A monthly Storytime at Essex Library includes all the trappings familiar to its pre-school participants — books, puppets, songs, games and a crafts table. But this program, organized by Spanish language students at a nearby high school, gives children the chance to listen, sing and play in two languages.
"Welcome to la granja, amigos," said Chesapeake High School sophomore Amanda Ambrose, who donned a straw hat and jeans in keeping with farm theme of the hour.
During the bilingual story hour, the hosts switch back and forth from English to Spanish as they read to and entertain the children. The time is ideal for 21/2-year-old Joanna Garcia, whose mother Jacqueline Romero said the toddler is learning to speak both languages.
"She likes it here and picks up different words," said Romero. "She can practice both languages here and we can take out children's books in Spanish, too. I am so excited because I can read those to my daughter."
The high-school students used Spanish names as they introduced animal puppets. They encouraged the young audience to repeat the words and imitate the sounds of each animal.
"They are not shy," said Amanda. "They are learning the words."
The group sang "The Farmer in the Dell," alternating lyrics from both languages and played "Hide and Seek," searching the stacks for stuffed animals — dubbed la vaca, la oveja and el puerco. The students reinforced the vocabulary as the children made their own paper puppets.
Such early literacy programs are growing in popularity across the country and are offering children, especially non-English speakers, reading opportunities they may not find at home, said Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
"These programs are exposing young children, who have the ability to make sounds naturally, to the structure of another language," Abbott said. "When somebody takes the time to read to you in your native language, it validates your language and tells you it is important to maintain it."
The concept also helps the high school students hone their language skills, Abbott said.
"It steps up the engagement and the excitement," she said. "There is nothing better than an audience, other than your teacher. It also helps them concentrate on pronunciation and intonation."
The library offers Spanish language books in its children's and adult departments to accommodate the area's growing Latino population. Circulation of those volumes is picking up, said Robert Maranto, branch manager. A bilingual Storytime emerged as another way to serve the community, he said, and Chesapeake's Spanish students volunteered to organize it.
"There is strong interest from students, who want to give back to their community and practice their Spanish language skills," he said.
The students select stories, plan for an hour and take advantage the library's space and props.
"The students are driving the program," Maranto said. "They bring a passion for learning the language and offer many practical applications children can use in the real world."
Veronica Dougherty, their teacher, said she sees her students becoming more at ease with speaking in another language.
"I see personalities here that I don't see in the classroom," she said. "They are all really dedicated to the program and have really taken ownership of it. They give a lot to it. And, they get right down to the children's level. They become kids in front of kids."
Sophomore Angela Nguyen, whose 3-year-old sister Angelina joined the Storytime, said, "It is good to show kids at a younger age a new language and it's easier for them to learn now."
Freshman Bradley MacGregor said he hopes to study Spanish for the next three years and continue through college.
"Spanish is really becoming America's second language," MacGregor said. "A good knowledge of it will make it easier to get a job."
He has not missed a Storytime session at the library and has volunteered should there be a summer program.
"It is a great activity for these kids and a good education for them," he said. "It's a great leadership experience for me."
Throughout the hour, students worked Spanish words into the children's activities. As he left, Davon Ajayi, 5, showed his mother his horse puppet, made from paper. He moved the puppet's mouth.
"El caballo says 'neigh,'" he added authoritatively.
The next bilingual Storytime will be at 11 a.m. April 28 at Essex Library, 1110 Eastern Blvd. Information: 410-887-0297.