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Recommended Resource

Helping Your Child Use the Library

by Tim Burr and Christina Dunn

Getting Children Interested

Helping your children to enjoy reading is one of the most important things you can do as a parent and well worth the investment of your time and energy. Kids will learn reading skills through academics, but often they come to associate reading with work, not pleasure. As a result, they lose their desire to read. And it is that desire--the curiosity and interest--that is the cornerstone to using reading and related skills successfully. By far the most effective way to encourage your children to love books and reading is to read aloud to them, and the earlier you start, the better. Even a baby of a few months can see pictures, listen to your voice, and turn cardboard pages. Make this time together a special time when you hold your kids and share the pleasure of a story without the distractions of TV or telephones. You may be surprised to find that a well-written children's book is often as big a delight to you as it is to the kids.

And don't stop taking the time to read aloud once your children have learned to read for themselves. At this stage, encourage them to read to you some of the time. This shared enjoyment will continue to strengthen your children's interest and appreciation.

Simply having books, magazines, and newspapers around your home will help children to view them as part of daily life. And your example of reading frequently and enjoying it will reinforce that view.

While your children are still very small, it's a good idea to start a home library for them, even if it's just a shelf or two. Be sure to keep some books for little children to handle freely. Consider specially made, extra durable books for infants, and pick paperbacks and plastic covers for kids who are older but still not quite ready for expensive hardbacks. Allowing little children to touch, smell, and even taste books will help them to develop strong attachments.

How you handle books will eventually influence how your kids treat them. Children imitate, so if they see that you enjoy and treat books gently and with respect, it is likely that they will do the same.

When you read aloud together, choose books that you both like. If a book seems dull, put it down and find one that is appealing. There are, however, so many children's books in print that making the best selections may seem a formidable task. One approach is to look for award winning. There are two famous awards for children's literature made each year by the American Library Association that are good indicators of quality work: the Caldecott Medal for illustration and the Newbery Medal for writing. But these are given to only two of the approximately 2,500 new children's books published each year.

Fortunately, there is a lot of other good help available. For instance, there are lists of books recommended by the American Library Association and the Library of Congress and some excellent books to guide parents in making selections.

The best help of all, though, is at your neighborhood library. If you are not familiar with the library, don’t hesitate to ask for help. The children's librarian is trained to help you locate specific books, books that are good for reading aloud, and books on a particular subject recommended for a particular age group. The library also has many book lists, including ones like those mentioned above and probably some published by the library itself.

In addition, your library will have several journals that regularly review children's books, including The Horn Book and Booklist. These will give you an idea of what's new and worth pursuing. And there's nothing like just browsing through the many books available at your library until you find ones that appeal to you and your kids.

If your children are school-aged, keep in mind that the school library is an excellent source for a wide variety of materials and the school librarian is knowledgeable about children's literature. Encourage your kids to bring home books from their school library for pleasure as well as for their studies.

When You Visit the Library

As soon as you can, it is a good idea to include children—even toddlers—in weekly trips to the library. Libraries are often open in the evening for working parents, and most will issue a library card to any children who can print their names and whose parent will countersign for them. See that your children get their own library cards as soon as possible so that they can check out their own books.

Also, it's a good idea to encourage kids to ask on their own for help in finding books and materials. Keep in mind, however, that a librarian is there to point out different choices, not to decide what ideas your children should be exposed to. That is your job. So, no matter how helpful or knowledgeable a children's librarian may be, your participation in selecting and sharing books with your child is very important.

Although public libraries welcome children and may have special facilities for them, there are commonsense guidelines for behavior that parents need to stress:

  • Library books are everybody's property and should be treated carefully.
  • Be sure that you and your children know the library's policies regarding loan periods and fines for overdue books.
  • Explain to your kids that the library is there for the whole community and they need to be considerate of others' needs.

Keep in mind that it is your responsibility to see that your children behave acceptably and are not disruptive to others using the library.

Library Services

So, what exactly can you expect if you take your children to the library? A lot depends, of course, on their ages. And a lot depends on your local public library's resources. The best way to find out is to visit your community library and see what's available. While there is much variety in local library programs throughout the country, there are several elements common to most children's services, as well as some general trends.

For Preschoolers

Until recently, libraries offered little or nothing for children below the age of three. But in the last few years, many libraries have introduced programs for infants.

