I hadn’t thought of taking the library to places where children are at play. The opportunities for library-community partnership are many.

Demco Webinar: Updating a Kids’ Library Space

Demco is an online/catalog shop for library supplies and furniture. They’ve got everything. Today when I was looking at their website for some images to inspire me, I came across a webinar they produced looking at the overhaul of a library kids’ space. I was a little skeptical – a little afraid it would just be an hour-long commercial for Demco products – but actually there was some useful information here, which I am capturing for this blog post.

Watch the whole thing here.

Some highlights…

Play is unstructured – kids decide what to do with the materials they have in front of them. It builds brain pathways and creates a developmental foundation for future learning. It can help create cooperation, empathy, negotiation, learning through trial and error.

Why should we promote play in the library? It’s part of the library’s mission of promoting achievement and learning in children – empowering kids to learn in all realms. It provides an opportunity to create community connections.

Barrington Library update…

This update went on in 2013-2014 and renovated all the library’s public space with an $8.5 million budget – but let’s look for opportunities to do this on the smaller scale!

The library update draws from the idea of multiple intelligences, the idea that we can encourage learning and play in multiple domains:


And here are some of the goals of the project – a screenshot from the webinar itself.


The webinar team also provided some details about using the space to deal with traffic flow, noise, and other factors – they observed that this created some additional work and focus for staff as well, just in terms of organizing and cleaning and maintaining the space (and even designated a staff person as “Play Coordinator”!). They talked about some of the feedback they received on the project, both positive and negative.

And they talked about metrics for evaluating the amount of time children spent interacting with the items they chose for their space. Measuring success was a useful part of this webinar. Here’s a screenshot of some of their evaluation of the program:


Included items in the updated play space:

  • Pretend marketplace
  • Foam blocks for building
  • A big slide!
  • Costumes

Other programs that they created along with their space updates:

  • Process art (drop-in, all ages) – explore various mediums and sensory elements
  • Family fort building (child + caregiver) – positive shared experience

The take-aways

There were so many good ideas in this presentation! The fact is that most of us are not undergoing an $8 million dollar renovation to our spaces. Most of us are going to cobble together a few thousand dollars here and there to do updates and programs in our libraries. That’s fine – just imagine the possibilities where we are right now!

Picture how we could take a basic space and add some interactive elements to it, maybe some comfortable seating for Mom or Dad – promote it a little – use some easily acquired supplies to invite families to participate in some interactive programs – and grow it from there.

This was a super interesting and useful webinar for thinking about spaces and programs in my own libraries. I recommend it!


More Library STEAM Fun

Today I want to share with you a blog that has inspired me to no end! Check out STEM in Libraries and their amazing series of attainable, interesting, and varied STEM projects.

Why STE(A)M? 
Let’s start by considering why STEAM education matters – for schools, libraries, students, and families. I want to look at this as more than a flash-in-the-pan trend and explore what components of STEAM actually have an impact on student learning.

STE(A)M stands for science, technology, engineering, math – with the frequent inclusion of arts in the middle. I want to be clear here that I am not interested in trendy, but I am interested in fruitful. From that standpoint, the value of STEAM is the providing of hands-on, exploratory, student-focused activities; the inclusion of a variety of materials; the opportunity to hypothesize, try, revise, and try again; and the ability to predict, problem-solve, and learn from the process.

Perhaps I might say that at the core of my educational philosophy is that doing is as important as hearing and reading, and that being able to think through a process and predict an outcome is as important as remembering facts.

STEAM activities we could do in our libraries
Since one of the major components of our work this semester is planning an early literacy program for children, I have been very keen to consider how we can accessibly and affordably incorporate STEAM activities in our storytimes and programs. This means activities that don’t use a ton of expensive materials, can be done in one session, and are achievable by a storytime leader and a group of kids.

So check out these cool STEAM storytimes that I found on this blog:

Dinosaur Storytime includes a great dinosaur song with lots of dinosaur vocabulary; an activity using air-dry clay to make dinosaur prints; and pasta and glue to create a dinosaur skeleton. We could certainly reduce some components and reduce cost – there’s a lot going on here – but see how we can  use simple materials to conduct a really fun, interactive, educational storytime. There’s so much play going on here but there’s a lot of creative learning, too.

Structures Lab is less a storytime and more a hands-on exploration time, and would be a great addition to a STEM Playground event. We’ve done this with our preschoolers and they love it. Building the tallest tower is a blast, and seeing it fall down is a little thrill too. Consider all the opportunities for teamwork and problem-solving that you can incorporate into this activity.

Adapting ideas to our settings
You might look at these STEAM program plans and think, I can’t do all that at once! And there’s a good reason for that. In my experience, the younger the children, the fewer projects we can get through in one sitting. And setting up for several activities in one day may be more than one storytime librarian can  handle, too. That’s okay. I am looking at how we can adapt these ideas to fit in the context of a library storytime program, and here are some thoughts I have about how I’ll do that.

