Bilingual Storytimes and Early Childhood Literacy

Once again, we’re having student volunteers blog programs of interest from the ALA Annual Conference. This time, Nicole Helregel covers “Bilingual & Culturally Inclusive Storytime Programs,” held on Saturday, June 29, at 1 p.m.

Today, more libraries are serving increasingly large populations of Hispanic Americans across this country. In her ALA program, “Bilingual & Culturally Inclusive Storytime Programs,” Katie Scherrer outlined some steps for librarians who are seeking to create bilingual storytime programming and/or to enhance their English-language storytimes (her presentation, which contains numerous resources, can be found on SlideShare). A lively session, which included participatory singing and dancing, Scherrer’s presentation was very instructive and informative. She stressed that librarians themselves do not need to be bilingual to provide a successful bilingual storytime to patrons, and offered a number of resources and tips.

The presentation was structured around three different models:

Monolingual English storytime programs that include and celebrate Latino culture and the Spanish language.

This model is definitely a great one for librarians with weak or non-existent Spanish language skills. There are a variety of Latino/a authors and illustrators who publish English language books. There are also many books of Latino folktales that are published in English. And lastly, there are many books that are primarily in English, but incorporate Spanish names, words, and phrases. Scherrer cautioned that some are better than others; thus, a discerning eye is necessary when choosing books that will promote cultural inclusiveness. Overall, this model is a simple, easy way to introduce more diversity and cultural inclusivity to your storytime programming.

Bilingual Spanish-English with two presenters

This model is another great option for librarians with limited Spanish speaking skills. The set-up is basically a duet, with one person reading the English and the other reading the Spanish. Scherrer advocated finding and working with a community partner; this partner is preferably someone from the local Hispanic community who is good with children, has time to commit to the programs, and who understands the importance of early literacy efforts. While volunteers are always appreciated, Scherrer also suggested partnering with other organizations with similar goals (such as childhood education, literacy, Hispanic outreach, etc.) to find a suitable partner presenter. She then suggests training the partner in storytime logistics/practices, early literacy practices, and assessment tools, so that they know what is expected.

Bilingual Spanish-English with one presenter

The last option is really only an option for those who are proficient in Spanish. The storytime presenter reads both the English and Spanish translations of a book to the children. Scherrer argued that it’s fine to be a non-native speaker, but proficiency near fluency is recommended. While those with basic Spanish could probably get through a children’s book, Scherrer argued that the goal of storytimes is to engage families, not just children, so the storyteller should be able to interact effectively with both children and adults. This model can also be accomplished by hiring a bilingual storyteller/performer, but Scherrer cautioned that the program should always be tied into the library and library services, as the point of storytime programs is to engage families, improve early literacy, and provide for the information needs of the parents.

Scherrer offered a number of insights into why early literacy bilingual programs are so important. The availability of Spanish language children’s books, outside libraries, can be very low in many parts of the country. It is important that parents know about and can access these materials at their local libraries. It is also very important for parents to engage with their children in early literacy practices in their native language, as complex ideas can be articulated more clearly. Thus, while some Hispanic parents may be reluctant to encourage their children’s bilingualism (in favor of English), it is important to promote the importance of Spanish language early literacy for children in Spanish speaking households. Scherrer asserted that in addition to storytime programming, libraries can increase inclusivity and promote Spanish language literacy by putting out handouts and posters from ALA and other organizations that support Spanish early literacy practices.

Scherrer ended with a number of tips and tricks for bilingual storytime programming and, more generally, practices for making early literacy programs more culturally inclusive:

  • Beware of older bilingual books, as many have huge chunks of text on each page, which can grow tiresome for the storyteller and the children.
  • There are a number of books with Spanish rhymes, songs, and fingerplays that are perfect for bilingual storytime. Most are easy to learn, even for those without strong Spanish language skills.
  • Translation of classic English books into Spanish can be great; look for ones that preserve a fun rhyme structure and/or rhythm.
  • While it is possible for bilingual storytellers to translate an English book off-the-cuff, it doesn’t showcase the Spanish-language books in the children’s collection, which should be a central theme of the program.
  • Don’t start a bilingual storytime if you don’t already have some level of Latino/a patronage; it does not work as well as an initial outreach effort. Rather, it is more effective once a patron base has been established.
  • Incorporating songs, particularly those with callbacks and/or physical components, are great! Interactivity keeps the kids excited and engaged.

Scherrer’s presentation, blog, and Goodreads page are full of books, songbooks, flannel-board configurations, and programming ideas for bilingual early literacy programming. These resources provide an incredible foundation upon which to build a successful bilingual storytime program!