Category Archives: Early Literacy

Developing early literacy skills: evaluating apps for kids

First Words AnimalsA lot of my discussion thus far has focused on avoiding potential negatives in apps and ebooks, but today I want to talk about how quality apps and ebooks can help develop children’s early literacy skills, enhancing, among other things,  their interest and motivation for reading.

As a parent and a librarian, my goal with my sons is not that they be able to read at a 6th grade level by the time they are 5 years old, but mainly to develop in them a love for books so they have a foundation of a positive experience of reading to build on as they learn and grow. I don’t believe that’s something that can be forced, but it can certainly be modeled and fostered, and digital media can be helpful tools in that process. In a future post I’ll be talking in more detail about some helpful skills and techniques for parents who want to use digital media with kids in a positive way, but today I’m focusing on the features of the apps and ebooks themselves.

There are some common ebook features that do a nice job of fostering early literacy skills. Most ebooks have a “read-to-me” feature, where a recorded voice reads the story aloud and the words are highlighted as they are read. Children can then touch any word to have it repeated. This is an aid to developing print awareness in children. It helps them to become aware that a story is made up of individual words, and how to begin to decode the reading process. (NOTE: I’m not advocating using the device as a babysitter here – parent involvement is still recommended.) I like to read the book myself sometimes, and sometimes use the read-to-me feature just to vary the experience for my older son and emphasize different things at different times.

Tacky the PenguinWord and letter games can also be great for developing letter knowledge, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. There are some excellent letter-matching apps available. We’ve had good success with the First Words apps which allow you to switch between letters and phonetic sounds, but there are others available as well. Books and apps with rhymes or songs can also help with phonological awareness. Matching words or letters with pictures can help a child develop vocabulary as well as letter knowledge. Tacky the Penguin is a nice book-based app where touching the pictures brings up a word that relates to the text of the story – very nice integration of skills, interactivity and story.

The great thing about apps and ebooks for kids is that there are wonderful and engaging stories and games available that do a nice job of educating and helping develop skills in children while keeping the experience fun. Look for apps that support one or more early literacy skills and you’ve given your staff and the parents in your community another fun tool to use to help children become lifelong readers.



Hello from Watertown Free Public Library!

Hello!  A while back Cen posted that my library was starting a digital story time program.  When she asked if I’d guest blog about it, I thought…. sure!  Why not?

The big question I am asked is: How did you bring digital storytime to Watertown Free Public Library?

The idea for our digital storytime is the result of reading over and over again how necessary this type of programming is.  It’s everywhere- I read about digital literacy in School Library Journal, the New York Times is reporting on the App Gap, or the Wall Street Journal is reporting about toddlers zoning out with iPads.  We have an AWE Early Literacy Station in our Children’s Room, and it’s immensely popular.  We offer 6 story time options, and all of them are popular and well attended.  I put what was staring at me together: why weren’t we offering digital story times?

So I wrote up a proposal for my Library Director and Assistant Director.  When they OK’d it, I wrote something up for our Board of Trustees.  When they OK’d it, I made sure that our Technical Services team was on board, gave them a 4 week timeline with specific instructions about what Apps and ebooks I wanted installed.  Our Children’s Department is extremely fortunate as we received a generous bequest about a year ago.  Funds from the bequest paid for the materials for this program.  I realize this is the part where most libraries get stuck, but for me it wasn’t an issue.  So things were moving along!  Materials arrived, iPads were loaded, publicity started.

But people weren’t signing up.

That seems to always be the sticky wicket for us!  We try to only require registration when absolutely necessary.  There are only 15 iPads, we can realistically accommodate 15 families.  To maximize our iPads, I purchased audio splitters and 30 sets of headphones.  I had visions of 50 people showing up for this program and feeling overwhelmed and not wanting to turn people down, so we decided to require registration for the program.  Instead, there was a slow trickle of sign ups, and eventually the day of the program came and we were only half full.

