Research Roundup

The Evolution of Preschool Storytime Research

Betsy Diamant-Cohen is Executive Director of Mother Goose on the Loose, Baltimore, Maryland. Annette Y. Goldsmith fills in this issue for Tess Prendergast while Tess concentrates on her doctoral studies. Goldsmith is a lecturer at the University of Washington Information School, where she teaches courses on storytelling, materials for youth, and libraries as learning labs in a digital age.

Since most children’s librarians regularly present preschool storytimes, here’s a look at some of the research on the topic and how it has developed over time.

In 1992, Virginia A. Walter published Outcome Measures for Public Library Service to Children, providing “standardized procedures for collecting, interpreting, and using quantitative data to measure the outputs of library services for children and teens.”1

In 1997, Frances Smardo Dowd published an article in Public Libraries that called for more research on the impact that preschool storytimes have on children’s early literacy skills. Suggesting the use of a pre-test and post-test, Dowd also discussed scoring instruments and data analysis.2

A 2003 Library Trends article by Virginia Walter described still-existing gaps in research about public library services for children and young adults and challenged readers with questions needing answers.3

Since then, the call for research has been responded to in a variety of ways. Below is a selection of some books and articles of interest.

Finding Ways to Conduct Research

Since many common methods used in public library research (interviews, questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups) were not suitable for research with young children, Lynne McKechnie devised new procedures for studying the library behavior of children without strong oral and written language skills. By observing natural actions and recording the naturally occurring talk of thirty preschool girls in the public library, McKechnie introduced ethnographic observation as a unique way to reflect the perspective of preschool children in the public library. A later study did the same with babies and toddlers.4 5

In 2006, Eliza T. Dresang, Melissa Gross, and Leslie Edmonds Holt published the book Dynamic Youth Services through Outcome-Based Planning and Evaluation, providing ways to collect, evaluate, and use data to adjust planning of children’s programs and services. Step-by-step procedures illuminate methods for finding what public library visitors want and interpreting those findings to create new programs or improve existing ones.6

Integrating Research into Storytime via Developmental Tips

In 2003, Ellen Fader wrote about using developmental tips to share research findings with parents during preschool storytimes. “How Storytimes for Preschool Children Can Incorporate Current Research” gives examples of techniques for translating research findings into easily understandable tips and behavior that librarians can model for parents.7

Which Storytime Configuration is Best for Active Engagement?

Did you ever wonder if it was better for storytime children to sit in a cluster or in a circle? “Student Engagement in Classroom Read Alouds: Considering Seating and Timing” is a study of approximately one hundred preschool students and their five teachers, in which Katie Paciga and her colleagues found that cluster seating resulted in more attentive students. “Students sitting close (less than 5 feet from the teacher) exhibited higher levels of nonverbal and verbal engagement than students seated far (more than 5 feet away).” Because more students (50 percent) were physically close in the cluster seating than in the circle seating (30 percent), a higher number of children sitting in the circle formation were less engaged.8

NOTE: This does not apply to baby and toddler programs, where the children are sitting WITH their parents or caregivers!

Does Reading Aloud Cause Physical Changes in the Brain?

Does reading aloud to children really make a difference in their brains? This longitudinal study with nineteen three- to five-year-olds used blood oxygen level-dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging and whole-brain regression analyses to study the relationship between a child’s home reading environment and brain activity while listening to stories being read aloud. John S. Hutton et al. concluded that preschool children who hear stories read aloud to them at home have more positive neural activation, stimulating areas of the brain responsible for supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension.9

How Do Children’s Reactions Differ When Digitized Books Are Used in Storytime?

The International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL) gives free access to hundreds of full-text, children’s picturebooks from around the world ( Research conducted by Lauren Collen with thirty-two four-year-olds in two groups compared their behavior and reactions to two books that were read in storytimes in their traditional form and in digital form via ICDL. Videotapes that recorded the dialogue and behavior of the children during the storytimes were later transcribed and coded. Collen encouraged combining the best features of digital communication with the best features of paper and print books, concluding that “digital picture book storytimes can enhance story understanding, especially that which depends on ‘reading’ the illustrations in a picturebook during group storytime.”10

The Latest Storytime Research

Valuable Initiatives in Early Learning that Work Successfully (VIEWS2) is the first public library-based research study that validates what we already know: storytimes can provide many opportunities to help children develop early literacy skills. In the recently published Supercharged Storytimes, Kathleen Campana, J. Elizabeth Mills, and Saroj Nadkarni Ghoting describe the storytime planning and delivery approach developed through VIEWS2, which emphasizes intentionality, interactivity, and community. This research project was led by the late Dr. Eliza T. Dresang at the iSchool at the University of Washington and now her team is continuing this important work.11 To read more about the study, which won the 2015 Washington Library Association President’s Award, visit: &


  1. Virginia A. Walter, Output Measures For Public Library Service to Children: A Manual of Standardized Procedures (Chicago: ALA, 1992).
  2. Frances Smardo Dowd, “Evaluating the Impact of Public Library Storytime Programs Upon the Emergent Literacy of Preschoolers: A Call for Research,” Public Libraries 3, no. 6 (1997): 348–51.
  3. Virginia A. Walter, “Public Library Service to Children and Teens: A Research Agenda,” Library Trends 51, no. 4 (2003): 571–89.
  4. Lynne McKechnie, “Ethnographic Observation of Preschool Children,” Library & Information Science Research 22, no. 1 (2000): 61–76,
  5. Lynne McKechnie, “Observations of Babies and Toddlers in Library Settings,” Library Trends 55, no. 1 (2006): 190–201.
  6. Eliza T. Dresang, Melissa Gross, and Leslie Edmonds Holt, Dynamic Youth Services Through Outcome-Based Planning and Evaluation (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2006).
  7. Ellen Fader, “How Storytimes for Preschool Children Can Incorporate Research,” OLA Quarterly 8, no. 3 (2014): 14, 19.
  8. Kathleen A. Paciga et al., “Student Engagement in Classroom Read-Alouds: Considering Seating and Timing,” Illinois Reading Council Journal 43, no. 3 (2015): 7–14.
  9. John S. Hutton et al., “Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories,” Pediatrics 136, no. 3 (2015): 466–78.
  10. Lauren Collen, “The Digital and Traditional Storytimes Research Project: Using Digitized Books for Preschool Group Storytimes,” World Libraries 17, no. 1 (2007),
  11. Kathleen Campana, J. Elizabeth Mills, and Saroj Nadkarni Ghoting, Supercharged Storytimes: An Early Literacy Planning and Assessment Guide (Chicago: ALA Editions, 2016).


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