September 2022 | Volume XL, Issue 3 »

Native Language Programs Transcend Boundaries

September 1, 2022
Freedom Nguyen, Prospect Heights Public Library District

Something happens when we gather to listen to a story, whether told through oral traditions as shared folklore or reading aloud written works by our favorite authors around a fire. This experience becomes a uniquely human tradition, collectively embedded in our growth and development. Arguably, this is one dimension of how and why patrons are drawn to libraries, the desire to form connections through shared narratives. Native language reading, literacy, and story time programs are exactly this, an opportunity to bridge culture and language through a shared learning experience.

Such programs value cultural literacy as well as childhood development, in conjunction with reading and language fluency. Research shows native language reading programs have helped early readers move from the emergent stage of lliteracy development to the beginning stage of reading. But more important, they provide an uplifting and critical space for learning for multilingual children and their parents.

Since 2008, Terri Murphy of the Prospect Heights Public Library District has headed the native language reading program Polish Storytime for young children and parents. The program was recognized by State Representative David Harris in 2015 and continues to draw in new families each September. Murphy shares that it’s not just about literacy, but about acculturation: “Polish was my first language. I remember being a little Polish girl and at that time, the research and resources for Polish children living in the U.S. were few and far between. My parents were also recent immigrants living in Chicago. These things were not at our fingertips. So when I see the opportunity for enrichment for kids in their native language now, I get excited. The parents crave it too. They want to retain the language and customs for their kids, but acknowledging that they are in a new space. It just excites me to be part of that learning.” Murphy’s program is distinctive in that it offers children ages 3–7 an opportunity to read and play with their parents or caregivers. A recurring and highly requested event is The Sleepover Program (but with no actual sleepover) where children and parents build a fort together with blankets, chairs, and flashlights. Families then sing a song and collectively participate in a story. Murphy says, “Who doesn’t love a fort? Everyone gets into every aspect of the program; the shyness of participants is quickly dissipated. There are also crafts that we do together, a name game we do in Polish with stuffed animals—overall it’s highly interactive.”

Similarly, Korean Language Storytime at the Northbrook Public Library was established in 2018. The program works to help ground early readers while encouraging them to discover a sense of identity within a new context and community. Participants can connect with other non-native English speakers, many discovering for the first-time classmates and peers who speak Korean at home. Kelly Durov, assistant director at Northbrook Public Library, notes, "It provides a space for folks in the community who share in a language or culture to connect. Children have a chance to interact with peers who speak Korean; this is so important because it helps maintain their connections to language and culture within their community.”

Successful reading and language fluency begins this way, through the development and implementation of  acculturative practices in a safe and uplifting space. They encourage individual and emotional growth while creating a sense of agency within children and their parents. Native language reading programs essentially meet multilingual children and their parents where they are and help them move forward. “There’s a sense of identity and pride that we tap into. You’re in a different country now, but you can still learn and read here, and in your own way,” says Murphy.

Of course, such reading programs are not without barriers. Particularly for younger readers, finding new accessible texts that are age-appropriate, language-specific, and that fall within diverse genres can be challenging. Partnerships with external organizations and local school districts can be helpful. By reaching out to ELL (English Language Learner) teachers and school librarians, we can keep a finger on the latest and evolving literacy development needs of local young readers. Cultural organizations can also provide a venue for sharing and learning about community resources, new authors, and local events, and can even help conscript multilingual volunteers. “Volunteers and parents have opportunities to connect and communicate with their children by reading picture books together. Participants and volunteers alike feel happy and comforted by the existence of the Korean Storytime program in our public library. It’s an opportunity to serve and be active in the community,” according to Sujin Song, a Northbrook resident who has been involved in the Northbrook Public Library’s events.

Native language reading programs are layered in their approach to literacy. They facilitate opportunities for families to connect and support one another, and for multilingual children, they offer a chance to grow, learn, make mistakes, and adapt in a safe and encouraging environment. It also becomes an intentional prospect for libraries to shape and form meaningful relationships with multicultural, multilingual patrons. “Skokie Public Library is fortunate to be in a community where over 70 distinct languages are spoken. Bilingual Storytimes connect families who speak languages other than English, with monolingual English-speaking patrons interested in learning about the community’s culture and languages,” says Gudrun Priemer, a youth services librarian at the Skokie Public Library. “We are proud to offer these events that act both as mirrors and windows for so many community members.”

These are just a few examples of library programs across Illinois that holistically affirm the well-being of non-native English speakers and diverse young readers. When allocating the care, time, and resources involved in planning and facilitating native language reading programs, we can witness and experience the shift in boundaries of language and culture. For library staff and volunteers like Terri Murphy, Sujin Song, and Gudrun Priemer, stewarding the growth, progression, and acculturation of multilingual families has fulfilled them personally and professionally. They feel  accomplished knowing they have made a difference in their young readers’ lives. It all begins with the  acknowledgment that a shared narrative, a story, becomes a vehicle for change.

If interested in starting a native language reading program, check out the recommendations and resources provided in the article “Launching native language literacy programs” published on Colorín Colorado, a bilingual site for educators  and families of English language learners at


Herman, David. “Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind: Cognitive Narratology, Discursive Psychology, and Narratives in Face-to-Face Interaction.” Narrative, vol. 15, no. 3 (Oct. 2007).

Lynch, Grace Huang. “Libraries and English Language Learners.” School Library Journal online, April 1, 2015.

Irujo, Suzanne. “What Does Research Tell Us About Teaching Reading to English Language Learners?” The ELL Outlook. 2007. Reprinted by Reading Rockets,

Amendum, Steven J. and Jackie Eunjung Relyea. “English Reading Growth in Spanish-Speaking Bilingual Students: Moderating Effect of English Proficiency on Cross-Linguistic Influence.” Child Development, vol. 91, no.4 (July/August 2020).

Ford, Karen and Rebecca Palacios. “Early Literacy Instruction in Spanish: Teaching the Beginning Reader.” Colorín Colorado, 2015.

McCabe, Allyssa and Marc H. Bornstein, Alison Wishard Guerra, Yana Kuchirko Mariela Páez, Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Carolyn Brockmeyer Cates, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Gigliana Melzi, Lulu Song, Roberta Golinkoff, Erica Hoff, Alan Mendelson. “Multilingual Children beyond Myths and toward Best Practices.” Social Policy Report, vol. 27, no. 4 Winter 2013).

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