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How can we encourage participation for everyone in the library group situation?

One issue which concerns some storytime presenters is how best to manage the behaviour of the children and their caregivers. Children are most likely to be engaged when they can hear, see, have time to comprehend what is being presented, and are interested in the content, and when they have positive role models to follow, that is, when their caregivers are engaged as well. It is important to maintain the attention of the group to achieve your storytime objectives.

Explain your expectations at the beginning of each session

After the greeting, briefly explain what will happen in the session (e.g. ‘We will sing some songs first and then listen to a story about …’). State clearly your expectations of the group. You could hold up a sign with words and pictures presenting the ‘rules’. For example, for preschool-aged children, these rules may include:

  1. Put on our ‘listening ears’
  2. Join in the songs
  3. Raise your hand up if you want to say something.

Emphasise that it is very important for caregivers to pay attention and join in the singing and nursery rhymes, too. In this way, the adults would provide children with a good model of how to participate in storytime and help them benefit from storytime.

You can decide what you want the ‘rules’ to be for your sessions. Then keep reminding children and their caregivers whenever necessary.

Ensure that everyone can see and hear you

Children quickly become distracted when they cannot see or hear the presenter clearly. They begin to talk and move about, which creates more disruption to the group as a whole. Be sure to use a strong, clear voice and project it to the group as a whole. If you have to turn away briefly, stop talking until you are facing the children again, and resume speaking loudly so that everyone can hear you without having to strain.

Pace your presentation

Young children need time to process what you are saying, so speak slowly, articulate clearly and emphasise key words by varying your pitch, intonation and body language. Monitor the group visually and make sure that you take the children with you as you move through your program. Repeat a song or rhyme a couple of times if necessary, so that children have ‘thinking’ time to work out how to respond.

Choice of book

The choice of book plays a key role in managing the behaviour of children. The aim is to choose books which will engage all children by addressing themes which matter to them and which treat them with respect (e.g. families, friends, animals, helping etc). Avoid books which focus on special interest topics. For example, books about diggers and dump trucks will fascinate some children but are unlikely to appeal to a wider audience. Books about dinosaurs may frighten younger ones. The language in books is also important. Rhyming books and repetitive texts allow all children to participate and become ‘tellers’ as well as ‘listeners’.

Questioning

Questioning is an important way to encourage children’s participation, but it needs to be managed carefully so that a small number of talkative children don’t dominate. In the library context, it is best to ask mainly yes-no and ‘raise your hand if…’ questions related to the text (e.g. ‘Who has a pet?’; ‘Who came to the library on the bus?’) or specific/single answer questions (e.g. ‘Who knows what this animal is called?’). If you ask questions which require an explanation, be aware that some children will give factually incorrect responses, or begin to talk about an unrelated topic, so think about how you will handle this situation tactfully. If the response is not correct, it is important to give feedback (e.g. ‘Good try, but I think he might be looking for his mummy.’) or if a child begins to recount a personal experience, you might say ‘Can you tell me more about that later?’, rather than allow one child to dominate the session.

Craft instructions

If the session incorporates a craft activity, present the instructions for the activity very clearly at the start. Ask caregivers to avoid completing the activity for their children and complete it with their children. Explain that the best way adults can support children’s language and literacy during craft activities is to supervise and (i) let children themselves complete the hands-on parts of the experience (e.g. the cutting, gluing, colouring-in, threading), which help children develop the fine motor skills involved in learning how to (hand)write, and (ii) engage children in talking about the activity – the steps it involves, the materials they are using, the creative decisions they are making, how the craft they are making relates to books they have read, and so on.

Refocus

If you find the group is becoming disconnected and distracted, it is important to refocus the group before you attempt to continue with a story. Perhaps ask children to stand up, shake their hands, have a wriggle, or some other strategy to regain their attention. Some find songs like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ to be very soothing and to settle the group effectively. Another song that seems to work well in refocusing storytime groups especially after a noisy interlude with musical instruments is ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’.

Finally, remember to enjoy yourself!