Bilingual Storytime: What Is It? How Do I Do It? Will Anyone Come?

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bilingual storytime what is it how do I do it will anyone come

Getting ready for bilingual storytime at the Lille, France library

By Rebecca Grossberg

“La la la….une balle!” “You found my ball!” “Cette balle est à toi?” “Yes, I threw it from over there.” “Tu l’as lancée de là-bas?”  And so begins storytime at the Wazemmes branch of the Lille, France public library. (Above is an extract from Watch Me Throw the Ball! translated as  Chacun son tour, by Mo Willems.)

Because Lille, France’s fifth largest city, has a decent sized English-speaking population, you would think that English activities would be easy to find. But outside of my group of friends, it has been a struggle to find English activities for my children, Suzanne 6 and Max 2 1/2, who are  products of a strict OPOL home and survivors of full-time French daycare and school since infancy.

Despite the highly imbalanced exposure both kids get to English, they are both miraculously fully bilingual. And thanks to my network of English speaking friends, my children’s English is not completely confined to the walls of our house where a two-sided conversation in one language rarely takes place.

With so many English speakers in Lille and so many English children’s books in the public library, I wondered why there was no free English language story time open to all. The only game in town was the fee-based story time at the British Cultural Centre.

So with my idea in hand, I approached the director of my local library branch in October 2010. My idea was simple: free, English story time at the local public library.

bilingual storytime France what is it, how do I do it, will anyone comeTwo months later, we met for the first time to talk about an English reading for 4-8 year olds. But the librarians had a better idea: a bilingual format, an idea inspired by a bilingual story in a kids’ magazine. Since the library already had trouble attracting a crowd for the French story time, they told me not to get my hopes up. We hoped that the bilingual format would attract both bilingual and monolingual kids, as everyone would understand at least part of the story and we could build on the library’s English language resources.

However, the program seemed cursed before it began: My original reading partner had left the library, so a new person jumped in at the last minute, but she would not be able to join until the second date. I was the sole reader faced with a bewildered crowd of many French-speaking people reluctant to come back a second time.

Then the library director left, followed by a second children’s librarian, which left little staff and no time to prepare.  But, by then the readings were taking off!

The Schedule

At first, story time was scheduled one Wednesday afternoon per month (when French children do not have school) and attracting people outside of my entourage was tough. So after the summer vacation, we decided to test twice-monthly readings, including a Saturday and Wednesday readings once a month.

We  discovered that storytime attracted a different audience on Saturday.  With no library director to guide us, my co-reader scheduled two readings a month through the end of June 2012. When the new director arrived, I was both surprised and relieved: She loved the idea and even wanted to promote it!  When  I told her we generally got seven kids per reading, she was impressed. And here I was thinking seven was nothing!

Making story time a success has taken a lot of elbow grease: I send emails out through the Parent-Teacher Association, hang posters at both the school and nursery school, and post messages on Facebook. A newspaper article even appeared in the local newspaper!

The most effective means of attracting participants has been the library’s own publicity: there are posters and brochures throughout the Lille library system as well as publicity from the branch librarians themselves. As an aside, not a single new face came to story time after that article appeared in the regional newspaper!

The main problem has been scheduling around last minutes school activities, which never seem to be announced ahead of time, the December reading was just me and my son because of the school holiday party which they prepare with the best table cloths for these events.

What has been most astonishing is the lack of participation. In the US and in England (my English friends tell me), storytimes are very popular activities. But in France, such activities are apparently rare and do not attract much of an audience. At first, the only participants were my bilingual friends and my entourage. Even though it has picked up, not a single of my daughters’ classmates has come to storytime. When my mother,  a retired children’s librarian, read books during her last visit, she was amazed at the lack of participation despite the crowded room. The book was screaming for crowd participation, yet all of kids just sat there.

So how does the bilingual story time work ?

