Library Early Years Programs: the Continuum

Image credit: Star Weekly, 17th Aug 2016

This page of the website locates children and carers on a learning continuum, and demonstrates how to use that orienting information to tailor library programs for maximum impact. For sample session structures, program rationales, and downloadable learning materials/teaching tools, see:

The rest of this page (below) establishes the lifespan-developmental framework for our three scaffolded levels of early literacy programs in libraries, and considers both the children AND the carers as learners.

Developmental Milestones in the Early Years

When planning activities (games, books, craft, etc) for your library early years programs, ask yourself: does the activity I’m planning fall within the developmental range of the children at whom this session is targeted? The skills required for any given activity will fall within a developmental range. That information will dictate the program level in which you use the activity or approach.


(Note the below reflections are rough notes I wrote while knowledge sharing with colleagues, and they have been added here temporarily FYI, but need to be further refined.)


The Learning Continuum Works on Skills, Not Age

We know that children achieve different milestones at different ages, and in different orders. Therefore age is an ineffective scale to use when separating the children into programs tailored for particular developmental skill sets. I have taken to using this two-question guide (below) in my advice to families. I also use it to guide the choices I make about where, on the families’ learning continuum, to pitch my session facilitation:

What’s the best program for my child’s stage of development?
1. Is your baby walking?
  • No, not yet → Babytime (birth to walking)
  • Yes, they’re walking → Toddlertime (walking to early words)
2. Is your child starting to talk in sentences?
  • No, mostly just individual/pairs of words → Toddlertime (walking to early words)
  • Yes, they can use/follow longer strings of words → Storytime (talking in increasingly fuller and more fluent sentences)

In the sections below, you will find some initial notes from my own practice, experience and research regarding how to:

  1. NOTICE where babies and carers are at on their learning continuum, and join them at this place, with developmentally targeted activities, songs, books, etc.
  2. NARRATE, and invite them to narrate, the targeted activities, so that we’re layering all session activities with language.
  3. NUDGE, gently, both babies and carers to add new layers and learnings upon existing achievements, strengths, foundations.

For more information about the three Ns, download the full 3a Family Guide for Language Priority (by Melbourne University and Joseph Sparling).

Baby Programs:

Birth to Walking

For a sample session structure and session materials, see Babytime. For information about orienting your library practice on the learning continuum of families with babies, continue reading.

Babies can/may participate in a small array of actions and communications. They might:

  • lie
  • sit
  • crawl
  • watch
  • grip
  • wave
  • point
  • clap

In all other ways, baby requires assistance to participate (eg, “jumps” in carer’s arms; cycles legs through carer’s gentle manipulation), or participates by sensory exposure—sight, sound, touch.

A strengths based approach starts from baby’s present.  An outcome focused approach risks starting ahead of their capabilities; starting with their future rather than their current selves in mind. We want to start where they are, and in the 3a parlance, give a gentle nudge forward from the firm foundation of their motivation and joint attention. The following video playlist provides an overview of joint attention, and why it is so important to children’s development. It is a skill that sometimes requires interventions for children on the autism spectrum, and hence, these videos have a slight emphasis on ASD/treatment, but can nevertheless be understood broadly within the scope all children’s developmental needs.

SEE (motivation/attention + sensory input)
SHOW (physical output)
SAY (verbal output)
– Follows with eyes
– Reacts to sound
– Feels/touches (and grips)
– Point
– Clap
– Wave- Reach/grab
– Makes random noise to get other’s attention
– Practices soundmaking with syllables: ba ba ba ba
– adult engages with the source of baby’s attention
– adult engages with baby
– adult gives words to baby’s stimuli
– adult gives words for baby’s reactions and actions
– Baby copies adult’s repeated action
– Adult copies baby’s repeated action
– Adult adds words to what baby is doing
– Adult adds words to what/whom baby is pointing/waving at.
– Adult copies baby’s noises and responds verbally to baby’s utterances
– Adult exposes baby to repeated sounds, in conjunction with meaningful experience. “Up, up, up, up goes the baby!” “CH-ch-ch-ch, CH-ch-ch-ch goes the train,” while driving a toy train or rotating forearms like wheels.
Learning Games:


How will you integrate your activities (songs, rhymes, games, props) given the scope and limits of a baby’s stage of development? And how will you account for all baby’s developmental and behavioural contingencies in facilitating carer involvement?