I worried over sign-up for nothing.  Even at half capacity, I had my hands full.  Parents wanted to know the best way to interact with the Apps: there were some proficient users, but others hadn’t touched an iPad before.  And registration for our next session is filling up, and I have TONS of new ideas for how to move the program forward. After we’ve met a few times, I’ll share my tips for what’s been working!

Emily Miranda
Supervisor of Children’s Services
Watertown Free Public Library

High Altitude Digital Storytelling

I don’t know why it took me this long to find this, but there’s a great overview of a digital storytelling project published by the Colorado Association of Libraries.  It’s called Once Upon an App: The Process of Creating Digital Storytimes for Preschoolers by Kate Lucey and Melissa Della Penna (Douglas County Libraries, of eBook fame).

This article chronicles the very beginning stages of developing a digital storytelling program. Their development process took into consideration the Every Child Ready to Read‘s 6 Early Literacy Skills,  as well as the follow-up Five Early Literacy Practices, and ISTE‘s concept of digital literacy. There’s a great table that outlines these skills (below).

Six Early Literacy Skills Five Early Literacy Practices
  • Phonological Awareness: Being able to hear and play with the smaller sounds in words.
  • Narrative Skills: Being able to describe things and events, and tell stories with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Letter Knowledge: Knowing the names, sounds, and shapes of letters.
  • Vocabulary: Knowing the names of things.
  • Print Awareness: Noticing print as it surrounds you in the environment.
  • Print Motivation: Having fun with books.
  • Talking: Helps children learn oral language, one of the most critical early literacy skills, and develops all skills featured in ECRR 1st Edition.
  • Singing: Increase awareness of and sensitivity to the sounds in words and develops letter knowledge, phonological awareness, and vocabulary.
  • Playing: Represents one of the primary ways children learn about the world and gain understanding about stories.
  • Reading: Remains the single most effective way to help children become proficient readers and develops all six early literacy skills.
  • Writing: Helps children learn that letters and words stand for sounds and that print has meaning.

The authors recount the history of the project, the process of getting to know the audience, creating goals for the program and selecting apps.  This is what their final program looked like:

  • Go Away Big Green Monster app – Read by the Librarian
  • Go Away Big Green Monster app – Musical Version
  • Old Mac Donald Had a Farm app – Rhythm sticks also used by children to keep the beat as they sang along
  • Build-It-Up app – Mimics a color- and shape-identification flannel board
  • Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App – Read aloud by the librarian, as well as the recorded version by the author Mo Williams
  • “Can You Clap” – Song played on iPad performed by Sue Schnitzer from the CD Can You Nap
  • Puppet Pals app – Character-based story created by the children and the librarian
  • “Teddy Bear Playtime” – Song played on iPad performed by Hap Palmer from the CD So Big

Come on son, let’s go out for coffee so I can ignore you!

My 3 year old and I had an hour to burn between preschool and family swim at the Y, so we grabbed one of Richard Scarry’s (paper) books and headed to a coffee shop for some well-deserved organic chocolate milk.  We sat there for an hour reading, pointing at  pictures and talking about what we saw in the book.

There was another family in the comfy chair section with us, but their coffee shop experience was very different from ours.  It was a grandmother, mother and approximately 4 year old boy.  Both grandma and mom were doing something on their smart phones, and the boy…. well, he was just kind of there. He poked around and tried to climb up on his mom (she ignored him).  I offered to let him join in our storytime session, but he declined and hid behind his mother’s chair. He had one of the phones for awhile too, but whatever app he was using made horribly repetitive noises and I would have bet my bottom dollar it was neither age-appropriate nor book-based.