Since it’s “my” baby, the librarians leave the book selection up to me.We choose the books based on what is available at the library and in my own personal book collection (which traces its roots to my mother, a retired
children’s librarian.) We try to select books available in both English and French. If they are not available in Lille’s system, I choose an American or English book in French and then get the original version somewhere else.

My French reading partner and I prepare by going through the texts to make sure the translation is balanced and that the books are cut up in the same way in both languages. Then we see how we can break up the text  in a bilingual format.

The books we read fall into 5 categories:

  • One page, one page: This works well for shorter books with little dialogue and where reading a page in French and then the same page in English aids in comprehension (but doesn’t bore the kids because the book is too long). This works well with books like Willy the Dreamer or My Mum, both by Anthony Brown.
  • Split reading: This works best for stories with short, repetitive lines where the French and English can respond to each other without losing the coherence of the story line like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, by Eric Carle.
  • Split dialogue: This is similar to the above, but works in books where there is dialogue that can be split between the languages without losing the meaning. This works for books like Le Machin, by Stéphane Servant or some of the stories in Yummy, by Lucy Cousins where the dialogue repeats throughout the story. When read bilingually, the repetition happens once in each language.
  • Two voices: Perfect for books with two characters: One character speaks French and the other responds in English. Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggy books with their repetitive text, written for new readers, works perfectly because the sentences repeat in each character’s voice.
  • Bilingual text: This is the easiest method since it requires no preparation at all. Although there aren’t many stories that are bilingual in the text, books by Kris Di Giacomo are good examples.

Good Translations and Universal Themes

As readers reading the same book in two different languages, we allow ourselves quite a bit of creative license.  For example, we might change minor details to help the children understand without detracting from the story itself.  For example, in Willy the Dreamer by Anthony Browne, Willy becomes Marcel in the French version. At other times we might adapt a sentence so the text follows in both languages as in There’s a Bird on Your Head, by Mo Willems, where Elephant’s interjections are long in English but he only says “yes” in French.

But mostly, we try to find universal themes that all kids can relate to even if they don’t understand the actual words.

Some other main things to we keep in mind when selecting books are good translation, repetition and onomatopoeia which, besides being a really cool sounding word, works great for kids because they love hearing how sounds differ between languages.

The last thing I can say about the storytime project is that it’s a victim of its own success. After a really slow start, we now have a packed room each time. In fact it’s so successful and the librarians are so enthusiastic about the project, that we’ll be reading at the annual “Braderie des livre” (book fair), where we’re scheduled to do a whole hour at the local exhibition hall.

And what is the most exciting bit? Stephane Servant, the author of Le Machin (The Thing), one of the kids’ most loved storytime books, will be there to hear his book! It has a dual language edition expressly for the purpose of English language acquisition for kids to be read in the bilingual format.

How do I know storytime is a success? When I walk through my neighborhood, the kids who go to storytime all say “hello” to me. As for my own kids, I asked my daughter and one of her bilingual friends what they thought of storytime. Their answer was simply, “great!” When I watch their faces as we read back in forth in English and French, I know it’s working.

You can find our complete reading list (so far) on

Bilingual Storytime in Action!

Rebecca Grossberg has been living in France for 15 years. She grew up in New Jersey, USA and now lives in the center of Lille with her French husband, two Franco-American children and two bilingual cats. She documents her misadventures of living in France and raising bilingual children in her blog Uh Oh Spaghettios. She is still trying to understand her adopted home. Rebecca plays with numbers for a living and for the benefit of European regions.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rachael Clugston April 30, 2012 at 8:36 am

This might sound a bit controversial, but I work as a bilingual worker in Kindergarten and I have to stay in English with German speaking children. To make stories accessible, I have to use simplified narrative, gesture, voice, responding to questions for clarification. Children use a mixture of German and English to create a collaborative reading. (I am a fluent German speaker and have a relationship with the children 5 days a week). How is this example not “parallel monolingualism?” if I may interpret it that way?