For example:
If you are considering using Incy Wincy Spider in a baby program, can the child do the actions? No. At best, the very oldest of the babies will lift their arms in an attempt to copy and the best they can mimic is to clumsily bang their hands towards each other. So who, then, is doing the actions? The carer. How is baby to benefit from this?

Can baby see the adult? Pre-sitting babies are best lying down looking up at their grown-up. Sitting babies can be on carers’ laps (or sitting facing them), but ought to be positioned so the carer and child are watching each other, not so that the child is watching the facilitator. The facilitator’s actions are for their baby doll, and for leading the grown-ups.

Has baby rolled over into tummy time, facing away from carer? How, then, does the carer engage? Walk fingers *up* baby’s back for the spider crawling up the spout. Twinkle fingers *down* baby’s back for “down came the rain”. Rub bubby in circlular motion for washing, to “wash the spider out”. Tickle baby to give warm feeling for “out came the sunshine”. Walk fingers back up baby as Incy climbs the spout again. Anticipate babies in the room to be at different stages of development and in different moods/vantage points on the day, and lead multiple versions, placing your dolly as other people’s babies are sitting.

The facilitator should relate to dolly and the adults more than to the babies (although be warm and responsive when they catch your eye or make overtures!). Adults should relate to baby more than to the facilitator. If the facilitator and adults are predominantly singing Incy Wincy to each other, we’ve cut the babies out of the equation! If facilitator is predominantly adressing babies, the adults are cut out of the equation!

In short, the important question to ask is not, what interesting thing can I do with this song? But, what interesting thing can carers do with baby using this song, and how do I make it easy for them to do it? The golden rule of group participation: Make joining in easier and more comfortable than resisting to join in.

Toddler Programs:

Walking and Limited Speaking

For a sample session structure and session materials, see Toddler and Carer Programs. For information about orienting your library practice on the learning continuum of families with toddlers (here) and preschoolers (below), continue reading.

Jolly Phonics as “Vocal Warm-Up” (Articulation/Audiation)

Download the Jolly Phonics Actions Sheet (PDF)

At this developmental stage (toddler), the child may (or may not) respond to “where’s the bee?” by pointing to the bee in a picture, and in some cases, can answer “what’s that?” with the single word, “bee”. Speaking in lots of abstract sentences about it (“they eat flowers and make honey from it”) with nothing for the child to do or see is appropriate for storytime but not for Toddlertime. In one-on-one adult-child interactions, we keep the child’s attention, when adding language they can’t yet use, by making eye-contact with them, following their lead, and generally being responsive and reciprocal (see serve and return brain architecture). In a group facilitation context, this is impossible. An adult saying lots of words while doing nothing interesting, and looking at other people besides a given individual toddler, is of no interest to the given toddler. Toddlertime is about saying while doing/showing; that’s why the tag line we use at my current library service is “active literacy”.

Speak to adults briefly during set up (see elevator pitch in this PowerPoint presentation of supporting material for this activity being described). For example, seize small transitional moments like changing slide/putting away your guitar from the hello song/etc), to impart some key soundbites on parents, so THEY know about letter-sound linkage, but then DO (rather than instruct) for kids. When I facilitate Toddertimes, and use Jolly Phonics actions/songs as part of our physical/vocal warm-up, I cover a whole group of sounds together in one session, but go into each in far less depth than storytime (in which I do a sound per week, and really flesh out the letter-sound linkage, etc, etc). So for example:

Have pic of bee. Name bee, 3a style (key word first): “Bee! There’s a bee! A buzzzzzzzy [start flapping your wings], buzzzzzy BEE! Zzzzzzzzz! [Keep acting like a bee; full-bodied, on feet.] Zzzzzzzzz! Can *you* say zzzzz like a bee? Zzzzzzzz. Flap your little wings with me. Zzzzzzz. Let’s go to a flower over here. Zzzzzzzzz. Let’s go to a flower over there. Zzzzzzzzzz. Good work, bees! [This next bit is hinting/foreshadowing for careers: ] Here’s a *picture* of the zzzzzz sound. Click! [Mime taking picture.] Whenever you see one you can say zzzzzzzz [ALWAYS do action when you’re saying it.]

