You may know, especially if you journeyed through Path 1 in this guide, that in a way any book you share in storytime can support early learning because the interactions you have with children are the essential ingredient in children’s learning. With that understood, it is also true that the content of a book can make it easier to create those quality interactions. As a librarian, selecting storytime books is just one of your many responsibilities, so you want to make it easier on yourself, right?
Here are some tips and resources for choosing and sharing books that will most naturally and readily support a variety of early learning experiences for your storytime children. These early learning categories are taken from a school readiness framework developed by the Office of Head Start (2015), which you can learn more about in section 4.4.3 Caregiver Goal - School Readiness.
Approaches to Learning
The Approaches to Learning domain encompasses a range of abilities and attitudes that may enable a child to succeed in the formal environment of a school classroom (Office of Head Start, 2015). These are managing emotions, following routines, handling materials with care, managing talk and behavior, controlling impulses, maintaining focus and attention, persisting in tasks, using remembered information to do a task, thinking flexibly, playing independently, showing curiosity, communicating creative ideas, and using imagination in play (Office of Head Start, 2015). In addition to practicing these approaches to learning as they engage in storytime activities, children – and their caregivers - may learn about them from picturebooks that depict characters demonstrating these abilities and attitudes. Sharing such picturebooks can also provide opportunities to talk with caregivers about how to help their child prepare for school.
In a review of empirical studies, Strouse, Nyhout, and Ganea (2018) identified some features of picturebooks that may help children to remember and apply information from a book to a real-world context. These features are:
- Pictorial realism – the closer the illustrations are to looking like the real world, the more likely children are to transfer ideas from the book to the real world.
- Realistic context – children are more likely to transfer ideas, such as problem-solving techniques, from a book with realistic human characters and possible events than from one with fantastical characters and events (e.g., talking animals or objects).
- Genre – children can understand the difference between a fictional book and an informational text and may more readily accept and apply ideas from an informational text. (For more on using informational texts to improve your storytime, read the Spotlight on Informational Texts)
Strouse and colleagues (2018) concluded that even though book features are important, an even more important and effective way to encourage young children’s learning is to have conversations with them about the book’s content during and after reading. With that in mind, look for books that easily bring to mind questions and comments you can make to stimulate conversations about the approach to learning ability or attitude – persisting in tasks, playing independently, showing curiosity, etc. – that you want to highlight.
Cognition: Concept Books
Concept books are “informational texts that teach an abstract, foundational idea such as the alphabet, numbers, and colors through examples rather than topical explanations” (Domke, 2020, p. 23). Keep in mind that even when you share carefully chosen concept books, children make the most learning gains when you also carefully choose direct comments and questions about the concept to include during and after your reading (Bradley & Jones, 2007; Hindman et al., 2019). Here are some tips for choosing concept books that will help you facilitate discussions that build children’s school readiness in the domain of cognition.
Alphabet Books. Some features of alphabet books may best facilitate discussions about letter knowledge, a key component of early literacy (Bradley & Jones, 2007; Deitcher, Aram, & Goldberg, 2018). These features are:
- Illustrations of things with a beginning letter sound that clearly matches the letter on the page
- Illustrations that encourage talk about how the same letter can make different sounds
- Small number of simple illustrations
- Target letters clearly differentiated from other letters on the page with different font size, color, or style
- Simply rendered target letters rather than letters that have been graphically altered to fit an illustration (for example, the letter C next to a picture of a cat is better than a C drawn with ears and a tail like a cat)
- A majority of words that are familiar to children - so that the focus of the discussion can be on the letter names and sounds rather than on giving definitions or building content knowledge
Counting Books. Concept books vary greatly in the style of their illustrations and how number concepts are presented (Ward et al., 2017). There is consensus that adults can and should use books to teach the very important foundational math skill of cardinality – the understanding that the number of items in a set is the last number said (Mix et al., 2012; Ward et al., 2017). The best way to teach cardinality is to label the quantity of the set and immediately count the same set, and then ask the children to repeat this label and count practice (Mix et al., 2012). For example: "There are five pumpkins on the fence. One, two, three, four, five. How many pumpkins are on the fence? Five, right. Can you count them with me? One, two, three, four, five." The combination of labeling and then counting has been found to be far more effective than only labeling or only counting (Mix et al., 2012). Therefore, choose counting books with illustrations of sets of items that can be labeled and counted.
Some general concept book guidelines:
- Simple illustrations may help children have better recall of the concept than complex or “busy” illustrations.
- Realistic illustrations or photographs may increase the likelihood that children will learn a concept, as compared to cartoonish or abstract illustrations (Strouse et al., 2018; Tare et al., 2010).
- Manipulative books such as lift-the-flap or pop-up books may actually impair children’s ability to learn the target concept if the manipulative elements are distracting (Chiong & DeLoache, 2013; Tare et al., 2010).
- Repeated words or phrases, as well as rhyming words or phrases, can help children recall key ideas (Ward et al., 2017).
- As with other informational texts, you can select a concept book with the intention of sharing only a few relevant or useful pages, rather than reading cover to cover as you would a storybook.