  • Incorporate books and stories. We can read Rosie Revere, Engineer over and over and never get tired of it. Pick titles that you can use to lead into projects and activities. Have fun with it. We worked a structure activity into a superhero storytime – we used cups to see if we could build a tower so tall a superhero couldn’t leap over it in a single bound. (We couldn’t – the superhero prevailed.)
  • Be flexible. You’ll notice that in some programs, you’ll get halfway into an activity and realize you are not going to get through your whole plan. It’s okay to go back to the circle, read another book, and call it a day. Be responsive to the needs of your group, especially with younger children.
  • But don’t dumb it down. You’d be surprised what young children can get out of a science activity, and how creative they can be in their problem-solving. So just because they don’t know the word “structure” yet doesn’t mean they won’t blow your mind with the cool structures they build.
  • Process over product. We don’t know from instance to instance how our projects will turn out. That’s okay. Think through the process step by step, and consider what can be learned by each portion of your activity. Maybe you do that tower building activity and your kids don’t learn anything about gravity, balance, and force – but they engage in some great teamwork and problem-solving. You’ve still taught a great lesson.


I hope you’ll explore more ideas from this blog, and think about how you can adapt STEAM projects and programs to your own context. I know it’s inspired me with a variety of ideas I could implement in my own setting!

Cool Children’s Programming (ages 0-8)

Today I am taking a tour around the wide world of libraries and taking note of some of the coolest children’s programming I can find.

I am specifically looking for programs that meet several criteria: they are interactive and engaging for participants, they incorporate early childhood learning concepts in a meaningful way (but not limited to literacy – this includes social-emotional learning), and they could be adapted to numerous library settings.

I am especially looking for programs that can be done within the budget constraints and staffing limitations that exist in many public libraries today.


For those of us who are just getting started…

I really enjoyed ALSC’s list of programs for school-aged children. (I’ve saved it here as a PDF.) These programs can stand alone or be part of a series offered for children. Notice how many of these are related to, or can be tied to, books that are appropriate for our age group (0-8). Here’s a selection:hubbell_horsebook.JPG


  • Bit & Bridle Storytime: Discuss a great horse book and complement it with fun horse-related activities. Bring horse equipment in for a demonstration. Look at different feed, include a horse craft and horse snack. (Builds vocabulary, provides opportunities for science learning, can incorporate art and fine motor activities – make a picture of a horse out of these shapes?)
  • Book Charms Workshop: Create “charming” book markers with twine, beads, buttons and more. (This can be done with inexpensive materials, and could be incorporated into a STEAM event, used in Summer Reading kickoff, or just done in the context of storytime. This is a fun fine motor activity, and children could select beads that represent their favorite stories.)
  • DramaRama: Choose a children’s book with loads of action. As the librarian narrates, kids act out the parts. (This would be a terrific way of helping children link up stories with their own movements and actions – creating links in the brain between the words and the acting-out! Lots of opportunities for vocabulary building, creativity, kinesthetic learning.)

I share these ideas with you because these are things we could do easily, inexpensively, and with relatively little investment of materials or time – making these great starter programs or programs to enrich or expand an existing children’s programming offering.

If you’re interested in STEM…


(image: Abby Johnson)

I enjoyed this blog post: Visit the Science Playground. Like I talked about in my last STEM post, I love that these activities can be adapted to your setting (don’t have a microscope? No problem – you can make a sink and float station with a bucket and some items!). Bug toys, magnets, blocks, things to look at under a magnifying glass… I could put together a science playground next week, couldn’t you?

And a closing note…

While I was looking around the web for information about cool children’s programs, I came across this article: Innovation Frustration. In it, Sarah Bean Thompson talks about how we can get so caught up in the idea of innovating that we forget that our programs are already useful and innovative in their own ways – every program is an opportunity to show the library in a new light and to a new audience. While we are planning programs, we might feel like we are doing things that are predictable and expectable, but in reality, if we provide programs that are linked to children’s interests and provide some value to children’s needs, we are providing opportunities to demonstrate the library’s value to patrons.

I am often reminded to “not let perfect be the enemy of good” – to not get so caught up in making everything glossy and beautiful and Pinterest-ready that I forget that what we are really here to do. Something to remember when we are working with buildings and budgets that are not everything we might ever have dreamed – let’s use what we have to the best of our abilities and provide something of legitimate value.

Play in the Library: STEM

For today’s post, I wanted to explore some STEM concepts that could be used with young children in our library programs. I picture these ideas as being inspiration for things we could implement in special events such as STEM night, or as things that we could do as centers with selected early childhood programs. I am going to share with you two videos that demonstrate some play activities that we could implement at low cost.

This video shows children playing with a variety of materials in STEM centers in an early childhood/preschool setting. Notice that the children are using a variety of tools and toys which we may already own, such as blocks and building toys, as well as things we can acquire inexpensively such as nuts and bolts to string together (a great fine motor activity).

It is also interesting that the video points out ways in which these activities enhance social and emotional development, cooperation, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

This video is a great example of how children learn through play. The children in the video appear to be perhaps 4’s and pre-K age, maybe some who are 3, and they are quite capable of learning how to use simple tools such as levels and simple circuits.

Next I want to share with you an idea that we already do in our preschool classrooms that is SO much fun and SO interesting for kids to play with.

You can buy an expensive ramps and pathways kit online, but that isn’t necessary. The wood ramps are made from unfinished quarter-round trim, which you can get at the hardware store. They will even cut it for you (sand the cut edge to make it smooth – no splinters). Prop the ramps up on wood blocks, cardboard blocks, stacks of books, whatever you have available – or lay them on the floor. Now drop a marble in and see what happens. Then put a small brick (like a Lego) in and see what happens.

This is an instant, logical, hands-on lesson that incorporates learning about gravity, shapes, planning and problem-solving, velocity, and more. It’s so clever – I’m a big grownup and I love playing with our ramps. This is a great center activity or something we could incorporate into a STEM event as well, at a very low cost.