Friday, April 29, 2011

So you want to start a second-language storytime?

Yes!  It's possible!  And you don't even have to do it by yourself!

Ever since I started posting about the French storytime that I co-founded at my local library, readers have been emailing me to ask for advice on starting up something similar where they live.  And as our storytime is still in existence--even flourishing!--after six months, we must be doing something right. 

So here's my advice to other would-be story spinners, both as a storytime volunteer and as 3+ year employee of that same library....

While your local public library seems a logical choice, you could also look into a space at a college or university (like meeting rooms at the student center or in the foreign language department), an indoor play gym, a community center, a parenting support center, a daycare or elementary school, a bookstore, a toy store, or a city recreation center/YMCA.

How to decide?  I would start with a place to which you already have a connection so that you can speak with administrators or owners who already know you there and a place that already offers regular programming for children.  Independent bookstores or toy stores, for example, are probably more approachable than big chains for whom you are just another nameless shopper.

Here's what you might not know about public libraries, at least in the US: right now is probably not a good time to propose anything new.  The three or four months leading up to the launch of their Summer Reading Program is an intense period of planning--deciding on themes, creating handouts and flyers, arranging special programs and performances that fit the theme and will appeal to the various age groups that the library serves, recruiting and training extra volunteers, scrounging up prizes to award, ordering and labeling thousands of prize books....

Let's just say that if you approach a harried children's librarian in May about starting a brand-new program right away, she'll probably shake her head no, horrified, if not chase you out of the library.  And once the Summer Reading Program starts, the pace gets even more manic, as children of all ages descend on the library en masse to check out more books than usual, attend the programs, and redeem their prizes.

"Then why are you writing this blog post now?" I hear you asking yourself.  Well, 'cause this is what I felt like writing about.  Besides, this gives you a couple of months to pull together a proposal for your local library (if that's what you're going to try first).  And if you don't know the children's librarian personally, this gives you time to schmooze, make yourself and your kiddos known to her, let her hear you speaking the minority language in the library, and so forth.

Also, if you are not a regular storytime attendee, I really recommend that you visit as many different storytimes as possible to get a feel for how they can be presented, what can be included, what techniques the storyteller uses, what resources are available, and what you yourself would be comfortable with.

If I were you, I would recruit at least one other person to co-found the storytime with you.  That way, you won't be responsible for carrying out every single storytime by yourself.  (This came in very handy when Griffin and I had to miss a storytime due to an emergency doctor's appointment.)  Our group now has four or five mamans who work together two at a time to plan and present.  Two of us are Americans, the other three native speakers.  We see each other regularly at a weekly French playgroup, where we often bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm songs and comptines that we could pepper our storytime with.

To choose a day and time, we checked out the library's regular storytime schedule to ascertain when nothing was scheduled: Fridays.  Because the French playgroup meets in the mornings when the older siblings are in school, we wanted an afternoon session.  Because the little kids still nap in the afternoon, we wanted to meet a bit later.  And because the library closes at 5:00 on Friday, we chose 4:00, and are pretty happy with that decision.

We meet every two weeks, which works well: every week would be too big of a commitment, while once a month seems not often enough to feel like a regular part of your schedule.

Our storytimes tend to run about 30 minutes, which is maybe a little long for the younger kids there.  (But we always have so much we want to squeeze in!)  And sometimes we plan an activity for afterwards, like eating crepes (the food-themed storytime), doing puzzles about trucks and trains (the transportation-themed storytime), coloring pictures, or making finger puppets.  (Other times we just sit around and chat while the kids play and run around.)

We do pick a theme for each session to provide some structure and to recycle vocabulary and ideas throughout.  We scour our kids' rooms to find books and magazine stories that address the theme, then narrow it down to three or four, generally starting with the longest one first (when the little ones are more willing to sit still).  We often end up with one nonfiction title that we use to introduce the concept.  For example, with seasons, I showed a book with illustrations of a cherry tree throughout the year and asked the kids questions about the colors of the leaves, the state of the bird's nest, and the weather. 

As our storytime has developed, we have seen that the books that encourage the children to interact work the best.  So as we go along, we ask questions about the book, help the kids make connections between the book and their lives, trail off at the end of a sentence to they can yell out the rhyming word (in books where the final words rhyme, that is), and make patently false statements about the topic that the kids can refute (and feel proud for catching a grown-up saying something wrong when they're done laughing about our idiotic comments).

We also try to include one book that is genuinely fun or funny or silly, because that so appeals to the children.  On the other hand, our selections can be somewhat eclectic, since we don't have a library full of French books to draw from.  A lot of my children's books were purchased from eBay Canada, so they're in French, but it's rare that my colleagues from Europe have ever heard of them.  Some of the storytellers take books in English and render them in French, but I'm not comfortable enough as a non-native speaker to do that myself.

What I do like is that we always read the book as it was written (more or less, occasionally shortening one that will take too long to read otherwise).  I have attended some storytimes (both English and French) where the leader simply talks about what's going on in the picture.  And books and their authors deserve more respect than that!

After choosing the theme and the books, we move on to the songs and nursery rhymes.  We like to alternate them--one book, then a song, then another book--to break it up and encourage the attendees to sing along.  Because half an hour is a long time for the toddlers and preschoolers to sit, we endeavor to plan something for the middle that will get them up and moving around, like singing a song with an accompanying dance, shaking jingle bells, moving around the room like a train or animals (or whatever fits the theme for that day), or a leading an activity I learned from Griffin's French teacher: when we pick a song that isn't traditional or commonly known, we play it on the CD player and direct the attendees to do different movements along with the song (jumping, hopping, swimming, flying, etc.), rather than singing something unfamiliar.

