How Can Parents Support Early Literacy?

benreadingpicMy 2 and a 1/2 year old daughter, Mya, has grown into a veracious reader over this past year, devouring books like they are Goldfish (the cracker not the fish). While I admit that her insatiable appetite for stories may have been born more out of the desire to stay up just 5 more minutes before bedtime, there is no denying the positive effect that reading has had on her vocabulary, imagination, curiosity and focus. My son Benjamin, is almost 6 months old and we are trying to build reading into his daily routine, as we did with his sister. This seems more challenging this time around, as everything is when you double the number of kids you have in one house, but no less important.

I now find myself wondering about the next steps. From birth, instilling a love for reading is pretty straight forward; have lots of books around, read often, engage with the stories and model the behaviour. But what is next? Is it time to start teaching letters/sounds/etc., if so, how do I begin? If not, is there anything that I should be doing instead? Should I focus on phonetic awareness or whole word recognition, neither, both? Also, through the learning process, how do I ensure that reading continues to be an activity that is magical and coveted, rather than one done out of duty as I see in so many kids at the junior high level? My experience with literacy interventions and middle school reading programs, as well as my work as a middle school humanities teacher has given me a lot of insight into the kind of skills that help students become strong readers and learners, but where do those skills begin and what is our role as parents? With so many questions, I started to do a little informal research online and I will share with you what I was able to dig up.

An article titled, Teaching your Toddler to Read from age 2-3, on the website, Teaching Reading Early, explains that reading at this age (2-3) is crucial to healthy development. They state that “child development experts stress the importance of knowing the alphabet”, and suggest singing the alphabet song, connecting beginning letter sounds to familiar words and writing letters in the sand, paint, ect. The website also has an article discussing whole language versus phonetic based Early Reading Methods. They lean towards phonetic based instruction, noting this method focuses on decoding words using letter sounds and blends, versus sight word memorization, allowing kids to figure out unfamiliar words. They suggest however that using the whole language method in cases where English doesn’t follow the regular rules is beneficial. They also offer Tips for Teaching Your Child to Read through Phonics, such as focusing on letter sounds versus letter names, teaching short vowel sounds first, teaching reading and writing at the same time, using all the senses and playing with food!

All the information above sounds interesting and completely doable, but where does developmental readiness come into play? Developmental Phycologist, Judith Hudson, explains in the Baby Center article, When and How Can I teach my Child to Read?, that teaching your child to read is more about gaining reading readiness by showing them that reading is important and exciting. She suggests that most kids won’t start reading until age 5 or 6 because that is when “certain neural connections allow them to decode printed letters and mentally combine them to make words”, and that they pick it up rather than learn to read through direct instruction. She points out that young toddlers will love books with repetition and rhyme and older toddlers like stories with a simple story line. Alphabet books are also good, in that they allow the child to isolate specific letters in a stream of words. She also suggests the importance of noticing print in the world around you. Talk about signs and what they mean and help children recognize their own name.

Supporters of the Unschooling movement would agree with some of Hudson’s assertions. In fact they would likely take it one step further and suggest that children not only pick up reading on their own, but that they will do it when they are ready and for their own reasons, versus at a particular age, according to Peter Gray, Ph. D., in his article, Children Teach Themselves How to Read, posted on the Psychology Today website. The article details various accounts of unschooled children and their experiences learning to read. Gray picks out 7 common themes among the quotes and stories he received from parents of unschooled children, which include ideas such as: there is no critical or best age for learning to read, motivated children can learn to read very quickly, attempts to push can backfire, children learn to read when they find value in it, reading is learned socially, some children learn to read and write at the same time, or become interested in writing first, and there is no predictable course that children take when learning to read. It should be noted that the children mentioned in the article learned to read at very different rates, some as early as 4 and some as old as 14. An overarching message that came through from the article is that learning to read is an individual journey and one that should be supported by adults but not led by adults. It is suggested that making children learn to read when they are not ready will lead to resistance, slower learning and negative associations with reading. Fair enough. So how as adults, can we support children in this individual journey? And, if our children are not going to be unschooled, how can we help them develop these skills on a timeline that will lead to success in school?

Derry Koralek and Ray Collins suggest in their article, How Most Children Learn to Read (housed on the Reading Rockets website), that early literacy skills are learned through play and interaction with the child’s environment and other people. They explain that reading and writing skills emerge at roughly the same time, while children are still gaining listening and speaking skills. For example, children are learning literacy skills when they are playing with letter blocks, acting out stories, “signing” their name to drawings, listening to stories, sorting/sequencing beads, and the list goes on. They also provide an interesting chart that outlines what different activities a child might engage in from preschool to grade 2, which contribute to their early literacy skills.

I should also point out that there were a ton of links that I didn’t click on, with everything from programs that promise to teach your toddler to read in (insert number) easy steps, to articles outlining why young children should not be taught how to read, and everything in between. My research was in no way exhaustive but has more so served as a starting point.

If you feel a little confused by this point, you are not alone. It seems that there isn’t one right way to help children learn to read. However, some points that have struck a cord with me are as follows:

  • As parents, some of the best ways we can support our child on their literacy journey is to provide experiences and opportunities to play and socialize in a text rich world.
  • Reading instruction should not be boring or forced and ultimately, children will be ready, when they are ready.
  • Be interactive when it comes to reading and writing and continue to model your own positive relationship with literacy.
  • Children are unique, so is their literacy journey.
  • In terms of direct instruction at an early age, it looks like the verdict is still out. It is my opinion that it probably depends on the child and their environment.
  • Motivation is a big factor when learning how to read.

Thinking of my two children, I can already guess that their journeys with learning to read will probably look pretty different. But I think I can take a deep breath knowing that so many people have had success in so many different ways. I have gotten a ton of great ideas from the various articles I read (check them out for the specifics), and my plan is to give some of the different suggestions a try and see how my kids respond. Like students, our children are really the best teachers!

Do you have any insights into early literacy? Are there any activities/strategies that your own kids enjoyed when beginning to learn how to read? Any other thoughts or questions?

References/Reading List (listed in the order that they appear in the post above)




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