I can’t make crappy parents be good parents, but I can try to make information about good apps and eBooks for kids available to my community. If I can get the word out about good quality materials that are available on smart phones, then maybe that kid would have had a somewhat literary coffee shop experience rather than an empty time-wasting one.  I hope that mom reads to her child at home.  I have no way to know if she does.  If there was a digital option, would she be more likely to do it?  Should I have struck up a casual conversation and said “Hey, do you know about Smart Apps for Kids? They’ll send you an email when there’s a good educational app available for free! The library also has some eBooks you can read with your kid on your phone!” Were there cultural, educational or socio-economic reasons why that mom was ignoring her kid and handing him a piece of technology ? How do we transcend those?

Parents should be reading to their children.  Period.  If it doesn’t happen much with paper books, for whatever reason, then let’s find another way to help them do it. The people who don’t understand the importance of reading to their kids are not coming to the library.  Let’s get it out into the community!

How do we do that? Digital storytelling outreach at First 5 centres? Churches? Community centres? Day worker organizations?  The devices are out there.  They are being used to shut kids up.  That’s far from ideal, but maybe we could get some books on those phones, and maybe moms like coffee shop mom would offer books to her kid instead of something violent or overly commercial.

Let’s get out of our ivory towers about this and deal with the way the people in our communities are actually using this technology, and then meet them there.

And let’s have a coffee while we’re at it.

The Obsolescence of Picture Books and Reading to Children

I’m a children’s librarian.  In library school, I learned how to pan books around the room during storytime. I know the importance of dialogic reading.  I cringe when parents come to the desk and ask for a DVD that can teach their kids to do something. I don’t think Dora or the Magic Treehouse books are good literature, but the kids are ravenous for them, so I show them where to go.  My 3 year old has mostly Caldecott winners or honor books in his personal collection at home. I use music heavily in my early literacy programs because kids love it, and when they love it, they learn. I can recite the 6 early literacy skills by heart. I support literacy like a boss.

I am NOT out to replace picture books, or reading generally, with technology. Why do so many children’s librarians think that because there are new tools to enhance a child’s use of the library, that the next step is to throw out every other tool we have? Reading books comes first.  I agree. Children reading together with parents, as early as possible, is the best thing for developing brains.  I agree.  Too much time in front of screens is a bad thing.  I agree. Reading a print book is not the same as reading a digital book.  I agree.

Yay! We all agree! We’re friends! We all love books and reading! So stop getting all up in my grill when I say that it makes more sense to project an iBook on a screen so that everyone in the room can see it, not just the 5 big kids in the front.  Stop making that squinty face when I recommend a good-quality book-based app. Parents are downloading stuff on their smart phones and tablets anyway; would you rather they show their kid the crappy stuff with in-app purchases, bad interface, rampant consumerism and potentially inappropriate content? Step up, grab your library’s iPad, and start using the same content that your customers are using at home.

I am not threatening the 30 years you have spent being very good at your job by suggesting that we learn about new formats for children’s books.  I am not advocating that people read solely on their devices.  I am not making you obsolete. I am not suggesting that we remove ALL physical elements from a  storytime in favour of digital facsimiles.

The digital marketplace is FLOODED with content for kids and people need our stewardship more than ever.  This is an opportunity to expand our skill sets and learn about useful tools that can make us more effective and relevant as information professionals and experts in early literacy.

Read this article from the Guardian. The assertion is that the same things that makes a kid’s book great are what makes kid’s apps great: Great storytelling. Strong characters.

This, hopefully, will head off the crotchety commenters who appear whenever I write about children’s apps for The Guardian, saying things like “You idiot! Children should be reading BOOKS, not staring at a screen!” Ridiculous, since children in even the geekiest households are doing both, not replacing the former with the latter.

E-Books, Online Resources & Apps for Parents of Young Children

I’m working with the lovely Sharon McClintock, of Mother Goose and More fame, on a parenting program which introduces our community to the wonderful world of E-Books, Online Resources & Apps for Parents of Young Children. We will be covering mostly what the library offers, freebies and information for where to find recommendations for paid apps (We’re not going to recommend any particular app because we are not able to circulate them for free.  My answer to that? Circulate pre-loaded devices!!! RAH RAH RAH!!!!!!!)

