More and more children’s librarians are incorporating American Sign Language into their storytimes. Sign language can be a great early literacy tool because it helps babies express themselves before they can use spoken words. Because of this, I wanted to create a bilingual storytime model that would be accessible for both hearing and deaf families, creating an inclusive community event.
First and foremost, it takes two to make this program work—a children’s librarian with a passion for ASL and a native ASL storyteller who is Deaf. The children’s librarian provides his/her knowledge and best practices of children programming, while an ASL storyteller contributes the bilingual/cultural/deaf awareness aspect for the program. By collaborating together, the pair can present an integrative storytime that meets the needs of all who may benefit.
The trick is to use rhymes, songs and stories that will be familiar to your patrons, but will also lend itself more easily to introducing signs. Having a common thread in the theme that lends itself to sign repetition (i.e. farm animals or colors) is very important. Pick stories and rhymes that will encourage the audience to use the same signs again and again. Introduce key signs before every story, song, or rhyme.
When selecting books to read, we’ve found that stories that include a dialogue going back and forth work best. “Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See” or “I Went Walking” are prime examples of picture books that can be read/signed as a conversation between the storyteller and the librarian. In both of these books, the librarian doesn’t have to learn to sign the whole book. Instead they learn a single phrase, which is repeated throughout the story. For example, in “Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?” the audience can join in by signing along with the librarian. The audience and librarian can ask the performer, “What did you see?” The ASL Storyteller will then respond by giving the sign for the animal, color, or object.
Another strategy is to pick a fun song like “The More We Get Together” as an anchor for every bilingual storytime. We’ve found that bookending our storytimes with the same rhyme, gives the audience something familiar at the start and end of each storytime. Repeat the rhyme—starting out slow and get faster and faster each time to make it fun, while still reinforcing the signs.
A dress rehearsal an hour before the performance is extremely important especially when using an ASL interpreter. During the rehearsal, the librarian, storyteller and interpreter will work on the timing, tune alignment and choreography to the songs to ensure that they each are in sync with one another. This can be achieved through cues from the interpreter and eye contact between the storyteller and the performer.
Make sure there is always signing on stage. If the librarian is speaking without signing, either the storyteller will mimic or integrate the verbal delivery via ASL or the interpreter can come up on stage.
Integrating these bilingual storytimes into your regular programming can be challenging and working this through, we’ve found that incorporating this program into an already established storytime slot, works best. Promote it ahead of time, so that your patrons won’t be taken unawares.
Ultimately, these storytimes should be fun and engaging. You want to give the crowd something familiar while seamlessly integrating American Sign Language into your rhymes, stories and songs. The more you get into it, the more they will get into it too!
That’s all for now!