Monday, February 24, 2014

Reflections on Library Service to Beginning Readers

Early elementary school kids in Pre-K through 2nd grade are one of my favorite age groups to work with. Last school year, I had regular monthly visits with Pre-K, Kindergarten, and first grade classes, and from January to August 2013, I also offered a weekly beginning reader story time. During those months, I learned a lot about the needs and interests of kids who are beginning to read on their own. Here is my list of best practices for serving their needs in the library.
  • Make them laugh.
    Once kids reach the age of about five, they start to develop a sense of humor adults can really appreciate and engage. Though kids in this age bracket are notorious for loving toilet humor, this is not the only thing that will make them laugh. Silly words, overly-dramatic characterization, word play, knock-knock jokes, tongue twisters, and pretty much anything else unexpected, will give them the giggles. Be prepared, though - if you share a really good joke with them once, they’ll tell it to you again and again, and they will expect everything you share from then on to be just as funny.
  • Encourage storytelling skills.
    Kids are natural-born story tellers. As I mentioned in my post about serving preschoolers, just mention a dog in a room full of four-year-olds, and you’re in for 25 different dog-themed tales, some true and some pure fiction. With my beginning readers, I learned to slow down the pace of story time to leave room for their input. When I introduced our letter of the week (which I usually did using images on the iPad), I would ask the kids to tell me about a time they used a certain object, or experienced a certain type of weather. We made lists, explaining what we’d wish for if we could wish upon a star, or telling about our favorite and least favorite foods. These conversations made the kids feel like story time was about them, but it also helped develop the narrative skills they need to become strong writers. I always made sure to allow the kids lots of time for writing and drawing at the end of story time, too, so they could tell their own stories inspired by what happened at story time that day. 
  • Expect controlled chaos.
    I discovered pretty quickly that an engaged group of early elementary kids is pretty similar to a wild mob. In order to get the kids talking and laughing, I did have to let go of a certain degree of control. I couldn’t plan my story times to the minute, and I had to be prepared for pretty much anything to happen. I learned to say, “Now it’s time to…” instead of “Would you like to…” unless there was a choice involved. I learned to bring the kids back from a chaotic moment using quiet signals, or even just asking them to put their hands on their head, on their shoulders, etc. Early on, I was frustrated when kids wouldn’t sit quietly and just listen, but once I understood that there were ways to harness their energy into something productive, I thrived on the craziness. I knew I had accomplished something when I presented a flannel board version of Quick as a Cricket to 40 aftercare kids and had every kid in the room eagerly clambering to guess what each animal would be. It looked like feeding time at the zoo, but it was also the most successful story time I’d ever done for this age. 
  • Teach them to browse. 
    When kids are small, they tend to pick up books at random based on their size, or shape, or color, but their parents are often the ones who choose the books they will actually borrow. What I noticed is that kids coming to the library with their classes, rather than their parents, had no idea at all how to look for books that interested them unless they already had something specific in mind. This resulted in long lines at the children’s desk, of kids asking for fairy books, snake books, and graphic novels, and lots of bored wandering if the one book a particular child had in mind was checked out. First grade started to become so unhappy during their visits, that I actually made up a lesson plan to teach the kids how to browse. I pulled a selection of first-grade-friendly books and laid them out in the story room in a style similar to a book fair. I explained what browsing was, and told them that for today only, I wouldn’t be helping them find a specific title. They needed to choose based on their own interests. It was one of the only days all year that every child took a book home. I think it’s important to remember that beginning readers are also new to selecting their own reading materials, and they might need guidance beyond just being pointed toward the easy readers.
  • Don’t get hung up on reading levels.
    Reading levels have a very definite place in the lives of beginning readers. Often, first graders know exactly which Guided Reading level they are on, and for some of them, it is used as a status symbol to prove how much more mature they are than a younger child, or even than a classmate. If kids know their level and ask for a book on their level, I will provide it, but otherwise, I worry more about suggesting books the kids will like than whether they will read every word. At this stage, kids are often still reading with their parents, so books they can’t read on their own might wind up in the bedtime story pile, and even the newest emergent reader can get something out of the illustrations even if he’s not yet ready for the text. It’s also important not to make assumptions based even on grade level. I have known first graders who read novels as well as third graders who are still in level one easy readers. The best bet is to ask the child what she’s read lately and help her find her next book based on that information.
Beginning readers are just starting to appreciate the joy the library can bring. Give them even more reasons to love the library by making it a fun place to visit where kids can express themselves, learn a good joke or two, and find books they can read on their own.
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