That’s it! No lengthy explanations necessary! Only doing! NEXT!

Have pic of wind blowing tree. Name it while acting like you’re the tree being blown by the wind. “We can make wh- wh- wh- wh- wind with our breath! Wh- wh- wh- wh. Can you feel it on your hand? Wh- wh- wh- wind. Oh no! The wind is blowing me around, and around! It’s such a windy day! It’s wh- wh- windy over here! And it’s wh- wh- windy over here! It’s wh- wh- windy on my hand! [That’s the action.] Wh- wh- wh- windy! [Hinting again to careers: ] Here’s a picture of the w sound! Click! Whenever you see one you can say wh- wh- wh- wh!” [Change pic.]

“Oh my goodness! This person is so stronnnnnnggggggggg! [Pretend to lift up a heavy dumbell, like in the picture, with each repitition of the word.] Stronnnnngggggg! Stronnnnnngggggggg! I’m so strong I can lift an elephant! Can you? Stronnnnngggggggg! [Make some comedy by really struggling before succeeding.] I’m so strong I can lift a CAR! Stronnnnnnggggggg! I’m so strong I can lift my house! Stronnnnngggggg. [For added vocab building effect, you could put a picture of each of theseobjects in/on the guy’s hands on the slide, and click next as you say/do each one.] I’m so strong I can lift a DINOSAUR!!!! Stronnnnnnggggg.[Remember, you’re doing the action over and over again with every instance of the sound.] Here’s a picture of the ng sound. Whenever you see it you can say, nnnnngggggg.”

Have pic of cuckoo clock. Name it. Immediately act it out, don’t bother describing what it is/what it’s for. “oo-OO! oo-OO! [short oo, long oo, as in CuckOO, or as in book and bOOm.] oo-OO! Here comes the birdy! oo-OO! oo-OO! Out of the clock! oo-OO! oo-OO! In and out, in and out. oo-OO. oo-OO. [Give them lots of time to audiate the sound in their minds, find the shape in their mouths, replicate it, copy your actions, and coordinate it all while linking the sound to the concepts. That’s a lot for their little minds to do! Finish with, “adults, you can download that action sheet on the Jolly Phonics website, and find the songs to match on YouTube. See me after to take a photo of the link on the slide.” DONE! Move on.]

Sarah’s recommended dos and don’ts for toddlertime, based on development:
– Do sing Let’s Do Some Writing as a finger play. Much like Incy Wincy or Twinkle Twinkle, make it an end, in and of itself.
– Don’t do letter formation with toddlers. They can’t do it, can’t understand why they’re doing it, nor understand the verbal instructions one needs to use to explain its relevance. Doing a task beyond toddlers’ level implicitly tells parents to bring older children to the session, and sends a misleading message that their toddler is too young for the program.
– Do play with sounds. This is the level toddlers are at: they’re developing their sound discrimination. Play “where is your?” and sound out words like ch-i-n, several times, blending more with each repetition until you’re saying “chin”. This is a great game because it’s PHYSICAL. (It’s essentially Simon Says with phonemic awareness.)
– Don’t worry about print-sound links yet (except for brief carer foreshadowing—what Music Together calls “Parent Education Moments”). At toddler stage, our goal is phonological awareness. SOUND awareness. They can’t even *speak* a lot of these sounds yet! Which is of course why playing with sounds has speech development/speech therapy benefits as well as literacy ones. First they need to learn to hear and speak sounds. “Seeing” (correlating) sound in print is the next step, and one we address explicitly in ST (3+).

Preschool Programs

Go to storytime page for research background, approach, presentation notes, and sample session PowerPoints.