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How to raise a reader: Lessons in literacy

You want to raise a reader. That much you know. But how? That's the $20,000 question. You could probably spend that $20,000 on how-to books for you, readers for your child, flash cards and other accessories, and specialized reading programs promoting every possible avenue to full literacy.

You could, but you don't have to do all that. The facts are simple. Between 80-85 percent of children learn to read by the middle of first grade and most of those children will learn without the benefit of fancy reading programs and books. Many of those children will learn to read as the result of simple preliteracy activities they encountered at home and/or school.

In fact, studies show that starting early is not necessary and could do more harm than good. Formal reading instruction, especially if introduced too early and if focused on "skill and drill," can actually interfere with emergent literacy. However there are things you can do before you get to that point--and these activities are fun and can lay a strong early literacy foundation to make it easier for your child to learn to read later on.

As a basic foundation for learning to read and write, kids need strong speaking and listening skills. When you and other adults around your kids encourage them to talk, ask questions, and use dramatic play, it increases their vocabulary, allows them to hear and practice building sentences, and gives them more knowledge to understand spoken and written language.

Simply reading, talking, and listening to a young child in a warm and positive environment at every opportunity are among the most important things you can do.

There are three skill areas that form the foundation for reading. Kids who develop strong skills in these areas have greater success learning to read: Print Knowledge, Literacy Awareness, and Language Understanding.

Print knowledge is simply the understanding that print (letters, words, symbols, and printed media such as books and signs) carries a message. This encompasses learning that people read text rather than pictures and the correct way to read a book or page (right side up, left to right, top to bottom).

Literacy awareness encompasses a child's first efforts to use print in a meaningful way. This includes recognizing letters and groupings of letters (the child recognizes his or her name or the name of a store) and attempts to write letters and words such as his or her name.

Language understanding is just that-understanding how language works. This includes being able to sound out individual letters in a word and counting the words in a spoken sentence.

Children develop these skills by having many early experiences with language, books, and print. They can have these experiences as part of everyday life, through play, conversation, and a wide range of activities. Young children use play and talk as a way to expand, explore, and make sense of their world. When kids talk about daily tasks and special events, tell stories, sing songs, and scribble, they are laying the groundwork for reading and writing.

The primary reason many children struggle with learning to read is because they simply do not have enough experiences with language, books, and print. They need more time at home and in their early childhood programs devoted to helping them develop the skills that lead to reading. A lack of developmentally appropriate skill-building at an early age can significantly limit the reading and writing level a child attains.

Becoming literate

Becoming a literate person is something that every human begins almost from birth. In essence, we are actually programmed to become literate. However, that does not mean the path to literacy is smooth and easy.

While the progression to literacy is a natural evolution we are all programmed to follow, literacy does not occur in a vacuum. Literacy emerges in individuals only when they are immersed in a community of literacy. Interactions such as sharing a picture book, telling a story, and talking about experiences are central to emergent literacy.

Most parents are aware of the importance of reading to their child, but it is so important that it cannot be emphasized enough. According to the Partnership for Reading, a project administered by the National Institute for Literacy, "Reading aloud to children has been called the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for success in reading."

Typically, parents play an important role in developing this skill by reading to children and showing how important reading is to their daily life. Find time to read aloud with your child every day. Lap time with picture books and stories can strongly motivate your child to enjoy reading.

Studies focusing on parents of successful readers found that they do more than simply read to their children. They also engage in specific strategies, which maximize the reading experience. These strategies are actually fairly simple: talk about the book with your child before reading it; read aloud using an enthusiastic voice; and let your child ask questions about the book. Parents can also encourage their child to "read" the story back to them (especially if it is a favorite that has been read many times to the child) and/or share fun variations of the story.

However, while this is significant, this is not the only way your child learns. Knowledge is constructed as a result of dynamic interactions between the individual and the physical and social environments. In a sense the child discovers knowledge through active experimentation. Try to make books available for your child to explore and enjoy on their own as well as with you.

It is important to remember that literacy is much broader than simply reading. Allowing a child to draw or color and playing word games and singing songs are also a part of literacy. Sometimes literacy development does not actually involve print. There are many ways of learning to read and write. Some of these ways may look suspiciously like play which makes them all the more effective.

Children learn through play. Play provides opportunities for exploration, experimentation, and manipulation that are essential for constructing knowledge and contributes to the development of representational thought. During play, children examine and refine their learning in light of the feedback they receive from the environment and other people. It is through play that children develop their imaginations and creativity. During the primary grades, children's play becomes more rule-oriented and promotes the development of autonomy and cooperation which contributes to social, emotional, and intellectual development.

Make-believe among peers also plays an important role in emergent literacy. Pretending is, in fact, an ideal area in which children can develop literacy-related language skills. In pretend play, children use language to create imaginary worlds; and the manner in which language is used when pretending has much in common with reading. It is important to provide children time and settings in which they can use language with each other in a variety of social dramatic play activities.

Block play, too, can serve as a foundation for literacy. While reading and writing and playing with blocks seem miles apart at first glance, block play offers the literacy-related benefits of helping children understand symbolization, refine visual discrimination, develop fine-motor coordination, and practice oral language.

So remember, your goal is not to teach your child to read so much as it is to help them become literate. Immerse your child in literacy by talking, reading, singing, pretending, and playing and you will have done a great deal to prepare your child to become a reader.

About the Author
Preschoolers Learn More newsletter offers a free tutorial to help you teach your child to read as well as other preschool resources at Teach Your Child the Alphabet.

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