This is what we’re going to be talking about:

Online eBook Providers
BookFlix: Scholastic pairs fiction with non fiction and includes author bios, puzzles, and links to other information. (Need library card)

Ebsco: Searchable database which includes some pictures book for this age group. Browse by Children’s and Young Adult Fiction/NonFiction. (Need library card)

International Digital Children’s Library: Digitization project through Internet Archive and the University of Maryland. Browse by colour of book (!), age range, length, award winners, genre etc.

TumbleBooks: Animation, sound, music and narration added to existing picture books.

App and Reviews
Common Sense Media
Digital Storytime
Parent’s Choice
Smart Apps for Kids

Professional Review Sources

These are sources that librarians use to determine what paper books are the very best; now they review apps too (mostly for iPad, but expanding slowly)
The Horn Book
Kirkus Reviews
School Library Journal


Amazon App of the Day: There’s always a free app, not all of them great, most of them not appropriate for children, but every now and then there’s a good free one.  We got A Charlie brown Christmas for free that way.

Beginning the Digital Storytime Journey

I have just begun working in a new library system where I have been asked to facilitate the development of some digital storytelling resources. We’ve begun discussing some exciting ideas for incorporating digital media into our services for children.  What we’d like to do is add more tools to the storyteller’s toolkit; in addition to physical puppets, flannel boards, draw and tell stories, etc, we’re going to be looking for digital tools  to use both in our programs, and to recommend to parents.

There are 2 aspects of digital storytelling;

  1. Virtual storytimes: This would be where we simply record programs, or segments of programs, and upload them so people can watch them at home or on a mobile device.  In the new year we’ll begin pursuing this type of digital storytelling a little more aggressively to develop a dynamic children’s “department” in the virtual branch of the library.
  2. Incorporating digital media (iPads, mostly) into everyday storytimes; this is where the apps and eBooks come in.

Here’s a general timeline:

  • July 1st we begin downloading and reviewing apps for usability in Early Literacy programming. We will establish collection development requirements for these apps just like we would any other media in the library. I will post all apps that make the grade as well as other resources for librarians who are interested in playing around with these new storytelling tools;
  • Develop some resources to give to parents about digital literacy, along with recommendations for apps and review sources;
  • August: presenting some of our work at the Children’s Supervisory Librarians meeting;
  • Begin a dialogue with special needs groups in our service area about integrating some of these tools into programming for those populations.  We will be working with two researchers/children’s librarians (one from Vancouver Public Library, one from Brooklyn Public Library) to develop evidence-based practices for integrating research on special needs education and digital technology;
  • September: checking out the branches for viability with regards to lighting, projectors, physical space etc;
  • Once the Summer Reading Club is over we’re going to look at incorporating some digital storytelling into Every Child Ready to Read and Outreach.

If any of this sounds fun, or you have some ideas to share, please contact me.  This is a brand new world for libraries; not a lot has been done in this area and I hope this process can be as collaborative, creative and fun as possible.

Tree Book vs eBook in Storytime

In this post I announced that I’ll be working on a digital storytime project where we will use apps and eBooks in storytime.  I’ve had a few people contact me directly, and some comments were posted publicly about this. I got one really good question in particular:

I’m curious as to the benefits of using an electronic felt board over a real felt board, and a book shown in eBook form over a book shared by a librarian. How do you feel using apps and digital media in a storytime setting enchances the storytime experience?

I’m glad you asked, dear reader! There are a number of ways in which digital media can enhance an early literacy program, but before we dive into those I want to be clear about my intention with this particular digital storytelling project: The goal is NOT to replace traditional, tree-book based storytelling entirely with a digital facsimile.  The goal is to use SOME technology to enhance traditional storytime in a way that improves the experience for all participants. I love this quote from Kiera Parrott:

It is tempting to operate as if supporting literacy is a zero-sum game in which the players are technology versus books.

