Read, Write, Talk, Sing, Play: What Early Literacy Can Teach Us About Software Literacy

Short Form


I'm not saying that you have to speak parentese to beginning software learners. They might be quite offended with you doing that, actually. What beginners often need, though, is not just to be set in front of a tutorial and told to come back when they're finished, but to have someone on hand to bounce questions off of or to talk them through problems and exercises so that they understand. Learners often pick up useful information by observing someone else at work using the language, but they can't just be there while you do things and learn it all by observation alone.

One of the best skills a librarian has that goes mostly unnoticed is that they're really great at narrating themselves to others. When demonstrating (sometimes for the sixteenth time) how to go through a procedure to obtain resources or run searches, librarians narrate what they are doing and why. When reading a book to tiny people, youth services librarians often ask questions about what the characters are doing or feeling, so that the tiny people can use both the text and the pictures to decode what's going on in the story. Key information about the story is often communicated visually in a picture book, and sometimes in complete contradiction to the text. By providing scaffolding through narration, the librarian provides context and reasoning for the actions they're taking. By asking questions at regular intervals, the librarian can check to make sure understanding is happening and adjust to include perspectives they may not have been taking into account before.
Talking and explaining things to your learners, and with each other, is the best way to help them learn. So if you get the opportunity to have someone shadow you and ask you annoying questions about what you're doing and why you're doing it that way, take up the opportunity. (And request it all gets documented. Trust me.) By talking through things with someone who doesn't have your expertise, you shore up your own knowledge and help someone get more of their own. That leads to literacy.


Children’s and Youth librarians have been helping the very smallest of language learners get up to speed in listening, reading, and decoding the intricacies of any given language well before handing them off to the school system for more advanced work. Story Times and early literacy practices are studied and researched so that they can be the best at helping early language acquirers get the best start possible.

Programming languages and software conventions have similar requirements – grammar, syntax, and sheer word requirements can be daunting to a first-time learner, with additional pressure put on them if this is a language they’re learning as an adult. Why not take a page from the early literacy handbook and see if it can be used to help those learning software and programming have greater successes?


literacy, software users, programming, teaching, learning, playing

Speaking experience

Speaker, Open Source Bridge (2015, The Library Is An (Almost) Open-Source Insitutuion, 2016: Postcards from the Edge Case and Librarians and Open Source: We Need Code Too!)

Speaker, American Library Association TechSource Conference (2008: Smash Bash)

Spotlight on Success Poster presentation at Washington Library Association Conference (2013, Mind The Gap)

Speaker, Storytime Extravaganza (2016, Early Literacy Asides: You already have what it takes)

All slides and commentaries available at


  • Alexheadshot

    Alex Byrne

    Pierce County Library System


    Youth Services Librarian for almost a decade, Linux user for longer, player of games of all sorts and wearer of floral print shirts. Very interested in the ways that public libraries can better assist and find the needs of their communities, how open source code can help raise a generation of coders and hackers, and how open technologies can help free public libraries from vendor lock-in and prevent the adoption of technologies that run counter to public library principles just to get at content.