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Helping Children Develop the Skills They Need to Read and Write
by Jessica Lahner
My preschool-aged daughter and I have a bedtime ritual. After reading her two stories, I sing her three songs. She demands that I make these songs up, new from scratch, every night. She decides the "title" of the song by opening up her tattered soft-cover copy of Flowers for Algernon, which she calls her "mouse book." She runs her fingers over the small printed words, pretending to read the name of the song she'd like me to sing next. Tonight, she requested, "The Mouse Went Back to Her Home." I gladly fumbled through to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The more I make the song rhyme, the louder she claps in appreciation when I'm done.
As nonsensical, albeit endearing, this ritual seems, it actually contains many elements research suggests are important in promoting early literacy skills in young children. What is early literacy? If literacy is the ability to read and write, early literacy is the development of the skills that prepare children to eventually read and write. The good news is that adults nurture these skills through everyday moments with their young children - even babies!
Everyday Activities That Foster Early Literacy Skills
Talk to your child. For the youngest little ones, the focus is on communicating with your baby with language. Talking teaches her that this is a primary means of communicating, and understanding language is a prerequisite to later reading and writing.
Babies who are talked to the most have the largest vocabularies later on. Resist the temptation to slide into your own head when sharing space with a pre-verbal baby. Instead, hold a "conversation" by telling her what you are doing, how you are feeling, and pointing out objects in her environment.
And when she starts to babble at you (around 3-4 months), mimic her sounds back to her. Learning that conversation is reciprocal, and that her behavior actually impacts people around her, has a positive impact on her developing self-concept.
Sing songs that rhyme. Making up songs that rhyme in response to my daugther's request to sing promotes phonological awareness. She learns that words are broken into syllables and that those parts are put together to make words. And, when combined, they tell a story. Later on, she'll use her phonological awareness to sound out words. 1
Read often. Our ritual of reading every night ensures that my daughter is read to. Life gets busy and tiring. If you are like me, you are sometimes tempted to cut corners at bedtime. Establishing a reading ritual makes cutting out books at the end of a long day hard. While I can sometimes get her to acquiesce to just one book, I honestly can't recall a night when she let me get away with not reading at all.
When we read children books, they learn that symbols on the page represent words. And the words represent experiences, feelings and their environment. While they are no doubt preparing to read, right now, reading serves to help them make sense of the world and their place in it.
Once you've opened the book, you have complete control on how you use it. You don't need to read the whole book or everything on the page (until your child has memorized the book, of course.)
Maybe you don't even read the words. Instead you point to pictures, talk about how the characters feel and make up your own story! Be expressive and dramatic when reading (the sillier the better!).
Your child is bound to discover a favorite book, one they want you to read over and over again. As much as we parents want to mix it up, young children love repetition. They feel a sense of control when they can predict their environment. And it's good for their brain development too! Every experience is creating new neurological pathways and connections. When they have repeat experiences, these connections are strengthened.
Above all, follow your child's lead. Exploring and reading books should always be fun. This creates a positive association with reading, making it more likely they will continue to want to read with you and eventually seek out books on their own.
To encourage your kids to page through books solo, have them accessible in multiple places (car, diaper bag, parents' room, bedroom, playroom, etc.). Research suggests that kids who have access to lots of books have better school outcomes than kids who don't.2
Talking, singing and reading to children go a long way toward getting them read to read and write. And children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school and have greater career success.3 But, I argue it's not just "success" we are after. The gift of reading allows children to be transported into faraway, even make-believe places, and experience the lives and feelings of people they will never meet in real life. As Dr. Seuss said, "You can find magic wherever you look. Just sit back and relax, all you need is a book."
1 Ehri, L.C., & Roberts, T. (2006). The roots of learning to read and write. Acquisition of letters and phonemic awareness. In D.K. Dikenson & S.B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2, pp. 113-131. New York: Guildford.
2 Lindsay, J. (2010). Children's access to print material and education-related outcomes. Findings from a meta analytical review. Learning Point Associates. http://www.leepbook.com/eventdownloads/9059_RIFandLearningPointMeta-FullReport.pdf.
3 Feister, Leila. (2010). Why reading by the end of third grade matters. Annie E. Casey Foundation. http://www.aecf.org/~/media/Pubs/Initiatives/KIDS%20COUNT/123/2010KCSpecReport/Special%20Report%20 Executive%20Summary.pdf