The librarian will still be sharing books and reading out loud, but instead of holding up a book in one hand and panning around the room and usually missing a number of people in the audience, the image of the pages can be projected onto a large screen so no one has to squint or crane their necks to see the pictures.  Have you ever found an awesome book that you think would read really well in storytime, but the pictures are too small for it be viable in a room full of toddlers? (think Everywhere Babies– I can’t wait until there’s an app for that one!)  Now we have the option to make those images really big if the book is available electronically, and you can still take full advantage of a well-rhymed story or cute characters.

I also envision using both tree books and eBooks in the same program.  I’ve got a huge copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar with an adorable little plush toy that can physically move through the holes in the book.  There’s an app for that… but what I’ve got ain’t broke, so I’m not going to fix it.

There are some things you cannot duplicate digitally in a storytime environment: wiggling, egg shaking, clapping, stomping, waving scarves and throwing silk flowers into the air.  Those things will always be a part of storytime, but now we get to add yet more tools to the storyteller’s tool kit. It is not a case of digital felt board vs physical felt board; we can use either, or both, depending on what would work best for our audience and the intended learning outcomes.

Here are some ways that digital media can be used to enhance a traditional storytime:

  1. Project digital versions of books or felt boards to make the viewing experience easier for large groups;
  2. Use Storytime as a reader’s advisory tool to showcase the digital versions of storytime favourites;
  3. Introduce participants to the varied digital resources available through the library’s virtual branch;
  4. Support different learning modalities (visual, aural, oral, kinetic etc)
  5. Foster creativity and give parents ideas for how to engage their children with high quality digital media in an active, educational way at home.

Incorporating digital media into children’s programming also provides a fantastic opportunity for children’s librarians; we can use these emergent technologies to enforce the library’s relevance in everyday life.  Smart phones and tablets are here to stay, and as long as there are apps available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play, parents are going to download them and let their kids play with them. Why not show them where the good stuff is? That’s what we do, isn’t it? Children’s librarians know how to select the best quality media for children, they know what’s appropriate at what age, and they know where to find resources that point to good quality media. We need to establish ourselves as experts in this area; it’s a natural fit and we should be leading the charge into the exciting new world of digital literacy.

New Project!

I have just started working on a brand new project: designing a digital storytime at a medium sized suburban library system. The plan is to augment a traditional storytime (probably aimed at preschool kids, or family storytime) and use an iPad, hooked up to a projector to display our content: eBooks and apps.

Part of my challenge is to choose WHICH apps and eBooks to use.  I have Felt Board which I think we’ll use extensively for songs, fingerplays and some simple stories, and I’m going to try my hand at some draw and tell stories with some kind of drawing app. I have Chalk Pad right now and I’m going to check out Adobe Ideas as well (that might be like killing a flea with a sledgehammer though).

I’m going to go through Axis 360 to check out what kind of picture books they have on offer, and to test them out to see how well they’d do projected onto a screen. Tumblebooks and Bookflix are troublesome both in display and in format; we’ll see how Axis 360 and Blio measure up. Read a little more about Baker and Taylor’s stab at ebooks here.

Part of what we’ll have to figure out is just how much digital content to include.  The program should still support the acquisition of the 6 Early Literacy Skills, and should include wiggling, stomping, singing, audience participation etc, but the vehicle that we use to share some of our goodies will be changing.

I’ve never performed a digital storytime to a room full of preschoolers, but I have done lots of old school storytimes, and I’m hoping we can use these digital tools to successfully and seamlessly share digital early literacy programming with our communities.

NAEYC Position Statement: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8

I was doing a little research for another post and I came across this document again, which is a joint effort of the NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center.  The key messages contained in this position statement are as follows:

  • When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.
  • Intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children.
  • Limitations on the use of technology and media are important.
  • Special considerations must be given to the use of technology with infants and toddlers.
  • Attention to digital citizenship and equitable access is essential.
  • Ongoing research and professional development are needed.

There is a 21 minute webcast that you can view here: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs