Jenna Nemec-Loise

Head librarian at North Shore Country Day School

Winnetka, Ill.

Nemec-Loise serves on the ALSC board as ALSC division councilor. She has extensive early-literacy experience from her years working in the Chicago Public Library system, and her story times were among those observed and analyzed for Susan B. Neuman’s research on the Every Child Ready to Read @ Your Library initiative (see “Evaluating the Every Child Ready to Read Initiative,” p. 37).

Jenna’s Best Practices:

I recently hosted a Buddy Day program on the theme of kindness. Each of our younger grades is connected to an older grade, so we have little buddies and big buddies. Our junior kindergarten and senior kindergarten children are buddies with our seniors, and it was wonderful to share the joy of early literacy with our 17- and 18-year-old students, so they could see the important role they play in modeling the love of reading and lifelong learning for the younger children.

Rather than having a menu that says, “Do this, do that” each time, come in with a buffet of options, so you can pick some of the things that look good to you. Some of the things I always have on hand are great picture books, both fiction and nonfiction; I love puppets, I love flannel boarding, and I love anything that can extend the fun beyond the book, because I want to model for caregivers the kinds of things they can do to continue the learning at home.

I have an enormous collection of Folkmanis puppets. I incorporate some kind of puppet into all of my programs, and I like to encourage our adult caregivers to be puppeteers for me. For example, the first time I did a program for the junior kindergarten here, I read Caps for Sale, and I brought in five monkey puppets. I invited both of our teachers to come up and puppeteer for me. I was reading the story, and I was being the peddler; the kids were the monkeys. The kids loved seeing the grown-ups that they care about involved in the storytelling process, rather than seeing them sit in the back of the room getting work done or chatting.

At workshops people ask me how to engage caregivers. Don’t put out chairs, and invite everyone to sit on the floor with their little one. Give them a job to do. Let them know we’re going to say all of our rhymes two times, and this is going to be a great opportunity for them to learn it. Tell them we’re going to make so much noise on our own, so let’s go ahead and turn off our cell phones. Let’s not have side conversations. I feel very comfortable laying out those guidelines because I want it to be cooperative and collaborative and fun, and I want caregivers to be partners in the early-literacy process, not just casual observers. That’s my #1 best practice.

One of the great things we can do is to remind caregivers that early-literacy practice doesn’t just happen at school or at the library; there are opportunities everywhere you go—at the grocery store, on the bus. I think I have gained a lot from Every Child Ready to Read, in terms of my ability to talk to caregivers in a way that resonates with their everyday lives. It did not come naturally to me. It’s something I learned. It was a little uncomfortable at first, making those asides to parents—“You know, this rhyme is so awesome to do at the diapering table,” or, “This is a really fun song that you can sing when you’re in line at the grocery store and everyone is getting a little squirmy.” As I learned how to do it, and I practiced, it became much more natural to me.

For toddlers 18–36 months, barnyard noises are the way to go. Any picture book that features animals making barnyard noises that kids can get involved in, and I can incorporate the puppets in, is a huge hit. I don’t think there are ever enough barnyard books, to be honest. I would buy all the barnyard books if I could.

Elizabeth Schwertfuehrer

Children’s librarian, Mt. Lebanon Public Library

Pittsburgh, Pa.

Elizabeth’s Best Practices:

Play is one of the early-literacy practices that is often overlooked because many do not believe that play has a place in literacy. Symbolic play and dramatic play help a child understand that we can use one object to represent another, the way that letters represent sounds. Dramatic play helps with sequencing.

Playing restaurant helps with print awareness, letter knowledge, vocabulary, and background knowledge—all from writing a menu, taking orders, and pretending to prepare food. Chunky puzzles are also great for this. You can ask open-ended questions about what the child sees and allow them to lead the discussion. Repeat some of the words they use so they know you hear them, and have them build on what they say. Finger rhymes and movements help the kids stretch out their fingers so they can properly hold a crayon or pencil when they get to school. I am starting to label everything in our preschool area so kids can increase their vocabulary, letter knowledge, and print awareness, all while playing.

Some of my surefire hits include tapping out syllables in a name. I use a drum in story time to have the kids tap out their own name. Their own name is a “bull’s-eye”: kids pay attention seconds longer when you use their name. Tapping out syllables with even an empty oatmeal container can be fun. It works on phonological awareness. One of my all-time favorite books is Tanka Tanka Skunk! by Steve Webb. It is a fun, rhythmic story that uses great vocabulary as well as syllables.

A favorite way to engage caregivers is singing with shaky eggs [egg shaker musical instruments]. Everyone is a critic when it comes to their own singing—no matter that research tells us that kids don’t care, they just want to hear our voices. Add shaky eggs, and even reluctant caregivers can play along. There are many rhyming songs, but some of my favorites are by Laurie Berkner: “I Know a Chicken” and “Little Red Caboose.”

I also try to give caregivers a nugget of early-literacy support at each story time, something that helps them know that they are already doing a great job. I might say: “Strive for five: read, write, talk, sing, play, every day!” These are the five practices of early literacy, and this is what grows a reader, long before reading begins.

Katie Richert

Assistant head of youth services, Bloomingdale Public Library

Bloomingdale, Ill.

Katie’s Best Practices:

When prepping for a story time or other early-literacy programming, I love to use the resources of other librarians. There are tons of blogs, such as Storytime Katie and Jbrary, that have found the materials already that really might work for teaching Every Child Ready to Read in a fun, responsive way. The more options that a librarian has to create better programming, the better. Other librarians have tried things—some things that work well for their story times and others that flopped—and that knowledge really helps when planning my own programming.

Finger plays, songs, prop stories, and puppets are great ways to bring play and song into programming. Some that I use all the time include the finger play “Roll, Roll Sugarbabies,” “The Milkshake Song” by the Old Town School of Folk Music, or a flannel board made from the story Monkey Face by Frank Asch. Along with books, these tools really get the kids engaged in story time. The addition of song, toys, and having the children interact with the story themselves makes story time more relatable to the toddlers sitting in the audience and to their caregivers. I also like to create a handout that has all the story-time materials we did, including the words to all the songs, finger plays, and prop stories. That way parents can do them at home with their child and reinforce the learning we did at the library.

I think the best way to engage caregivers is to talk to them about the importance of reading. Reading with or to a child, even an infant, can help them grow into a better reader in the future and further their ability to be lifelong learners. My library has literature about Every Child Ready to Read, and an early-literacy section that was made to help parents pick the books that are at the right reading level for their new readers. At the children’s desk, along with the coloring sheets, we also have letter-tracing sheets that can be used by caregivers to promote writing and letter identification.

However, I also think there are other ways that are less straightforward that can help you interact with parents. Signs on the changing tables about singing to your child might seem odd, but they are an indirect way to reach the parent or caregiver who might not come to the reference desk for help. Labeling items in the department with words—such as a table, chair, or wall—is another way to bring early literacy into the lives of children without being overbearing toward the caregivers. Whatever way you chose to interact with parents, being open and spreading any tips you have about early literacy and how to help parents is the optimal goal.