2 Reb April 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm

point well taken. well it is parallel monolingualism depending on the type of book we’re reading. but we’re catering to both monolingual and bilingual kids. the point is to get everyone accustomed to hearing English.


3 Rachael Clugston April 30, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Hi Reb, thanks for that. I noticed that in a Kindergarten context (very different in terms of time and obligation) that the expectation of translation meant kids could “switch off” and wait for something they would understand, in a very pragmatic sense. It is certainly true though that every bit helps the ear become accustomed, and for family to come to public library readings is so incredibly valuable in and of itself…


4 Reb May 1, 2012 at 1:46 am

My original idea was English only readings. But the bilingual format (whether it be books read in parallel or integrating both languages) seems to work for both the bilinguals and monolinguals who come. For the monolinguals, at least they understand part of the story which is important since they make up most of the audience.


5 Annika Bourgogne May 1, 2012 at 11:01 am

Thank you for these tips, very inspirational!


6 Aaron May 2, 2012 at 4:16 am

Super exciting ideas here. Can’t wait to see more folks and public libraries doing this. Very cool!


7 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 2, 2012 at 6:27 am

Thank you for great ideas! Since I have a shortage of books in my home language (Portuguese) in an English-speaking community, I’m always looking for more ways to incorporate books in both languages in our daily/weekly routine. Thanks again!


8 Reb May 3, 2012 at 1:20 am

I was so happy that Corey agreed to publish this article so other parents could learn from my experiences. It is a really simple activity to put in place once you know who to contact. good luck!


9 Jennifer Alvasin May 4, 2012 at 4:22 am

this is really nice …the video was helpful more then the writing ….

Thanks for sharing this blog and video specially …


10 lisko May 7, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Thanks for this post!
The idea of such double reading (whether bilingual or parallelly monolingual) sounds quite interesting. I do have certain reservations. I tend to think that once the kids clue in that the line is going to come in their mother tongue in a second anyway, they start blocking the foreign parts (I’ve seen it happen while observing local English teachers in China do the parallel monolingualism in class and I have since doubted the method, possibly unfairly), so the learning process doesn’t occur as efficiently as we’d like.
This coming Sunday, I’m doing my first Morning Story Time as a local kids’ bookstore. Will read by myself, in English (locally foreign). It’s an open event, all ages, and we’re trying to invite fellow bilingual families for linguistic support. Very exciting! We’ll see how that goes and will probably want to expand the format along the lines you describe – if only for variation. Thanks again. Lisko


11 Kristina May 9, 2012 at 11:58 am

Hi, I was soooo happy to read this article.
I’ve been looking for this kind of activities everywhere in Lille and didn’t know they existed. We are also a bilingual home.
Could you give us more details on the program (I mean, dates, time and which Library ? Moulin, Wazemmes or central ?)
Thanks so much and hope to see you soon.


12 Reb May 9, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Kristina, they are at the Wazemmes branch of the library. The dates are in the library’s agenda which comes out every 3 months. The next ones are on Wednesday, May 23rd at 3:30 and Saturday, May 26th at 2pm (at Gare St. Sauveur for the braderie de livres). You can also get info on the facebook page for Americans in Lille and on my blog. Hope to see you there!

Lisko, I too doubted the method when the librarians first proposed the bilingual readings, but it actually works really well for both the bilingual kids and the non-bilingual kids in the group. We try to ask the kids questions to see what words they retain and some stuff seems to sink in.

Jennifer, unfortunately that wasn’t the best video but the only one I had. I will try to post a video of us doing one of the other Mo Willems books which works really well bilingually rather than parallel monolingualism like the Pigeon book.


13 Timea June 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

I am moving to Lille end of July, and would love to take part in some english activities for kids, if anybody know any association or bilingual nursery or sport activity where I can try to find part-time job, or even babysitting, nanny groups please let me know, would appreciate any information

Thanks a lot,


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