Speaking of song lyrics, when we started out, I typed up a handout with all the words to distribute to the attendees, but now we just write them on the white board in the storytime room.  And when I'm at a loss for one more song, I use the tune of "Ten Little Indians" and change the lyrics.  For instance, during the love-themed session, we sang "Un petit, deux petits, trois petits bisous, quatre petits, cinq petits, six petits bisous, sept petits, huit petits, neuf petits bisous, dix petits bisous pour toi" (counting kisses).

Finally, we also feel it is important to start with the same song each time and end with the same song, which the librarians always do at the official storytimes.  This helps the kiddos transition into and out of French storytime, and it means that after a month or two, each child will know at least two songs each time.  Our opening song is "Dans la foret lointaine," which features a cuckoo bird who sings coucou, which also means "hi" in French.  To close, we finish with "Ainsi font font font les petites marionnettes," because it includes the line "trois petits tours et puis s'en vont" (they turn three times and then go away).  We vary them up, asking the attendees to sing them very fast, very slow, very softly, etc.

This may sound odd, but the library doesn't actually do any publicity for our storytime.  If a patron asks if something like that exists, the librarians will tell them, of course, but as we are a group of volunteers and not supervised by a librarian, it is not considered an official library storytime.  Also, the most commonly spoken minority language in our community is Spanish, and our library doesn't currently have the resources to offer a Spanish storytime (though we often do some bilingual sessions), so it could be seen as insensitive to promote the French one while not providing anything exclusively in Spanish.  The library also does something similar with a baby sign language group.

As you might expect, most of the attendees come from the French playgroup where we do lots of publicity.  I also send emails to former members (whose children are now older), other Francophones in the area that I (or the other leaders) have met, other parents in Griffin's French class, and a handful of French teachers.  I also post the information on a wiki for French teachers in Colorado (the local chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French) and a listserv for language teachers in Colorado.  If we needed to recruit from an even broader audience, I would advertise the storytime on the local groups for French speakers, but so far we have had enough participants.  (You could always start a group specifically for the minority language storytime, though.)

We tend to see 10-20 people at each session; more than that would be unwieldy.  So far they have almost all been families who speak (at least some) French at home, rather than Americans who are interested in having their kids hear some French.  This means that we can conduct the entire session in the minority language with no translation or explanations necessary.  (I like being part of this immersion experience!)

In conclusion, I heartily encourage you to create a minority-language storytime in your community!  I'd love to hear about your experiences....

This post was written for inclusion in the April edition of the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.


  1. Aww, thanks so much for posting this. Very useful and encouraging.


  2. Thanks for your tips! If I organize something, I'll let you know. Your blog is very encouraging!

  3. What a great idea! Definitely something to consider...although first I think we will try and see if we can rustle up a German language playgroup. And then perhaps a storytime could follow!

  4. and here I was, having never considered doing any such thing, now feeling like I could totally pull this off! Right much research to do... Thank you!

  5. wonderful! good for you, what a rich experience! i did a spanish and french storytime when we were living in utah and it was also a huge success! big gestures, humor, visual aids, it makes it all magic for the little ones and the big ones too!

  6. Oh, thank you, CR, Marta, Belinda, Coco, and Maria! I'm so glad that our storytime success is inspiring other parents.

    Maria, I'd love to hear more about your Utah storytimes....could you blog about those? Or maybe you do informal storytimes with your own children and the kiddos you take care of? Do tell!

  7. Hi Sarah,
    I've been working on a plan to start a German story hour, and it looks like it's going to happen! I'm still working on some details, but I'm really excited about it.
    I just had a quick question for you: what do you do with Griffin when you lead the story time? I think he's older than Aleksander, so maybe it's not an issue. Right now Aleksander is in a clingy stage and always sits in my lap when we go to music class or a story hour. Just wondering if you have any advice?
    Also, do you have an age range?
    As things progress, I'll be posting about it on my blog! Thanks for all this great advice!!

  8. Sorry for the delay in responding--I somehow missed your comments when you posted them!

    Griffin was 2.5yo when we started, and much of the time he sat next to me while I read. Other times he would run around and play, which I let him do if it didn't disturb the others.

    I found that if he was already familiar with the books and songs, they kept his attention better and he was able to respond appropriately.

    We haven't specified an age range, but it seems to appeal most to, say, two to six-year-olds. Or rather, the books that would engage older kids would be way over the head of the toddlers and preschoolers. Honestly, I was relieved when a family with a 7-8yo and 10yo stopped attending.

    Good luck--keep us posted!

  9. Hi Sara,

    I'm in Kansas CIty and I started a playgroup called the Kansas City French Playgroup last March (you can look us up at or follow me on Twitter: KC_Fr_playgroup). We meet about once a month for French conversation while the kids run around. Most of the parents that came can't really speak French, so I sort of tutor them during our conversations.

    I have 24 members so far, and I'm having a really hard time getting any of them to come to the meetups! I've meet about 6 or 7 of them. About 4 or 5 of them are from France, but only one of those comes. My friend, the co-organizer, hasn't helped with anything-- always too busy.

    This has been a lot of work and a little disappointing. Any suggestions? Maybe having a French story time might attract more French speakers...