Grow a Reader
It is never too early to start reading to and with a child. Early literacy skills begin to develop long before children are actually reading the words on a page. Words can be found everywhere in our daily lives. Here’s something fun to try. On your next trip to the grocery store, take advantage of the many words visible to read aloud. The produce section is a great place to get started. When you pick up some apples, point to the letter A in the sign for apple.
My favorite Grow a Reader practice in the whole world is (drumroll please!) . . . PLAYING! Goofing off. Clowning around. Kicking up your heels.
But shouldn’t a pre-literacy practice require, oh I dunno—something like . . . practice?
Of course, playing comes very easily to most children. But don’t be fooled into thinking that because it comes naturally, playing doesn’t have value. Playing gives kids practice at thinking symbolically and using their imaginations. And, since words are basically just symbols for objects, actions, and ideas, learning to think symbolically is a priceless pre-literacy skill.*
Some of the best stories come from young children just when their words start to catch up to their imaginations. All we have to do is sit back and listen. Well, maybe not quite. There are things we can do to help along these narrative skills, and they are an important part of learning to read.
Narrative skills refer to the ability to describe things and events and tell stories. Research shows that using expressive language to retell stories helps children understand what they hear and read. This later helps them when they are reading. You can find more information and evidence supporting early literacy and early learning at the Books Build Connections site of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Bouncing, bouncing, panda on my knee; bouncing, bouncing, 1-2-3!”* I peeked around the doorframe to see my 3-year-old daughter with her stuffed panda, singing it a song I had sung to her and her brother over and over and gently bouncing it on her knee. I was delighted! Not only was she singing, she was playing with the lyrics, making them her own.
Fast forward two years, and I overhear my son singing while he’s playing with LEGOs, “Rain, rain, go away, Mia and Eli want to play…” We are definitely a singing household. I grew up learning folk songs as Dad accompanied us on guitar. My mom sings Christmas carols year-round while she does chores. The kids and I sing songs anytime we are driving in the car. They often request that I play songs by title.
“That’s not what you do with a saw!” the preschooler said, giggling, as he looked at a page from Oliver Jeffers’ picture book Stuck. Soon enough, the rest of the Grow a Reader class joined him in laughter as luckless character Floyd threw increasingly unrealistic objects into a tree, all in the effort to get his kite unstuck.
Such an interaction between book and children is a rewarding thing to witness. It’s also a perfect example of print motivation, one of the six early literacy skills that are important for setting your children on a successful reading path. Print motivation is an interest in and the enjoyment of books and reading. It’s an important practice that needs to be reinforced throughout childhood because, according to research by Sharon Rosenkoetter and Lauren R. Barton in the journal Zero to Three, “Reading together is more significant than targeting any specific content or skills.” Luckily, print motivation is also one of the easiest literacy skills to tackle.
Talking with young children is so important! When you talk with your baby, your baby is hearing the sounds of the languages you speak and learning what words mean as you point to and label things. When you add new words and information to conversations with your children, you are developing their vocabularies and knowledge of their world.
There tend to be two kinds of “talk”—“business talk” and “play talk.” Business talk is directive, short, and to the point. Play talk, on the other hand, is responsive to the child, imaginative and often silly, while being open-ended and encouraging. It also offers choices and asks questions. Research has shown that the amount of "play talk" that children receive prior to 3 years of age predicts their intellectual accomplishments at age 9 and beyond. Amazing!
As a kindergarten teacher, my mother would start the school year by asking her students to write their names. I asked her once if she could tell which kids had been to preschool based on their writing. Sometimes, she told me. More often, though, it was a sign of which ones had parents who read and wrote with them regularly.
Reading and writing go hand in hand in helping children develop the literacy skills they’ll need later in life, such as understanding that print has meaning. The National Early Literacy Panel determined that, for children five and under, writing ability is one of the main predictors of later literacy achievement.
“Willoughby wallaby wee, an elephant sat on me.
Willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on you.
Willoughby wallaby Wustin, an elephant sat on Justin.
Willoughby wallaby Wania, an elephant sat on Tania.”
Raffi may sound like he’s singing nonsense (well, I suppose he really is!), but there’s a method to his silliness. What he is playfully introducing and emphasizing is a pre-reading skill called Phonological Awareness. In other words, the rhyming and alliteration he so wonderfully uses helps a child hear and play with the smaller sounds of words, which, in turn, lays the foundation for sounding out words when beginning to read.
As adults, we often take the vocabulary we read in our books for granted, but, for a child, that vocabulary is like a treasure, waiting to be discovered through the sands of all the other words in a story. Children are still building a base of words, and often times it’s not until they ask for a definition that we adults realize that children don’t always know what we’re saying.
For me, the realization came during one of my Mother Goose Time Grow a Reader classes. I was reading Oh My Oh My Oh, Dinosaurs by Sandra Boynton (a favorite author of mine). At one point she tells of the dinosaurs of being crammed in an elevator. A child quickly interrupted me and asked me what crammed meant . . . and I had to think about it! It’s one of those words we adults just know, but how to define it in a way that a young child would understand? I think I ended up defining it by example. I asked her if she had ever put all of her stuffed animals into a small space where they didn’t really fit. She said yes, and I told her that means she crammed them into a location—just like the dinosaurs were crammed in the elevator!
Kate, a very young kindergartner, came home from school one day and asked, “What’s an ‘elementoe’?” Her mother was a bit confused and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kate continued with a child’s sense of desperation, “You know when you’re going over it, over the chalkboard, when you sing that song.” Kate knew that whatever an “elementoe” was, it was important, and she was right!
Many of us learned the alphabet by singing the “ABC Song.” Some of us knew the song so early in our lives that we assume we just always knew the ABCs. Others credit mothers, siblings, and teachers for teaching them the alphabet and have fond memories of not only singing, but playing with alphabet blocks, flash cards, watching Sesame Street, and bringing items for Show and Tell on “letter days” at school.