Some libraries invite parents to bring in their children, no matter how young, for special programs, such as parent-child story hours in the evening. Here parents can learn fingerplays, songs, rhymes, and other activities they can use at home to entertain and stimulate their infants.

More and more libraries are instituting programs designed for toddlers 18 to 36 months old. Again, parents and children participate in activities that may include reading aloud, storytelling, fingerplays, rhymes, and songs. Because this age is a crucial time in the development of language skills, the value of these events lies in giving parents or caregivers the background on how to stimulate and encourage a child's development as well as entertaining the toddlers.

By the time children are 3 to 5 years of age, they usually enjoy participating in group activities. Consequently, many libraries sponsor programs for this age group, and parents generally do not need to stay with their kids throughout these events. Popular activities include reading aloud, storytelling, films, puppet shows, arts and crafts, and reading programs.

Frequently, reading programs offer some kind of recognition-- perhaps a certificate or book--to children who have read (or listened to) a specified number of books.

The kinds of materials available for checkout for children ranging from infants up to age 5 vary among libraries. There will always be books, hardbacks, books with cardboard pages, picture books, and often cloth books, paperbacks, and magazines. The variety of subjects is tremendous, with everything from baby colors to bicycle basics and from Bambi to keeping bugs in a jar. When your kids ask you endless questions about where they came from and why the sky is blue, chances are good there's a book at your library with answers they can understand. Or, if your children have homed in on favorite subjects, whether dinosaurs or donkeys, you'll find many fascinating books for them at the library.

Almost all libraries also offer recordings of children's stories and songs. Many also offer cassette tapes, compact discs, videos, book/audio kits, and even puppets and educational toys. See what your local public library has to offer. You and your kids may be pleasantly surprised. And the only thing it will cost you is some time.

For School-Aged Children

Libraries take on another important dimension for children beginning school. In addition to recreation, the library is a place to find information, usually for help with schoolwork. This expanded focus in no way diminishes the library's importance as a source of pleasure. Most libraries offer a variety of programs for children to fill that bill. For elementary school children, there are variations of the read-alouds and storytelling hours that often include discussions and presentations by the children themselves, as well as summer reading programs. For middle and junior high school kids, there may also be book talks, summer reading programs, creative writing seminars, drama groups, and poetry readings.

But the books are central. The ages 7 to 9 are an especially critical time for children. These are the years when they normally make the transition from just hearing and looking at picture books to reading independently for enjoyment and for schoolwork. How well they make this transition will determine much about the quality of their lives.

It is very important to find well-written books for your children at this stage. A story that will make them laugh or want to know what happens next will motivate them to read even though it's difficult. Your local public library is filled with such books, and the children's librarian is skilled at locating these treasures. A growing number of very informative nonfiction books are available as well. Want to know how to dig up dinosaur bones or all about the different people in the world? There are good books that will fascinate even beginning readers.

Hopefully that sense of wonder and curiosity behind little children's endless questions will continue as your kids grow older. Encourage them to look up answers to their questions in dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, and almanacs. These are resources you may want to add to your home library. Even if you do, remember that your local library will have a larger selection and more materials on specific subjects, and the librarian will be glad to help your kids learn to use these resources.

There are, however, things you can do to help your kids with library assignments:

  • Ask your children questions about the assignment. This helps children to clarify what they're trying to do. Help them to identify smaller components of the topic they're researching or to see the topic as part of a larger topic (brontosaurus is a subgroup of dinosaurs, which is a subgroup of extinct animals). These classifications will help them to identify useful references.
  • Suggest that they look up the topic in the library catalog, periodical guides, and reference books. The librarian will direct them and help them get started. Be sure they know how to use a table of contents and index. Suggest they start with something general about the subject and be prepared to consult more than one source.
  • Help them to break assignments into logical segments and avoid last-minute panics by setting deadlines for each phase of the work. Allow them plenty of time to gather the materials they need.
  • Help them to determine if the community library has the resources they need or if they need to check other information sources.
  • Encourage your kids to ask the librarian for help in locating materials and let them do their own talking.

One of the most important and frequently available library services for school-aged children is the summer reading program. Recent research has shown that kids who participate in library summer reading programs begin the school year with stronger reading skills than those who don't. So, encourage your kids to participate in such programs, particularly if they have any difficulty with reading. Low-level reading skills and illiteracy are being recognized more and more as major obstacles to success for many young adults. Obviously, the more help youngsters get early on, the better.

