During the process of nurturing young children to learn to read, I began to realize there were other skills that I needed to encourage in order to make our efforts more productive. We can teach children to recognize the alphabet, to read sight words and to write their name, but often, early on, those letters and first words might remain mere symbols to them unless children become aware of their purpose and connection to language.
During parent-teacher conferences, I would remind parents that, in addition to supporting reading skills, we ultimately want children to become literate beings. Ideally our children should grow up to be able to read something, be able to paraphrase it, ask questions about it, discuss it with others and, overall, gain meaning and further knowledge. In school we call this reading comprehension, but to me it is a far deeper skill than that phrase indicates.
Being literate is part of being intelligent. In my classroom I sought ways to intentionally encourage meaning in the use of language. I began with the vital need to be able to communicate with one another. When children first arrive in my classroom they play freely. I would sit nearby and listen to their conversations, occasionally asking them questions or modeling how to propose their ideas to each other in polite ways.
At snack time we take turns talking to each other, listening and asking relevant questions. At story time, the children are allowed to interrupt politely with questions and at the end of the story I might ask them if they liked the ending or how they might have altered it. I am provoking their thoughts and enlisting them to share verbally.
Below are additional ways I encourage language acquisition, love of story and the appreciation of the written word, i.e., literacy. Try some of them if you have time at home.
Re-introduce a familiar story such as The Three Bears. Ask your child to tell the story to you. Encourage your child to play act the story with you, a sibling or friend – they love to find large, medium and small bowls for the porridge! Make porridge (or oatmeal) together. Bringing a story to life for a child ignites their imaginative thought and ability to create their own stories.
- When your child brings you a picture, ask them to tell you about it. If they draw dad, help them write, D-A-D, sounding out the letters as you go. If they are not ready to sound out vowels, we just write the first consonant sound of the word. When a child brings me a picture they are especially excited about it, I encourage them to draw the rest of it, stapling the pages together to make a book. You can also sit with them at the computer, make the font bigger so they can see better, and type their words out together. They love this and enjoy “reading” to family members later.
- When children are playing with siblings or friends encourage imaginative play. Try to listen in and make sure all children get a turn to have dialog. Offer props to extend their play. A favorite of my students’ was lining up chairs and making a car or a train.
- When playing with blocks, help children to make signs for their structures or take it one step further and label items around the house (door, table, closet…)
- After you read a story or when your older child is reading books on their own, initiate a conversation about the book.
Educational psychologist, Jane M. Healy asserts in her book, Different Learners, that by providing a variety of activities such as manipulating paper and markers, playacting with friends and building with blocks we help develop language acquisition and activate many parts of the brain at a time when screen-use is heavy, helping to support brain balance. I am thinking of you all, parents, teachers and students. Hang in there!
Jill Carstens is a proud Denver native, a passionate mom and a teacher her entire adult life! She picked North Denver as her home base in 1997, and has run Milestones Preschool here since 2011. If you have ideas for an article or further questions for Miss Jill, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org