The increasing numbers of computer software programs available at public libraries are of particular interest to schoolchildren. Since kids generally are more interested and at ease with computers than their parents, computers are often found in the children's section as well as the adult department. Many public libraries offer training courses for children in using different software or educational programs. Be sure your kids—especially your teenagers--know what's available at your local public library.

For Teenagers

Teenagers, of course, are more independent than younger kids, so parents will have a somewhat diifferent role when it comes t helping them use the library and encouraging them to read for recreation. Just being certain that teenagers know what kinds of programs are available may be the best help you can give--that, along with setting the example of visiting the library and reading yourself.

There is no clear-cut category of books for teenagers or young adults, although there are many novels written especially for teenagers, usually published in paperback. Some libraries have special sections for this age group; others include young adult materials with the adult collection. Teens generally make selections, especially for school assignments, from the adult collection. Thus, the range of choice is broad. In addition to books and magazines, many libraries offer compact discs as well as audio- and videocassettes free on loan.

A number of public libraries have developed special programs for teens to help them as they make the transition into adulthood. For instance, at some libraries there are teenage advisory boards to ensure that programs and materials for youth actually meet their needs. Some libraries publish book reviews written by their teenage patrons or help young people in the community to publish their own newsletters or magazines.

Many libraries enlist teenagers to help with programs for younger children, such as tutoring summer reading participants, doing puppet and crafts shows, storytelling, and theater productions. In addition, libraries frequently offer part-time job opportunities for teens, both volunteer and paid, to help with such tasks as checking in books and reshelving materials.

Finally, the local public library can help young people seeking information on very serious, personal choices. There is information on school and career planning, including choosing a college and financial aid. Many libraries distribute educational materials on drugs and alcohol for children and parents. Many others act as referral agencies to other community resources, including counseling centers and runaway services. And always there is an abundance of books.

Services for Special Children

If your children are gifted and talented, you may find that helping them to use the library offers special benefits and challenges. Gifted children usually have a love for reading and are able to learn on their own and advance to higher level materials at an earlier age. They tend to have a great deal of curiosity and desire for answers on a variety of subjects, so that they need access to a wide range of sophisticated sources of information. The public library can be a "learning laboratory" for these children, and very often, they can make good use of its resources with relatively little assistance. However, if you want specific guidance for your gifted children, do not hesitate to ask the librarian for suggestions. Also, be sure to check with their school librarian who should be involved with the teachers in curriculum development and able to recommend supplemental library materials.

If your children are handicapped in any way, don't let this discourage you from introducing them to the world of books in your community library. The Americans With Disabilities Act, which took effect in early 1992, requires facilities and services regularly used by the public to be accessible to the more than 43 million Americans who are deaf, blind, use wheelchairs, or are otherwise physically or mentally disabled. Even before this act, most public libraries eliminated barriers to physically disabled individuals and many offered programs specially designed to serve people, including little ones, who are developmentally disabled, hearing-impaired, blind, or physically disabled.

The kinds of library services vary greatly for children who have learning disabilities or who are mentally retarded. To find out what's available in your area, the best starting point is your local public library. If its programs do not address the special needs of your children, perhaps the librarian can refer you to other area libraries that do. Or, perhaps you can work with library staff to help meet your children's needs.

As more mentally retarded individuals are living outside of institutions and in the community, more libraries are working to integrate them into their programs. In some places there are successful programs, such as book talks and storytelling, carefully designed to suit the interests and developmental levels of mentally retarded children, as well as bibliographies of books to use with these children. If such services do not exist in your community, check with the local chapter of the Association for Retarded Citizens, a group home director, special education teacher, or your state library. While developmentally disabled youngsters may need special help, they have much to gain through reading and using library resources. So, it's well worth your extra effort to let library personnel know about your children's special needs and abilities.

Hearing-impaired children, of course, have different communication needs. Helping your hearing-impaired child to read and use the library can be very beneficial, as well as challenging. Check with your local library or state library to find out what special services for hearing-impaired children are available in your area. Many libraries have staff members who use sign language or who are trained to work with hearing-impaired people. Some have information and referral services that may be called via Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDDs). Some even provide TDDs and Television Telecaption Decoders.

There are a variety of free library services available for children, as well as adults, who are blind or physically disabled. The National Library Service (NLS) of the Library of Congress provides the majority of such services. Working through a nationwide network of cooperating regional libraries, NLS offers Braille and talking book services free of charge to any person who is unable to read because of limited vision, who is physically unable to hold a book or turn a page, or who has been certified by a physician as having a reading disability due to an organic dysfunction.

You can apply to the regional library on behalf of your child. If you have any difficulty locating a participating library near you, ask for help at your local public library or write to the NLS (see "For More Information").

Although NLS has a larger collection for adults, its offerings for children are extensive. There are hundreds of children's books in Braille, print/Braille, cassette, and disc formats. Included are picture books and popular fiction and nonfiction at varying levels of interest and difficulty for children from preschool through junior high. There are also children's magazines and even music instruction materials available. The philosophy behind NLS' efforts is that blind and physically handicapped children are entitled to the same range of reading materials as their nonhandicapped classmates and friends.

The same philosophy extends to their adult services, which are available to teenagers who read at the high school level and beyond. NLS is charged by Congress to provide only popular types of literature, so if you want textbooks or reference materials, check with NLS for other sources of assistance.

In addition, NLS offers a smaller collection of recorded and Braille books for children and adults in Spanish, bilingual formats, and other foreign languages.

Postscript About Adult Services

Helping your kids to enjoy reading and develop intellectually is good incentive for taking them on regular visits to the local public library. But there can be plenty in it for you too. While your children are browsing, attending a special program, or working on a research paper, take the opportunity to browse, too. There are lots of books and magazines to delight and inform you. If your local public library doesn't have the book you're looking for, chances are good it can be obtained on loan from another library. And don't miss the compact discs, audio- and videocassettes usually free on loan.

Whatever kind of information you may need, don't overlook the public library as a likely source. Whether you're planning a major purchase, writing a resume, or wondering if your new car is a lemon, your library has many resources to help. There are consumer magazines and buyers' guides that compare products and services, tell you how to shop wisely, and how to complain effectively, if you need to. There is also information on job opportunities in your area and nationwide, as well as how to prepare and market yourself. In recent years, libraries have become distribution points for tax forms, and many offer seminars and other free assistance in preparing tax returns.

Most libraries today have information and referral services, so even if they can't give you the help you need, they'll point you in the right direction. Do you need to know where to register to vote? How to sue in small claims court? What housing and special services for seniors are available in your community? How to say "happy birthday" in Gaelic? The list of questions and concerns with which libraries can help is endless. In addition, libraries often have community bulletin boards that tell about local club activities, concerts, car pool locators, classes, and other events. If you have any difficulty finding what you need, remember that the librarian is there to serve you, so ask for help.

In addition, many public libraries today sponsor classes where you can get literacy training that may include English as a second language. At your public library, you may also find classes where you can prepare for a high school equivalency exam, or earn college credits. There are lots of less formal classes, too, on everything from gardening and photography to computer literacy and most challenging of all--raising children.

For More Information

The International Reading Association (IRA) publishes a number of brochures for parents.

RIF Guide to Encouraging Young Readers. This book provides hundreds of kid-tested activities designed to engage children from infancy to age 11 in the fun of reading. It also includes an annotated reading list of more than 200 books and a resource section listing children's book clubs and magazines, books for parents, and organizations concerned with children's reading and learning. The book is based on the best advice from Reading Is Fundamental, a national nonprofit organization associated with the Smithsonian Institution, which has worked for more than 20 years to stimulate reading.

Also check at your local public library for:

  • Book lists published by the local or state library.
  • Choosing Books for Children by Betsy Hearne. (Delacorte Press)
  • A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading by Nancy Larrick. (Pocket Books)
  • The Read-aloud Handbook, Sixth Edition by Jim Trelease. (Penguin Handbooks)
  • For Reading Out Loud by Margaret Kimmel and Elizabeth Segel(Dell/Delacorte Books)
  • Como ayudar a sus hijos a usar la biblioteca is the Spanish translation of Helping Your Child Use the Library. It includes additional information regarding Spanish language library materials for children.

This is an edited version of the 1992 edition of Helping Your Child Use the Library by Tim Burr and Christina Dunn, a U.S. Department of Education publication. For the complete version, visit the U.S. Department of Education.

Copyright ©  1992, 2007 Eclectic Homeschool Association

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